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Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy 
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Post Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy
Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy



Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:42 pm
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Right from the beginning, I realized that Hedges was going to dive to the bottom of societies garbage dumpster in order to make his case. In the first chapter he came up with several fetid and slimy examples of the intellectual slide that he is claiming. Television shows like Jerry Springer and World Wrestling appeal to the lower end of the cultural spectrum. I guess we would like to think that is a small fringe of society, but as Hedges will argue, the fringe isn’t all that small. And I suspect that some of us already have the creepy feeling that this is so.

He comes up with some startling statistics, including the jaw-dropping figure of the 42% of college graduates who never attempt another book after graduating. And they look downright cerebral compared to the 80% of high school grads who develop a similar aversion.

Frankly, I think that as a journalist Hedges does not do a particularly good job of referencing or backing up some of his arguments. But these are very unsettling ideas that he is presenting, even if they are in the ballpark.

Society has become hollowed out and embarrassingly simplistic over the last couple of decades, according to Hedges. Many today settle for much less, in a cultural and intellectual sense, than they did in previous generations. If people don’t read, then they simply miss out on many aspects of civil and cultural life previously accepted as the norm. Being on the edge of literacy means also being on the edge of community. It means a lack of development, a sort of cultural immaturity, and a vacuum that is filled by entrepreneurs like Jerry Springer, with his assorted exhibits.

This lack of understanding of more complex life issues, or a generally good knowledge base to draw on, take on serious implications when it comes to decision making on a national scale. Politicians today have to pander to those who are impatient to stay focused beyond a 30 second sound bite. This severely limits national debate, and hands over a disproportionate amount of power to spin-doctors.

The news media is not much help today either. They have gauged the appetite of the populace, and decided that entertainment is now a good substitute for real journalism. Walter Cronkite would be rolling in his grave.

These last two factors suggest a particularly grim future of an easily manipulated population that is subverted to powerbrokers at the top, with them barely recognizing the transition from participatory democracy, to, well…….an empire of the illiterate, run for the benefit of the not so illiterate.

The book is a tough ride, and if you go to the next chapter, I suggest keeping a bottle of Gravol and some dry crackers handy.



Thu Nov 05, 2009 9:30 pm
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etudiant wrote:
The book is a tough ride, and if you go to the next chapter, I suggest keeping a bottle of Gravol and some dry crackers handy.

Is this because the information churns the stomach, or because of a turgid writing style? I don't have the book yet. But thanks for your summary, I wondered, too, whether his claim would be that we're dumb and getting dumber. Apparently it is. But I know that this has been every generation's claim about the previous one, so there is reason to be wary of such claims. Nonetheless they might be true!

About college-educated people never reading another book, this can make one skeptical about what we call education. I know that I am. I have several relatives with h.s. educations who have more intellectual curiosity than Ph.Ds I know. Education can be just another commodity for us, not indicative necessarily of higher intellectual aspirations.

I think you're right that the main reason a literate populace matters is that democracy can't function without one. The founders of the country knew that. That is the only reason to have a system of public education.



Fri Nov 06, 2009 2:21 pm
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The next chapter is a stomach turner as it is concerned with the pornographic industry. Dry crackers may not be enough.

I’ve certainly had some of the same experiences with academia here in BC, DWill. Coming up with creative ideas to maintain funding can be a bit of a game for colleges and universities, with programs proposed that have little redeeming value. And many that graduate soon leave intellectual inquiry behind them.

That said, Hedges makes a good case that a bona fide liberal arts education, in some size, shape, or form is essential for those that truly want to participate in civil society. The smaller the base of knowledge that we draw from, the narrower are decisions will be. Clearly it is hard to make wise choices about what we do not really know. The pool of knowledge can get small enough that TV evangelists may start to sound prophetic. Or George Bush may start to look like a wise leader. Or the Jerry Springer show will look like average mainstream entertainment.



Fri Nov 06, 2009 3:49 pm
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I love this book so far. Probably because I agree with just about everything he is saying. I love this statement: "The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back". Yes! Yes! Yes!

There have been times when I have gotten so sick of ads everywhere. We cannot go anywhere in this culture without an ad of something. And the idea that everyone can be beautiful or rich if he or she just works hard enough or spends enough money. We chase these dreams that do not exist and take our time away from noticing the glaring inequalities in our society. So the people with power stay where they are and we do not even question the reason as to why they have that power or whether they have a right to that power.

I guess it does not depress me because these are things that I have thought about for a long time. I have been a scholar of women's studies for a quite a while and we talk about these things all the time. These are not new observations but I do like the way that he writes about them.



Sat Nov 07, 2009 8:52 pm
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seespotrun2008 wrote:
: "The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back". Yes! Yes! Yes!

Does he explain the remark about fighting back? I'm not sure what he means and I don't have this book yet.
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There have been times when I have gotten so sick of ads everywhere. We cannot go anywhere in this culture without an ad of something. And the idea that everyone can be beautiful or rich if he or she just works hard enough or spends enough money. We chase these dreams that do not exist and take our time away from noticing the glaring inequalities in our society. So the people with power stay where they are and we do not even question the reason as to why they have that power or whether they have a right to that power.

This is what being out in the woods, or on a boat, even up in the air, is good for--no ads anywhere! Nobody trying to sell us anything. I don't have anything against products, though, and think it's okay to advertise them. But it is sad to see us trying to enhance ourselves through association with the stuff we buy, falling for the advertising hook, line, and sinker.



Sat Nov 07, 2009 10:43 pm
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Does he explain the remark about fighting back? I'm not sure what he means and I don't have this book yet.


From what I understand, he is saying that we are bombarded with information, and much of it really inane and meaningless information. We are focusing on celebrity and entertainment rather than the real problems of the society. Those problems get ignored and the small group of people who benefit from our ignorance maintain power. He says:

Quote:
The American oligarchy, 1 percent of whom control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, are the characters we envy and watch on television...The working classes, compromising tens of millions of struggling Americans, are shut out of television's gated community. They have become largely invisible. They are mocked, even as they are tantalized, by the lives of excess they watch on the screen in their living rooms. Almost none of us will ever attain these lives of wealth and power. Yet we are told that if we want it badly enough, if we believe sufficiently in ourselves, we too can have everything (page 26).


I interpret him to be saying that we are being distracted by information and fantasy. Because of this we focus on wishing for something that we cannot have rather than creating a society that we can.



Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:04 pm
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seespotrun2008 wrote:
I interpret him to be saying that we are being distracted by information and fantasy. Because of this we focus on wishing for something that we cannot have rather than creating a society that we can.

Thanks a lot for that, it's succinct and powerful. I like what he said about televison, too. You can hardly find any normal, struggling blokes on the tube anymore. Everyone has to be affluent with some kind of vague, high-paying employment. Give me good old Archie Bunker over those types! It's not great art, just a good soap opera, but I like "Friday Night Lights" because it does at least try to give us a true slice of life. I'm not a big football fan but still follow the show avidly. Is there anything else on TV by way of drama that you think is worth watching? I mean aside from escapism (which I do indulge in occasionally).



Sun Nov 08, 2009 9:03 am
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etudiant wrote:
That said, Hedges makes a good case that a bona fide liberal arts education, in some size, shape, or form is essential for those that truly want to participate in civil society. The smaller the base of knowledge that we draw from, the narrower are decisions will be. Clearly it is hard to make wise choices about what we do not really know. The pool of knowledge can get small enough that TV evangelists may start to sound prophetic. Or George Bush may start to look like a wise leader. Or the Jerry Springer show will look like average mainstream entertainment.

A true liberal arts education may become an antiquarian pursuit, and this would be a real shame. It seems that our society did have some limited success with liberal education before the 1960s, but it would be easy to make too much of this. Access to education was more limited then. Still, even among those who never went to college, there seems to have existed a higher level of general knowledge. Our culture wasn't so much fractured into many niches then. We couldn't all retreat and do our own thing as we can now. Diversity of all kinds has had the effect of shrinking the shared core of knowledge.



Sun Nov 08, 2009 9:20 am
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seespotrun2008 wrote:
I interpret him to be saying that we are being distracted by information and fantasy. Because of this we focus on wishing for something that we cannot have rather than creating a society that we can.


I think that this is at the core of the first chapter - particularly being distracted by fantasy. People get so caught up in the worlds that they see on TV and in movies that they forget that there is a real world out there that needs attention and work.

Many people spend a lot of their time worshiping celebrities - studying their lives, buying their possessions, wishing that they could be more like them. According to Hedges, this "elebrity worship banishes reality". These people are so caught up in trying to live vicariously through the stars that they lose sight of themselves and the real world in the process.

I think that many people don't even want to see the real world. If they faced reality, then they might have to do something about it, and it's easier to be complacent than it is to be active. In this world of reality TV and sound bite / headline only news, our culture is dying around us because so many people refuse to face the facts and do something about it.


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Sun Nov 08, 2009 12:55 pm
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Much of what is put out by the entertainment industry today shares a certain similarity with popular choices of the 1930s, I believe. Back then people didn’t really want to see average life on the screen, because during the depression that was pretty grim. Fantasy was more popular- big song and dance numbers, romantic escapades. Later movies came to be more of a mirror of real life. Like you said DWill, the “All in the Family” TV show from the 60’s talked about what was real and relevant. But today, looking at the movie listings, escapism is surging once more. Many movies represent the lives of individuals who seem surprisingly affluent, and likely represent a small minority of the populace. Another, darker, side of escapism may be the endless ultra-violent pictures being made today. A way to vicariously vent subconscious rage and angst?



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Is there anything else on TV by way of drama that you think is worth watching?


I really like law and order the original. There is the big problem at the beginning, a little bit of mystery, and they solve it all in an hour and the bad guys go to jail. They are not as bad as Perry Mason as far as there is a strict separation of good and bad. They try to make the audience question a little bit. But in most cases it is still pretty cut and dry. Life is not always like that. It is much more complicated and messy.

Quote:
I think that many people don't even want to see the real world. If they faced reality, then they might have to do something about it, and it's easier to be complacent than it is to be active. In this world of reality TV and sound bite / headline only news, our culture is dying around us because so many people refuse to face the facts and do something about it.


Yes, I agree.

Quote:
Much of what is put out by the entertainment industry today shares a certain similarity with popular choices of the 1930s, I believe.


That is an interesting point. Maybe many people are feeling hopeless. I have heard many people say that. I wonder if that has been part of maintaining the inequalities in society. Taking away hope is disabling. I suppose that is very conspiracy theoryish. I don’t necessarily think these things happen consciously though. I don’t think someone sits down and plans out how to maintain power. It may even be instinctual. And we all do that. We all feel the need for some sort of power in our lives and relationships. Yet, as conscious human beings I think that we have the capability to stop and think about our relationship to power. We can choose to change behavior, institutions, and power structures. Ultimately we as a group can choose a positive, empowering way to live together. But I think that it is hard to see that changes can be made.



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I started reading the book today and already got through the first chapter. It has some interesting, well-expressed ideas, even though I've seen some of them before.

When reading a book about contemporary society, it's helpful to compare it to ones own direct experiences. I don't pay much attention to celebrity stuff and watch less TV than most Americans. Still, I regularly watch a few reality shows: Survivor, Amazing Race, and sometimes Dancing with the Stars. My wife and I relax by watching strangers go through these larger-than-life but artificial experiences, even if its junk TV. We passive absorb other people's emotional turmoil, as a distraction from the repetitive day-by-day lives. However, the overall influence of the celebrity / TV word is our lives is less than what Hedges depicts, probably because we partake of it less.

The chapter's discussions of politics caught my attention, due to my interested in the subject. I reach articles, blogs, and books about politics, but I never watch TV news, besides the occasional Daily Show. Obama's charisma and vague focus on "change" hardly mattered to me at all. The real-world impact of the President being a Democrat and supporting policies vastly superior to Republican policies is far more exciting. It's annoying that the popularity of politicians depends on such superficial factors, since many voters respond primarily to the images on TV.

Has anyone else here read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was published in 1985 but raises many similar points about the effects of TV on society?



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etudiant wrote:
Another, darker, side of escapism may be the endless ultra-violent pictures being made today. A way to vicariously vent subconscious rage and angst?


I think that this is completely the case. Hedges purports that wrestling reflects the rage and the struggle of the people on a large scale. I think that movies reflect the dreams and hopes of the populace on an even larger level. These movies (and let's not forget videogames) are made for the purpose of the vicarious vent. This vicarious venting leaves no room for anger to build up at the appropriate sources. Instead of hating a government that does not take care of its people or a corporation that is destroying our environment, people expend their anger on the bad guy in the movie theater or the game.


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JulianTheApostate wrote:
Has anyone else here read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was published in 1985 but raises many similar points about the effects of TV on society?

I did read it, I think pretty close to the publication date. It's amazing to me that that was almost 30 years ago. I do not recall specifics of the book, but do recall being impressed and influenced by it. It might be really interesting to put Postman's book alongside Hedges' for comaprison.



Mon Nov 09, 2009 8:51 am
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