There Goes the Ruddy Two-shoes

Archive for November, 2008

Good Read

Posted by ruddytwoshoes on November 15, 2008

I could very well be a Chris Hedges fan some days. This appeared on Truthdig.com on November 10 and is a great tie-in to my November 9 blog.

America the Illiterate

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 cliches. 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.

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 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.

The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information. American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda now masquerades as ideology. Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation. Campaigns that succeed are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal. They create a public ecstasy that annuls individuality and fosters a state of mindlessness. They thrust us into an eternal present. They cater to a nation that now lives in a state of permanent amnesia. It is style and story, not content or history or reality, which inform our politics and our lives. We prefer happy illusions. And it works because so much of the American electorate, including those who should know better, blindly cast ballots for slogans, smiles, the cheerful family tableaux, narratives and the perceived sincerity and the attractiveness of candidates. We confuse how we feel with knowledge.

The illiterate and semi-literate, once the campaigns are over, remain powerless. They still cannot protect their children from dysfunctional public schools. They still cannot understand predatory loan deals, the intricacies of mortgage papers, credit card agreements and equity lines of credit that drive them into foreclosures and bankruptcies. 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.

Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice. Those who are best at artifice succeed. Those who have not mastered the art of artifice fail. 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 cliches, 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.

The ability to magnify these simple and childish lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives these lies the aura of an uncontested truth. 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. Reality is never an impediment to our advancement.

The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. During the 2000 debates George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6). In the 1992 debates Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while George H.W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did H. Ross Perot (6.3). In the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon the candidates spoke in language used by 10th-graders. In the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas the scores were respectively 11.2 and 12.0. In short, today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. It is fitted to this level of comprehension because most Americans speak, think and are entertained at this level. This is why serious film and theater and other serious artistic expression, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of American society. Voltaire was the most famous man of the 18th century. Today the most famous “person” is Mickey Mouse.

In our post-literate world, because ideas are inaccessible, there is a need for constant stimulus. News, political debate, theater, art and books are judged not on the power of their ideas but on their ability to entertain. Cultural products that force us to examine ourselves and our society are condemned as elitist and impenetrable. Hannah Arendt warned that the marketization of culture leads to its degradation, that this marketization creates a new celebrity class of intellectuals who, although well read and informed themselves, see their role in society as persuading the masses that “Hamlet” can be as entertaining as “The Lion King” and perhaps as educational. “Culture,” she wrote, “is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment.”

“There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect,” Arendt wrote, “but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.”

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.

As we descend into a devastating economic crisis, one that Barack Obama cannot halt, there will be tens of millions of Americans who will be ruthlessly thrust aside. As their houses are foreclosed, as their jobs are lost, as they are forced to declare bankruptcy and watch their communities collapse, they will retreat even further into irrational fantasy. They will be led toward glittering and self-destructive illusions by our modern Pied Pipers–our corporate advertisers, our charlatan preachers, our television news celebrities, our self-help gurus, our entertainment industry and our political demagogues — who will offer increasingly absurd forms of escapism.

The core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying. Obama used hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds to appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism to his advantage, but these forces will prove to be his most deadly nemesis once they collide with the awful reality that awaits us.

Posted in Society and Culture, TV, Film, and Literature | Leave a Comment »

I Answer Not in Silence

Posted by ruddytwoshoes on November 9, 2008

You can call this a serious riposte to the throng of heartbreakingly ill-informed human beings who have challenged not only my political orientation but also the stances I have taken on social issues and the statements I have dared express to this date. And, yes, if anyone wants to engage in a debate with me after reading this piece, I will be delighted to speak with you, on the condition that my time does not go wasted on listening to ridiculously uneducated opinions. I may not be so gracious when pushed to impatience.

I sail to the left, and I do not apologize. Call me “anti-American”, a nutjob, a heretic, a fetus-murderer, or any name that has been used to refer to somebody like, say, Dennis Kucinich or the new president-elect, Barack Obama, although I honestly do not see him so much as a leftist. With the exception of your labeling me “anti-American” – which I certainly, absolutely, definitely am not – I will answer you with the proudest smile I can muster. When I found the courage to step outside the doctrines they utilized to confine me in fear, I found liberation – and goshdarnit, I am not ashamed.

I stand behind irreligion, abortion, same-sex marriage, and guaranteeing undocumented immigrants a path to legalization, for they have come in an attempt to subsist since American corporations shat over their lands and stole their sources of decent income. And as if I am not scaring the golden wingnut enough, I like universal healthcare – one great concept for which I am willing to pay higher taxes. They take hundreds of dollars off my monthly salary to insure myself and my husband anyway, and only partially, for if one of us gets sick, we will have to go out of pocket for copays, deductibles, or other expenses the insurance carrier simply decides to not pay. I refer you to Michael Moore’s Sicko for more information.

The United States can very well afford to socialize healthcare. There is wealth in this country, albeit wrongly disseminated, and George W. Bush has chosen to prove that over and over by allocating trillions of dollars to the Pentagon and the unjust wars he made a unilateral decision to fight. It has been apparent that this man and his cronies believe the United States must have the money to bomb homes in the Middle East and none for the health of its people.

And not just the health of its people. In this country, we can observe the deterioration of the quality of education provided to our children, the growth of poverty rates, and the increasing severity of homelessness. Bush gave his warmongering a fat budget, while he left the needs of his fellow citizens unmet. Do you not find that bothersome? I do.

I will talk about Iraq. In spite of its apparent demise in the agendas of the mainstream media, the Iraq war merits serious discussion. It always has and always will, and I am not saying that just because I am married to an Iraq war veteran, but more importantly, because (1) I was lied to by a president who wanted a reckless killing spree so he could bagsie some oil; (2) countless lives – Iraqis and Americans both – have been destroyed by this nonsensical bloodbath; and (3) as I have implied, the dollars frittered on obliterating a small country in the Middle East could and should have been put to much better use, such as healthcare for all.

I am not alone in my sentiments. If you constantly endeavor to keep your head out of the sand, you must have seen and/or heard about various demonstrations in protest against the current administration’s blatant terrorism. Yes, I did say terrorism.

Certain things I would rather not disclose at this time hinder me – or at least I feel that they do – from being as active in the sociopolitical arena as I would like to be. Most times, I have had to settle on being curled up in bed reading activist literature, or expending my energy in the blogosphere, rummaging through alternative media blogs and composing my own whenever I feel compelled to do so. However, from time to time, I have deemed it proper to manifest my concern for certain issues in louder, more obvious ways, including spirited yet intelligent discussions with persons who may have differed in their opinions and, more notably, joining activist groups like the Iraq Veterans Against the War, International Socialist Organization, and Bayan USA, to name a few, in exercising the freedom to demonstrate, both vocally and visually, and through peaceful means, opposition to Bush’s bellicose foreign policy and transparent unconcern for the good of his countrymen. The concoction of poignant banners, picket signs, slogan shirts, chants, and revolutionary music signifying the workings of true democracy – it is empowering, and I take great pride in being a part of it.

I care. I have a moral obligation to contribute to the alleviation of pain and suffering not only in the United States or the Philippines, my homeland, but the entire blue-green orb into which my mother brought me twenty-five years ago. Upon discovering the power I hold to change the world, I resolved to unstuck my keester from the couch in front of the television and collaborate with those who have made the same important discovery. I do intend to continue on this path and do much more, as soon as certain things, which, again, I would rather not disclose, are out of the picture.

Note that I am not saying that carrying anti-war posters while marching through Los Angeles by itself changes the world. One may have to go beyond that to effect change, but that does not make it at all trivial. Pages and pages of history books substantiate the weight of uprisings, no matter how small, all over the world. There was a time in American history when civil rights were a prerogative of white people, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was one to give that a huge fight. Following the apprehension of a black fifteen-year-old girl who refused to give up her bus seat for a white person, King headed the lengthy Montgomery Bus Boycott, which caused him to be arrested. His arrest then led to a court ruling that ended racial segregation in buses. He went on to pilot and influence numerous marches and rallies during the civil rights movement up to the day of his assassination.

It has been decades since King, along with masses of bold men and women who stood up against racial chauvinism, started fighting for change, and a lot of their efforts have come to fruition. For instance, school segregation was barred by the Supreme Court in 1957, and the banning of interracial marriages was ruled unconstitutional ten years later. A few days ago, America, for the very first time, bestowed the presidency upon a mulatto, born of a black father from Kenya, to show an intense thawing out of walls of racial bigotry in the “land of equal opportunity.” Foreign lands benefited from the civil rights movement as well, including South Africa, which saw the death of the apartheid system in 1991 –inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States. These are some of the finest moments in history, and they would not have been possible without the struggles of King and other civil rights activists who joined him in his revolt.

By belittling the power of protest, one belittles Martin Luther King, Jr. and other pioneers of the civil rights movement. By belittling the power of protest, one belittles Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Harvey Milk, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Lennon, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Iraq Veterans Against the War, Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Victor Jara, those who gathered in the streets of Seattle during the WTO convention in 1999 to show their dissent against vile globalization that pains the world’s poor, feminists around the world who fought for women’s suffrage, Filipinos who flocked to EDSA in 1986 and 2001 to exercise their democratic power to overthrow administrations that did not serve their needs, labor activists and unionists who struggle to protect workers’ rights all over the world, Californians who are currently rallying in opposition to the passing of a proposition prohibiting same-sex marriages, and all those who fought, all those who are fighting, to protect your, my, OUR civil liberties.

I hear this from time to time: “If you want to change the world, feed the poor.” I will respond to this by saying that as an individual of middle-class stature, and one who is likely to stay within the middle-class ranks for the rest of time, in the United States, I do not and never will have the right amount of funds to feed every single one of the billions of impoverished people in the world. And you know what? I am not the only one facing such obstruction. I can do as much as adopting a destitute who begs for alms at the foot of a Los Angeles freeway off-ramp, supporting him all throughout the period of time that he would need to be financially dependent on me, and assisting him in finding employment so that he can stand on his own feet. I commend anyone who has shown tremendous kindness and compassion in this way, and I have no doubt that something like this can well improve a life. However, how much change can this really effect? You adopt one indigent person, and how much more poverty remains all over the world?

Much, much more. In the large scheme of things, my adopting one underprivileged person may even go unnoticed. Poverty is attached to a rotten system that not only allows the dispossessing of its people but thrives at the expense of those who are enfeebled. You can try to feed two, five, ten, even twenty poor persons today to temporarily satiate their hunger, but the food you donate will not take them over the poverty line. Immediately afterwards, they will go back to the projects or wherever else they live, continue working their jobs that do not even pay living wages, and pass down their poverty to their children, who they cannot afford to send to school. They are imprisoned in a social structure that does not provide them with a real, solid foundation for advancement.

And it is this very system that I confront, whenever I express my disapproval of the war in Iraq through my literature, banners, and picket signs – the same exact social structure that I blame for poverty, homelessness, insufficient education, the crucial lack of an ethical and moral healthcare system, a defective penal system, and undocumented immigration. It is a system that prioritizes the wealthy and overlooks the poor, a system that capitalizes on the financial hardships of our young men and women – coerced to join the armed forces to help their families get by – their bodies, blood, and sweat are abused to secure global domination that nourishes only the upper class, while their medical treatment privileges are diminished so that they do not receive adequate care if they come home with limbs impaired and/or suicidal tendencies stemming from post-traumatic stress disorders. It is a system that needs uprooting for real, complete change to occur, and in this, the role of collective activism, no matter how small it appears, is indispensable.

The late, great Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks to those who, despite unequivocal human rights violations, choose to keep silent:

You think that your silence on certain topics, perhaps in the face of injustice, or unkindness, or mean-spiritedness, causes others to reserve judgement of you. Far otherwise; your silence utters very loud: you have no oracle to speak, no wisdom to offer, and your fellow men have learned that you cannot help them. Doth not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her voice? We would be well to do likewise.

I did. I stood up, spoke out, and got counted – a colossal accomplishment compared to that of anyone who decided to linger in front of the television screen watching ESPN or some other source of mindless entertainment because he or she thought of such activism as futile.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to reading your comments, especially those that should serve the purpose of expressing disagreement.

Posted in Life, Politics, Society and Culture | 5 Comments »