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The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

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Posted on Dec 13, 2013
Peter Lang Publishing Group

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

The following excerpt from “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism,” published in 2010 by Peter Lang Publishing, first appeared online at Truthout.

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues. This is an issue that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In an alleged post-racist democracy, the image of the public sphere with its appeal to dialogue and shared responsibility has given way to the spectacle of unbridled intolerance, ignorance, seething private fears, unchecked anger and the decoupling of reason from freedom. Increasingly, as witnessed in the utter disrespect and not-so-latent racism expressed by Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, who shouted “you lie!” during President Obama’s address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange is increasingly reduced to the highly spectacular embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television. It is perfectly suited for emptying the language of public life of all substantive content, reduced in the end to a playground for hawking commodities, promoting celebrity culture and enacting the spectacle of right-wing fantasies fueled by the fear that the public sphere as an exclusive club for white male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is a Muslim and not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of an extremist fringe, that gets far more publicity from the mainstream media than they deserve. Of course this is understandable, given that the media’s desire for balance and objective news is not just disingenuous but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. Witness the racist hysteria unleashed by so many Americans and the media over the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. An African-American president certainly makes the Rush Limbaughs of the world even more irrational than they already are, just as the lunatic fringe seems to be able to define itself only through a mode of thought whose first principle is to disclaim logic itself. But I think this dismissal is too easy. What this decline in civility, the emergence of mob behavior and the utter blurring in the media between a truth and a lie suggest is that we have become one of the most illiterate nations on the planet. I don’t mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics — one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.

Think of the forces at work in the larger culture that work overtime to situate us within a privatized world of fantasy, spectacle and resentment that is entirely removed from larger social problems and public concerns. For instance, corporate culture, with its unrelenting commercials, carpet-bombs our audio and visual fields with the message that the only viable way to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits. Popular culture traps us in the privatized universe of celebrity culture, urging us to define ourselves through the often empty and trivialized and highly individualized interests of celebrities. Pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. (This has now become an educational measure applied increasingly and indiscriminately to children in our schools.) Pop psychologists urge us to simply think positively, give each other hugs and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps while also insisting that those who confront reality and its mix of complex social issues are, as Chris Hedges points out, defeatists, a negative force that inhibits “our inner essence and power.” There is also the culture of militarization, which permeates all aspects of our lives — from our classrooms and the screen culture of reality television to the barrage of violent video games and the blood letting in sports such as popular wrestling — endlessly at work in developing modes of masculinity that celebrate toughness, violence, cruelty, moral indifference and misogyny.

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