We are part of a society that stifles a culture of literature and art, inside a country that has long since traded away the printed word for the boob tube.
Functional illiteracy in the United States today has reached epidemic levels. More than 7 million Americans are simply incapable of reading; another 27 million are unable to complete a simple job application. While 30 million are thwarted by a simple sentence, 50 million cannot read at a sixth grade level, according to Chris Hedges in his book, “Empire of Illusion.”
Of the Americans who graduate from U.S. high schools today, 33 percent never pick up a book again, with that number rising still further to 42 percent among college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of American families did not purchase or read a single published work. The book, once the hallmark of information technology, at the pinnacle of civilized society, has now been cast into the dustbin of history and replaced by glowing screens.
Beginning in the 1950s, the commercialization and distribution of the television has gradually overtaken the book as the main medium of communication and information in contemporary society. The grave consequences of this trend in terms of the damage it has done to our intellectual rigor have only recently come under scrutiny, at a time when the Internet has now come to exacerbate its effect on our existing social discourse and personal relations.
With television’s ascent, and with the advent of Facebook and the popularization of Twitter, in addition to all of the social media offspring it has spawned, public policy and political campaigns have become increasingly televised and, as of late, digitized.
The result of all this has been the effective reduction of supposed prescriptions for our nation’s problems — like economic inequality, overpopulated prisons and the military-industrial-congressional complex — to 30-second television sound bites, Facebook “likes” and Twitter hashtags.
In an age of American illiteracy and anti-intellectualism, it should come as no surprise to us that Clint Eastwood, rather than Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, has become the spokesman for an automobile brand during the Super Bowl. Celebrity-as-spectacle has come to dominate our understanding of the serious, with actors and porn stars running for elected office or seeking political power.
Our nation’s budget deficit pales in comparison to its attention deficit, making it impossible to govern our country in a sane and rational manner.
And in the aftermath of Citizens United, with the spigot of unlimited campaign cash now legally permitted to flood our election cycle, the corruption of our political system has come to resemble that of a cancerous tumor malignant within our body politic.
The very idea that a liberal democratic society can survive on images and posts rather than on debates and campaigns is offensive to those who take seriously the privilege of living in a country that places value on securing liberty and justice for all.