Thoughts about the demise of intelligence and critical thinking.
Today, two thought-provoking articles that I read online came together in my brain. Here’s the meat of the matter.
Can You Read Me Now?
About three weeks ago, one of my Twitter friends, @BlankBaby, tweeted a link to an article on truthdig by Chris Hedges titled “America the Illiterate.” The article begins with a few statements I can’t help but agree with:
We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.
At no time did this become more evident than during our recent presidential campaign. Consider these points:
- Viral e-mail messages convinced a portion of the population of one America that a regular church-going presidential candidate is secretly Muslim. (Let’s not even talk about why that matters to these people.)
- A vice-presidential candidate who, during an interview, couldn’t name a single newspaper that she reads regularly, convinces a portion of the population of one America that a presidential candidate is “palling around with terrorists.”
- A portion of the population of one America supported a vice presidential candidate because she “had spunk,” despite the fact that she couldn’t name the three member countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), didn’t understand the First Amendment right of free speech, was found guilty of abusing her power as Governor of Alaska to get someone she didn’t like fired, and had more than a few other shortcomings.
- A man who gets a few minutes of time on camera with one Presidential candidate rises to celebrity status in support of the other presidential candidate and, even though his candidate loses, manages to get a book deal. (This, of course, is ironic because a good portion of his America can’t even read. Maybe they’ll wait for the movie — if they haven’t already forgotten him.)
Existing in a non-reality-based belief system? Unable to distinguish between lies and truth? Informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés? Yeah. I think so.
Mr. Hedges’ article goes into some detail about the problem of illiteracy in America. He has statistics — although I’m not sure where they’re from — that claim 42 million American adults, including 20% with high school diplomas, cannot read and 50 million read at an elementary school level. He claims — and, as a writer, I find this hard to believe — that “…42 percent of college graduates never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.”
There’s a lot more and it makes for fascinating reading. I agree with much of the opinion content, which is unfortunate because it paints such a bleak picture of Americans. But the following quote stuck with me when I read the piece and I actually clipped it out to write about it later:
In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek or want honesty. We ask to be indulged and entertained by clichés, stereotypes and mythic narratives that tell us we can be whomever we want to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities and that our glorious future is preordained, either because of our attributes as Americans or because we are blessed by God or both.
I’m reminded of thought-free flag-wavers who cry treason whenever someone uses their Constitutional right of free speech to question American policies at home and overseas. I’m reminded of Sarah Palin, claiming that these flag-wavers are the “real Americans” while the rest of us, in that other America — the people who know how to think critically — are unpatriotic.
A Canary Speaks Out
This morning, I followed up on another link sent out into the ether by a Twitter friend that turned out to be related — at least in my mind. @BWJones linked to an article by noted film critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times blog called “Death to Film Critics! Hail to the CelebCult!” In it, Mr. Ebert claims that “a newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine.” His piece was prompted by a 500-word limit imposed by the Associated Press (AP) for all articles by entertainment writers.
Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been “seen with” somebody, who has been “spotted with” somebody, and “top ten” lists of the above. (Celebs “seen with” desire to be seen, celebs “spotted with” do not desire to be seen.)
He goes on to say:
The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement.
That’s the root of the matter right there. People are more interested in celebrity lives than just about anything else. They’d rather read about what a “hot” celebrity ate for lunch yesterday than the failing economy, war in Iraq or Afghanistan, energy problems and solutions, or the struggles of third-world nations against poverty, disease, and genocide.
Of course, they’d rather see video or pictures of what the celebrity ate for lunch. No reading required.
It’s a failure of critical thinking. Too many people living in a non-reality-based world. And the media is feeding it. Newspapers and television channels are selling out, providing this low-level content just to survive.
Mr. Ebert points out, “As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking.” He goes on to say:
Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should “reflect the taste of the readers.” My friend said, “Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald’s?” The editor: “Absolutely.” I don’t believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, “You are correct, sir!” A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.
But his conclusion is what ties his piece in with the truthdig article I started this post with — at least for me:
The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.
Think about it…if you can.