Category Archives: Food

Food, Epistemology, and Metaphor

I just found this amusing collection of food idiom epistemologies. Some I’ve heard, some I haven’t.

Also posted in Humor

Part Two Re: "President as Role Model For Positive Social Change?

Ah ha. Jennifer Resse’s article “The First Family’s Vegetables” in Slate magazine unknowingly continues my argument from yesterday’s post and, not really taking her statements in the direction of the poor andunderprivileged, but (even better) she notes how hard it is for middle classneophytes (exchanging scotch with their neighbors for watering duties,erk) to grow and maintain a garden. And to top all this off, she takes a brilliantly timed stab at the ever-pie-in-the-sky, “sustainable foodmaven” Alice Waters. This made my day.

The First Family’s First Vegetables
Of all the reasons to plant a garden, free food may be the worst.
By Jennifer Reese
Posted Tuesday, March 24, 2009, at 6:03 PM ET
Michelle Obama at the groundbreaking of the White House kitchen garden
The much-discussed Obama kitchen garden seems very noble and well-intentioned (despite Michelle Obama’s controversial outfit), and as an avid gardener, I was loving the whole project until I came across the following quote from an ecstatic Alice Waters:
“To have this sort of ‘victory’ garden, this message goes out that everyone can grow a garden and have free food.” (Italics mine.)
Can someone please fire Alice Waters as the spokeswoman for vegetable gardens? What a load of chicken manure.
Gardens and the food they produce are anything but free, and to suggest otherwise is romantic pastoral nonsense. Anyone can grow herbs cheaply in a pot on the windowsill. But to produce a meaningful amount of food, you need land, a fence, beds, soil, tools, organic material, mulch, and the plants themselves. Those plants get thirsty, and even the nicest neighbors can’t be counted on to irrigate the pumpkins conscientiously during your two-week vacation, and when they don’t and everything withers, all you can do is say thanks and give them that bottle of Scotch anyway. I recently priced the installation of a timed irrigation system to address this very problem and the estimates ranged from $1,000 to $3,000. Fortunately, we may not need one, because we’re not sure we can afford a vacation this summer.
It takes many, many hours of toil before you harvest enough “free” eggplant and bell peppers to make a bowl of ratatouille. Though I doubt the Obamas will experience much of this, gardening is incredibly messy, ruins your hands, wears holes in the knees of your jeans, ends up costing 40 times more than you think it will, sucks up whole weekends in a single gulp, takes over your dreams, and frequently breaks your heart.
So why garden? Because gardening is one of the joys of life. Peaceful and meditative, it’s work that involves nurturing lovely, colorful creatures that never talk back or defile the rug. You proceed at your own pace in your own space while listening to the birds or your iPod or your kids, and, if you’re lucky and keep after the weeds, you’ll end up with a stir fry. When gardening ceases to be a labor of love, you might as well stop, because there are people who do this for a living and would appreciate your patronage in these dark days. They are called farmers.
That said, there are two homegrown vegetables that really do pay off and that are mysteriously absent from the Obamas’ published garden plan. Where are the tomatoes (OK, it’s a fruit; whatever) and fava beans? There’s no vegetable more gratifying to cultivate than the fava. Throw a handful of seeds onto a gravel heap and five minutes later, you’re harvesting giant green legumes. I’m guessing that the Obamas have steered clear because of the Hannibal Lecter jokes. But tomatoes? It’s too soon yet to be setting out tomatoes, so maybe they’ll be rotated in. A kitchen garden without juicy summer tomatoes is no kitchen garden at all.
But, of course, this isn’t really a kitchen garden. No one in the Obama family is going to be standing on the South Lawn every humid July afternoon holding a hose. By Mrs. Obama’s own admission, the White House vegetable patch will be tended mostly by the White House staff—which, in my view, makes it an organic demonstration farm that just happens to be located in the Obamas’ backyard.
That’s wonderful. It really is. If the Obamas’ example inspires one little kid to eat a pea, or one tightly wound adult to discover the therapeutic pleasures of hoeing, or one urban school to find space for a little garden, it will have been worth it. But “free” food? This admirable, enviable vegetable garden doesn’t point the way to a future of free, or even affordable, organic produce for all. It’s not going to fix our national obesity epidemic. (Someone needs to tell Mrs. Obama to stop talking about her daughters’ weight.) And it’s about as attainable for the average American as the first lady’s biceps.
Also posted in Commentary, Essay, News, Politics

President as Role Model For Positive Social Change?

I don’t normally like to use this blog as a soap box for contemporaneous political issues, but I saw the below comic by Jeff Stahler and could not resist the irony it pushes, and not so much as a polemic towards Obama, but as it contrasts the seriousness and trivialities of the President’s position in America. I think it was yesterday that I read in the NY times that Michelle Obama, working with local D.C. natural/sustainable/organic food mavens, was planning and preparing a garden on one of the White House’s lawns, much like Eleanor Roosevelt did back during the WWII years (some even say that if victory gardens were to be re-implemented today they could have a positive effect on climate change, the cost of energy, and health issues).

Planting a garden for the purpose of showing the ease and sustainability of eating healthy and earth consciously is quite commendable, and provides many Americans with positive image of sustainable agriculture, but if you were to ask for the opinion of D.C.’s largely poor and underprivileged African American population the response would probably be wide eyed stares. They would ask how gardening would help them get their jobs back. They would ask how gardening would un-foreclose on their houses. They would ask how gardening would be feasible in their soil-free apartment and tenement buildings. They would ask who really cares about gardening when the American economy is absolutely sloppy with white collar cheating and greed. They would ask how they are supposed to put staple foods on their tables, much less find a place to plant a garden, then take the time to grow vegetables all summer. This is not defeatist thinking though.

Obviously, corporations have had their fingers deeply interlaced with America’s food production for many many years, for so many years that culture has changed drastically enough that growing ones own food becomes an endeavor foreign and close to impossible for the majority of middle and lowercase income people around the U.S. People spend much more time commuting than their WWII contemporaries, who, incidentally, had the time and space to grow almost 50% of the nation’s agricultural needs.

Yes, Michelle’s idea is a good one. She is providing a model for people and a drastic contrast to the last dismal administration. Yes, her family will be enjoying the fruits and vegetables of their garden, which will show those who care, or more importantly care and have the ability and resources to grow a garden, that they too can grow their own food in a time of economic hardship. But deep down I am missing the point as to what this garden of hers is really supposed to represent and incite in the American people on the whole, because, really,  it’s the corporate world–the stimulus that originally alienated the masses from their gardens–that needs a serious weeding, and not the south lawn of the White House–and thus Stahler’s poignant cartoon.

Also posted in Commentary, Essay, News, Politics

Thomas Pynchon’s "Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?"

Ran across this article while sifting through my thesis notes. Every time I read it I chuckle and am stoked on Pynchon’s continual sarcasm and dead-on shots at the “intellectuals,” as he continually hopes for more expansive thought by all, but I am filled with some hope for reimagining the past that the majority of academia, higher education, and culture on the whole tenaciously clings to and bases its “reality” upon.
October 28, 1984
Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?
By THOMAS PYNCHON
As if being 1984 weren’t enough, it’s also the 25th anniversary this year of C. P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture, ”The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” notable for its warning that intellectual life in the West was becoming increasingly polarized into ”literary” and ”scientific” factions, each doomed not to understand or appreciate the other. The lecture was originally meant to address such matters as curriculum reform in the age of Sputnik and the role of technology in the development of what would soon be known as the third world. But it was the two-culture formulation that got people’s attention. In fact it kicked up an amazing row in its day. To some already simplified points, further reductions were made, provoking certain remarks, name-calling, even intemperate rejoinders, giving the whole affair, though attenuated by the mists of time, a distinctly cranky look.
Today nobody could get away with making such a distinction. Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen. Demystification is the order of our day, all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle. We immediately suspect ego insecurity in people who may still try to hide behind the jargon of a specialty or pretend to some data base forever ”beyond” the reach of a layman. Anybody with the time, literacy and access fee these days can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need. So, to that extent, the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any local library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one’s own specialty.
What has persisted, after a long quarter century, is the element of human character. C. P. Snow, with the reflexes of a novelist after all, sought to identify not only two kinds of education but also two kinds of personality. Fragmentary echoes of old disputes, of unforgotten offense taken in the course of long-ago high- table chitchat, may have helped form the subtext for Snow’s immoderate, and thus celebrated, assertion, ”If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the Industrial Revolution.” Such ”intellectuals,” for the most part ”literary,” were supposed, by Lord Snow, to be ”natural Luddites.”
Except maybe for Brainy Smurf, it’s hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual, though it doesn’t sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to, say, ”people who read and think.” Being called a Luddite is another matter. It brings up questions such as, Is there something about reading and thinking that would cause or predispose a person to turn Luddite? Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? And come to think of it, what is a Luddite, anyway?
HISTORICALLY, Luddites flourished in Britain from about 1811 to 1816. They were bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry. They swore allegiance not to any British king but to their own King Ludd. It isn’t clear whether they called themselves Luddites, although they were so termed by both friends and enemies. C. P. Snow’s use of the word was clearly polemical, wishing to imply an irrational fear and hatred of science and technology. Luddites had, in this view, come to be imagined as the counterrevolutionaries of that ”Industrial Revolution” which their modern versions have ”never tried, wanted, or been able to understand.”
But the Industrial Revolution was not, like the American and French Revolutions of about the same period, a violent struggle with a beginning, middle and end. It was smoother, less conclusive, more like an accelerated passage in a long evolution. The phrase was first popularized a hundred years ago by the historian Arnold Toynbee, and has had its share of revisionist attention, lately in the July 1984 Scientific American. Here, in ”Medieval Roots of the Industrial Revolution,” Terry S. Reynolds suggests that the early role of the steam engine (1765) may have been overdramatized. Far from being revolutionary, much of the machinery that steam was coming to drive had already long been in place, having in fact been driven by water power since the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the idea of a technosocial ”revolution,” in which the same people came out on top as in France and America, has proven of use to many over the years, not least to those who, like C. P. Snow, have thought that in ”Luddite” they have discovered a way to call those with whom they disagree both politically reactionary and anti-capitalist at the same time.
But the Oxford English Dictionary has an interesting tale to tell. In 1779, in a village somewhere in Leicestershire, one Ned Lud broke into a house and ”in a fit of insane rage” destroyed two machines used for knitting hosiery. Word got around. Soon, whenever a stocking- frame was found sabotaged – this had been going on, sez the Encyclopedia Britannica, since about 1710 – folks would respond with the catch phrase ”Lud must have been here.” By the time his name was taken up by the frame-breakers of 1812, historical Ned Lud was well absorbed into the more or less sarcastic nickname ”King (or Captain) Ludd,” and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic shtick – every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it.
But it’s important to remember that the target even of the original assault of 1779, like many machines of the Industrial Revolution, was not a new piece of technology. The stocking-frame had been around since 1589, when, according to the folklore, it was invented by the Rev. William Lee, out of pure meanness. Seems that Lee was in love with a young woman who was more interested in her knitting than in him. He’d show up at her place. ”Sorry, Rev, got some knitting.” ”What, again?” After a while, unable to deal with this kind of rejection, Lee, not, like Ned Lud, in any fit of insane rage, but let’s imagine logically and coolly, vowed to in vent a machine that would make the hand-knitting of hosiery obsolete. And he did. According to the encyclopedia, the jilted cleric’s frame ”was so perfect in its conception that it continued to be the only mechanical means of knitting for hundreds of years.”
Now, given that kind of time span, it’s just not easy to think of Ned Lud as a technophobic crazy. No doubt what people admired and mythologized him for was the vigor and single-mindedness of his assault. But the words ”fit of insane rage” are third-hand and at least 68 years after the event. And Ned Lud’s anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.
There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale. What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.
The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening – it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs. Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror, but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery – especially when it’s been around for a while – not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening. One was the concentration of capital that each machine represented, and the other was the ability of each machine to put a certain number of humans out of work – to be ”worth” that many human souls. What gave King Ludd his special Bad charisma, took him from local hero to nationwide public enemy, was that he went up against these amplified, multiplied, more than human opponents and prevailed. When times are hard, and we feel at the mercy of forces many times more powerful, don’t we, in seeking some equalizer, turn, if only in imagination, in wish, to the Badass – the djinn, the golem, the hulk, the superhero – who will resist what otherwise would overwhelm us? Of course, the real or secular frame-bashing was still being done by everyday folks, trade unionists ahead of their time, using the night, and their own solidarity and discipline, to achieve their multiplications of effect.
It was open-eyed class war. The movement had its Parliamentary allies, among them Lord Byron, whose maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812 compassionately argued against a bill proposing, among other repressive measures, to make frame-breaking punishable by death. ”Are you not near the Luddites?” he wrote from Venice to Thomas Moore. ”By the Lord! if there’s a row, but I’ll be among ye! How go on the weavers – the breakers of frames – the Lutherans of politics – the reformers?” He includes an ”amiable chanson, ” which proves to be a Luddite hymn so inflammatory that it wasn’t published till after the poet’s death. The letter is dated December 1816: Byron had spent the summer previous in Switzerland, cooped up for a while in the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys, watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories. By that December, as it happened, Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her novel ”Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.”
If there were such a genre as the Luddite novel, this one, warning of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand, would be the first and among the best. Victor Frankenstein’s creature also, surely, qualifies as a major literary Badass. ”I resolved . . .,” Victor tells us, ”to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large,” which takes care of Big. The story of how he got to be so Bad is the heart of the novel, sheltered innermost: told to Victor in the first person by the creature himself, then nested inside of Victor’s own narrative, which is nested in its turn in the letters of the arctic explorer Robert Walton. However much of ”Frankenstein’s” longevity is owing to the undersung genius James Whale, who translated it to film, it remains today more than well worth reading, for all the reasons we read novels, as well as for the much more limited question of its Luddite value: that is, for its attempt, through literary means which are nocturnal and deal in disguise, to deny the machine.
Look, for example, at Victor’s account of how he assembles and animates his creature. He must, of course, be a little vague about the details, but we’re left with a procedure that seems to include surgery, electricity (though nothing like Whale’s galvanic extravaganzas), chemistry, even, from dark hints about Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, the still recently discredited form of magic known as alchemy. What is clear, though, despite the commonly depicted Bolt Through the Neck, is that neither the method nor the creature that results is mechanical.
This is one of several interesting similarities between ”Frankenstein” and an earlier tale of the Bad and Big, ”The Castle of Otranto” (1765), by Horace Walpole, usually regarded as the first Gothic novel. For one thing, both authors, in presenting their books to the public, used voices not their own. Mary Shelley’s preface was written by her husband, Percy, who was pretending to be her. Not till 15 years later did she write an introduction to ”Frankenstein” in her own voice. Walpole, on the other hand, gave his book an entire made-up publishing history, claiming it was a translation from medieval Italian. Only in his preface to the second edition did he admit authorship.
THE novels are also of strikingly similar nocturnal origin: both resulted from episodes of lucid dreaming. Mary Shelley, that ghost-story summer in Geneva, trying to get to sleep one midnight, suddenly beheld the creature being brought to life, the images arising in her mind ”with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.” Walpole had awakened from a dream, ”of which, all I could remember was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle . . . and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.”
In Walpole’s novel, this hand shows up as the hand of Alfonso the Good, former Prince of Otranto and, despite his epithet, the castle’s resident Badass. Alfonso, like Frankenstein’s creature, is assembled from pieces – sable-plumed helmet, foot, leg, sword, all of them, like the hand, quite oversized – which fall from the sky or just materialize here and there about the castle grounds, relentless as Freud’s slow return of the repressed. The activating agencies, again like those in ”Frankenstein,” are non-mechanical. The final assembly of ”the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude,” is achieved through supernatural means: a family curse, and the intercession of Otranto’s patron saint.
The craze for Gothic fiction after ”The Castle of Otranto” was grounded, I suspect, in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythical time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake’s dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation – bodily resurrection, if possible – remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel. Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however ”irrational,” to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing. ”Gothic” became code for ”medieval,” and that has remained code for ”miraculous,” on through Pre-Raphaelites, turn-of-the-century tarot cards, space opera in the pulps and the comics, down to ”Star Wars” and contemporary tales of sword and sorcery.
TO insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings. By this theory, for example, King Kong (?-1933) becomes your classic Luddite saint. The final dialogue in the movie, you recall, goes: ”Well, the airplanes got him.” ”No . . . it was Beauty killed the Beast.” In which again we encounter the same Snovian Disjunction, only different, between the human and the technological.
But if we do insist upon fictional violations of the laws of nature – of space, time, thermodynamics, and the big one, mortality itself – then we risk being judged by the literary mainstream as Insufficiently Serious. Being serious about these matters is one way that adults have traditionally defined themselves against the confidently immortal children they must deal with. Looking back on ”Frankenstein,” which she wrote when she was 19, Mary Shelley said, ”I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart.” The Gothic attitude in general, because it used images of death and ghostly survival toward no more responsible end than special effects and cheap thrills, was judged not Serious enough and confined to its own part of town. It is not the only neighborhood in the great City of Literature so, let us say, closely defined. In westerns, the good people always win. In romance novels, love conquers all. In whodunitsses we know better. We say, ”But the world isn’t like that.” These genres, by insisting on what is contrary to fact, fail to be Serious enough, and so they get redlined under the label ”escapist fare.”
This is especially unfortunate in the case of science fiction, in which the decade after Hiroshima saw one of the most remarkable flowerings of literary talent and, quite often, genius, in our history. It was just as important as the Beat movement going on at the same time, certainly more important than mainstream fiction, which with only a few exceptions had been paralyzed by the political climate of the cold war and McCarthy years. Besides being a nearly ideal synthesis of the Two Cultures, science fiction also happens to have been one of the principal refuges, in our time, for those of Luddite persuasion.
By 1945, the factory system – which, more than any piece of machinery, was the real and major result of the Industrial Revolution – had been extended to include the Manhattan Project, the German long-range rocket program and the death camps, such as Auschwitz. It has taken no major gift of prophecy to see how these three curves of development might plausibly converge, and before too long. Since Hiroshima, we have watched nuclear weapons multiply out of control, and delivery systems acquire, for global purposes, unlimited range and accuracy. An unblinking acceptance of a holocaust running to seven- and eight-figure body counts has become – among those who, particularly since 1980, have been guiding our military policies – conventional wisdom.
To people who were writing science fiction in the 50’s, none of this was much of a surprise, though modern Luddite imaginations have yet to come up with any countercritter Bad and Big enough, even in the most irresponsible of fictions, to begin to compare with what would happen in a nuclear war. So, in the science fiction of the Atomic Age and the cold war, we see the Luddite impulse to deny the machine taking a different direction. The hardware angle got de-emphasized in favor of more humanistic concerns – exotic cultural evolutions and social scenarios, paradoxes and games with space/ time, wild philosophical questions – most of it sharing, as the critical literature has amply discussed, a definition of ”human” as particularly distinguished from ”machine.” Like their earlier counterparts, 20th-century Luddites looked back yearningly to another age – curiously, the same Age of Reason which had forced the first Luddites into nostalgia for the Age of Miracles.
But we now live, we are told, in the Computer Age. What is the outlook for Luddite sensibility? Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did? I really doubt it. Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors. Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead. Beyond this seems to be a growing consensus that knowledge really is power, that there is a pretty straightforward conversion between money and information, and that somehow, if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible. If this is so, Luddites may at last have come to stand on common ground with their Snovian adversaries, the cheerful army of technocrats who were supposed to have the ”future in their bones.” It may be only a new form of the perennial Luddite ambivalence about machines, or it may be that the deepest Luddite hope of miracle has now come to reside in the computer’s ability to get the right data to those whom the data will do the most good. With the proper deployment of budget and computer time, we will cure cancer, save ourselves from nuclear extinction, grow food for everybody, detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk – realize all the wistful pipe dreams of our days.
THE word ”Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D. D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time. If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long. Meantime, as Americans, we can take comfort, however minimal and cold, from Lord Byron’s mischievously improvised song, in which he, like other observers of the time, saw clear identification between the first Luddites and our own revolutionary origins. It begins:
As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

Also posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Fear, Freud, Literature, Pop Culture Issues, Pynchon

The Amazing Absence of Literacy in America

At first I was totally shocked by this article by Chris Hedges, titled America the Illiterate. It absolutely blows me away. The author separates America into two literacy groups. The first being the literate group, which is

“…the minority, [and] functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth.”

The author states that the second group, as much as I’m astounded that it trully exists in our modern society, is easily manipulated and knowingly separates itself from the prior group. This group…

“…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.”

The author states that a third of the 42 million adults in America are illiterate or close to illiterate. This is absolutely astounding when one considers other countries, for example Finland, where 100 percent literacy is the standard. The article begins to pick up speed when the author shows illiterate people’s powerlessness in our capitalist society.

“They still struggle with the most basic chores of daily life from reading instructions on medicine bottles to filling out bank forms, car loan documents and unemployment benefit and insurance papers. They watch helplessly and without comprehension as hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. They are hostages to brands. Brands come with images and slogans. Images and slogans are all they understand. Many eat at fast food restaurants not only because it is cheap but because they can order from pictures rather than menus. And those who serve them, also semi-literate or illiterate, punch in orders on cash registers whose keys are marked with symbols and pictures. This is our brave new world.”

Later the author explains how illiteracy allows politicos to push their “simple and childish lies” by repeating euphemisms and catchphrases.

“We are repeatedly fed words or phrases like yes we can, maverick,
change,pro-life, hope or war on terror. It feels good not to think. All we have
to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden
inner resources, whether divine or national, that make the world conform to our
desires.”

Catchphrases and repeated slogans are quite effective in creating solidarity and helping rally groups under a singular cause. However, and as the author brings up, these same slogans and euphemisms become an easy reason for people to simply quit thinking on their own. He says, “it feels good not to think.” I’m not sure that I agree with that statement, but it’s certainly easier not to think.

He outlines the slow but inevitable lowering of the bar of presidential debates to exemplify the decline in literacy and comprehension of American over the past 150-odd years. During the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 the two men used language that a 11th to 12th grader would understand. In contrast, during the the 2000 presidential debates, “George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6).”

What does this lowering of both the language and intellectual bar connote about Americans then? Simply, they have become consumers in the most base sense of the word. Information, art, and any other kind of stimulus all become a node of entertainment, not a means for better understanding.

“The change from a print-based to an image-based society has transformed our nation. Huge segments of our population, especially those who live in the embrace of the Christian right and the consumer culture, are completely unmoored from reality. They lack the capacity to search for truth and cope rationally with our mounting social and economic ills. They seek clarity, entertainment and order. They are willing to use force to impose this clarity on others, especially those who do not speak as they speak and think as they think. All the traditional tools of democracies, including dispassionate scientific and historical truth, facts, news and rational debate, are useless instruments in a world that lacks the capacity to use them.”

So where does this zeitgeist of passive thought get us? The author, in his final paragraph, argues that the Obama campaign served to “appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism…” Fine, but one must know one’s audience to be effective in persuading it. The author looks to politics as the node or catalyst for change. I’m not so sure that this is the case for the simple reason that politics serve as both the controlling entity (in the form of legislature) and the barometer (in the form of politicos appealing to the masses to get re-elected) for society. Politics, therefore, is stolid and calcified in its means and operations. The change must come from within the mass itself.

Also posted in Commentary, Essay, Literature, Politics