On Illiteracy and the CelebCult

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:

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.

4 thoughts on “On Illiteracy and the CelebCult

  1. Needless to say that someone that arrives to the end of your post, can indeed think about what you wrote. :)

    A very small (tiny, in fact) consolation, Maria: US is not unique in that problem. However, I’m not sure this problem is now worse than it was, say, 50 years ago. The difference is that we are more aware of it. More people speak up and are heard, and we can easily know what interest them.

    On the other hand, *everyone* can globally express their thoughts — newspapers can be crap… but we have the blogophere, in its good and bads. I’m still smiling at the fact, for instance, that the most accurate (and statistical critic) website during the US elections was, not a newspaper website, but a blog: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/

    The economic situation (or the education, or…) may be worse in some cases, but you just managed to elect an intelligent person (I should say: a very intelligent, well spoken, working team person) to the highest administration place in your country. At the same time we can also make the exercise of wondering how many people could attend university 100 years ago. How many people knew how to read or write then?

    Yes, there are people that seem concerned with lesser subjects. I totally agree. I even agree that they are the majority. But, risking to sound like an elitist (that in some ways I am) — I have serious doubts that any majority can become intellectually challenging. The important thing is how well the ‘intelectual” minority (bigger or smaller) can pass its ideas and shape the future. How influential this minority is.

    Of course we can always dream of a Star Trek future where humanity is less afflicted by crime and poverty. Where most people will, indeed, be driven by “intelligent concerns”. In fact, we should. But we should also be aware that, in many things, we are better now than we were some centuries ago.

    Maybe this is my historian background speaking out. :)

    PS. Regarding what Ebert said — maybe that’s why newspapers are losing their ground. They try to please what they think is the majority… I wonder if, in the long term, that will help them.

    MJ Valente’s last blog post: Bem-vindos ao mundo MApple (segundo os Simpsons)

  2. Is it at all possible that after a great deal of thought that one might conclude that the very election of Mr. Obama totally destroys the arguments of the left that have been perpetrated upon our society for these last 40 years?

    I can say unequivically that it can and that it does. We are talking about a black man and a black woman who despite having been outside the United States for a large portion of his life returned, were both afforded an Ivy League education, became a millionaires, and he has been elected to the highest office in this land. All the while espousing that the average Joe needs a larger, more powerful and intrusive government to lift him up. His very election is absolute proof that America is the greatest Nation on earth, is the land of oppurtunity and requires NO CHANGE. His very election is living proof that Reverand Wright….is wrong. His very election is living proof that racism is alive and well in the black community as 96% of them voted for a black man, and that Zogby polls after the election have proven that a vast majority of black voters had absolutely no clue as to the issues. That my friend is racism at it’s worst.

    His election is living proof that a determined and strong America is dead or at least in the last moments of life. My parents and surely yours grew up and raised families without socilaized healthcare, and without whining about health insurance. The whole idea of socialized medicine and a run away welfare system should be foreign to the mind of a strong and determined individual. Surely there are those who need a helping hand, but a helping hand is just that. It is not a handout it is a hand up.

    My mothers family required “welfare” in the 1940′s. It was given for a period of up to one year, and you were required to pay it back! No one thought this was heartless or without compassion, it was a solid way to help those who needed a hand up.

    America has become indulgent and weak and this election has epitimized that.

    The people of this nation are screaming for free stuff from the government with no concept of where the money comes from. They have grown weak and helpless. They have no stomach for toughin’ out a hard time or making sacrifices when the going gets tough. They whine and moan that the government is failing to do enough. It’s downright pathetic. I am baffled by the concept of taking from a man who risks his future and fortune on a venture, puts his heart and soul into making things better for his family and their future, and yet it is now “neighborly” to take from him and give it to one who has done nothing to better himself, risked nothing, put no heart or soul into anything and for this he has “earned” what another has done. It is terrifying to me that anyone can “critically think” and come to the conclusion that this is in any way fair.

    Imagine you put down a deposit at the helicopter school that you researched for months and found to be the best. You worked hard, saved and scrounged and borrowed to put down $35,000.00 to start you on your way. You purchase books, headphones, software, log book and you create a budget as to be able to finacially afford to attend classes and fly. Your family prepares to make sacrifices for the lack of money that will be available, and you will also be less available for them as you will be attending classes and studying. Just before you start, the school contacts you and thanks you for the large deposit, and out of fairness they have found a “eligible” candidate for them to give a percentage of your money to. They are “less fortunate” than you and this is the neighborly thing to do. Surely they tried to prepare as you did…right. Surely they made all the sacrifices you did…right? You have helped no one. You now do not have enough money to finish your training and he has not “earned” anything, and will just expect another handout later. Where is the incentive to succeed?

    There was once a time in this great nation when there were consequenses for a failure to act. There were consequenses for ones actions and inaction. Those who worked hard and sacrificed succeeded while those who did not….did not. Simple. But now we attack those who work hard and succeed, and demand that the government take from them and give to those who by all rights should reap what they have sown. I fail to see how that is critical thought.

    The things that made America great will keep America great if we don’t throw them away. Capitalism, free market economics, low taxes, are all incentives for creation and invention, and they lead to suceess.

    Maria Langer..you are a capitalist, free market operator. As an up and coming helicopter pilot I cannot imagine that you would look favorably on the government being “neighborly” and taking a percentage of your hard earned business and giving it to me so I can be equal to you. You have worked diligently, and hard to be creative and to find your place in the market, why should I be entitled to anything that you have accomplished?

    I’ll tell you why. I am a high school drop out, and I have not been afforded the same oppurtunities as you. I was unable to attend college, and I made some really bad credit decisions so I cannot borrow money. I have four children two of which were unplanned. I was in construction and that market has failed and I have no skills or job prospects. So I want my “neighborly” handout.

    No I don’t. Everything I said is true. But I mustered together a little money, convinced a rotten capitalist to buy an apartment complex and let me manage it and do work on it as my capital. I have scrounged and scraped for almost one year to finally earn my private helicopter pilots license and am pursuing my commercial license next.

    I am an American and as such I have an indelible spirit. I am a free thinker and a free spirit and therefore believe that what I earn is mine and mine alone to do with as I choose. I believe that America is the greatest nation that has ever existed and that ALL have oppurtunity. I believe that in this country my four daughters can grow to become whatever they set their mind to become. I believe the Declaration that all men are endowed by their creator, not their government, their inalienable rights and that among these are Life , Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed but the freedom to pursue it is, and it is incumbent upon each man to decide what that is, and NOT his government.

    The law of sympathetic resonance states that how you vibrate will cause others to vibrate the same. How are you vibrating today?

  3. Greg, answer a few questions:

    1) Do you think a serious medical problem should bankrupt an average, middle class family? Or, worse yet, that financial shortfalls should prevent one of the family members from getting treatment that could save her life?

    2) Do you think that the child of a welfare mother in an inner city who wants to learn and work hard and rise above the cycle of poverty should be denied an education that can help him succeed in life?

    3) Do you think that a disabled veteran should be homeless because his loss of a limb, combined with the mental anguish brought on by seeing his companions blown apart by a roadside bomb, makes it impossible for him to hold down a job?

    Your solution — let everyone stand on his own two feet — doesn’t work for everyone. Some people actually need help. Why shouldn’t we help them?

    Yes I’m a capitalist. And yes I worked hard for my money. And yes, I got through college — with the help of both merit and finance-based scholarships, loans, and financial support from my lower middle class parents. And I got through flight school on a pay-as-you-go program that took over 2 years to complete. And no, I’ve never been on welfare or unemployment or disability.

    And some years, I pay more in taxes than my father ever earned in a single year.

    But I’m obviously not as cold-hearted as you think I should be. While I’m not interested in handing out my money to make people “equal” to me, as you suggest, without some effort on their part (that sounds an awful lot like communism, no?), I can’t ignore the needs of people who simply lack the ability and resources to jump some of the hurdles of life.

    The problem with this country is that the government is too lazy and self-absorbed to create programs that help the needy. Instead, they reward laziness and stupidity and greed. And people have come to expect it.

    Americans, for the most part, are fat, lazy, and stupid. When we snap out of it, we’ll become the truly great nation we once were. Frankly, I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime. And I’m glad I don’t have kids.

What do you think?