America the Illiterate
Date: Wed Nov 26 17:42:25 CET 2008
From: Jesus Ortega
To: Sam Moreno
Subject: America the Illiterate

On Tue, 2008-11-25 at 14:38 -0600, Sam Moreno wrote:

Interesting article indeed, although its main points have been well
known for a while now.  

My comments below.  

First of all, the author complains about the increasing levels of
illiteracy in American society.  I'd go beyond.  I don't think it's only
American society that is going through this.  As I've told you before,
I'm convinced that American society is just a few years ahead of other
societies that, sooner or later, experience the very same social and
cultural phenomenons that the US sees first.  

I believe this is what's behind so many people's conviction that there
is such a thing as an "American imperialism" spreading throughout the
world.  I disagree with that approach, not so much because I don't think
what happens in the US spreads sooner or later to other countries (which
is, I think, a very clear fact) but rather because I don't think this is
a consequence of any form of "imperialism" or new "colonialism".  I
don't think Americans (or an American "elite", not even made up of
powerful corporate executives) consciously plan to spread the American
way of life throughout the world.  Rather, it just happens because the
whole system we live in (i.e., the free-market or capitalist system)
works in that manner.  Or, to put it another way, the US is at the very
epicenter or capitalism and, therefore, it sees certain social, economic
and political phenomenons before it reaches other countries.  This also
explains why these make it sooner to some places (the ones that are
closer to the "center", such as Western Europe, Australia or Japan) than
others, which are further away (e.g., the Middle East, some parts of
Asia, Latin America and, above all, Africa).  

So, once we understand that we are not seeing an American or Spanish
problem, but rather something that's far more widespread, what are the
roots of all this?  To me, it seems clear that it's just the expansion
of the economic principle of profit to every single field of human life.
Simply put, we have settled for a type of social organization (i.e.,
capitalism) that puts profit above any human value, be it religious,
philosophical or moral.  It's not the factual news that truly matters,
but rather to entertain the viewers so we can make money by selling
commercials.  It's not the political issues and our different proposals
to solve them that matter, but rather attracting the highest amount of
voters in order to win.  It's not knowledge that matters, but rather to
make sure that once we graduate we can easily find a job and fit in the
labor market.  

As Marx pointed out many years ago, capitalism makes sure that
"everything solid melts into the air".  Interestingly enough,
conservatives sort of get it, but they only get half the picture.  They
know we are losing any connection to the world of values they cherish.
They complain about it, they moan and make calls for a return to them.
Conservatives criticize the fact that everything is "relative" these
days and we have abandoned old values that used to be at the very center
of our societies to be replaced with... nothing, just a constant turning
wheel of consumption that churns along and smashes everything in its
sight.  And yes, they are correct, except that they blame it on "moral
relativism", "socialism" and "atheism".  In reality, it's capitalism
(their beloved "free-market") that is dissolving social ties and
destroying centuries-old human institutions in the name of the
sacrosanct profit (the word "profit", of course, is rarely uttered, but
it's hidden behind other euphemisms, such as "efficiency" or

In conclusion, once we agree to a system that prizes economic efficiency
(i.e., profit) above all, why should we be shocked to find out that our
media gives up any intention to educate the viewers or discuss serious
issues that truly affect us all, as long as they make money and they
increase their ratings?  And, most important of all, what right do we
have to be surprised about our schools failing to educate our children
if we have consciously chosen to make economic efficiency the
overarching goal of our educational institutions (mind you, I'm not just
referring to the cost of education here, but also to the fact that how
"good" the system may be is not based on the overall level of literacy
reached by the students, but rather by how well our schools and colleges
adapt to "the market")?  

Second, the author also explains how the political campaigns are based
on propaganda and image, instead of debate over the issues.  I see this
merely as a continuation of everything I discussed above.  How else
could it be?  If anything, the most important thing to keep in mind when
discussing these issues is that all this superficiality in our political
campaigns is not truly the consequence of "soulless consultants", as
many would have it.  Far from it, those consultants simply react to a
reality that's out there.  They apply their highly specialized knowledge
to a pre-existing reality.  If they use certain techniques that can be
considered superficial is because they work or, in other words, because
society itself, unable to invest the time and effort to have a serious
discussion, pays more attention to image than substance.    

All this is, as I mentioned above, very well known.  I'd emphasize the
following sentence from the article: 

    The illiterate and semi-illiterate, once the campaigns are over, 
    remain powerless.  [...] They are hostages to brands.  Brands 
    come with images and slogans.  [...] 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 

That very same state of affairs extend to many other fields.  What's art
today but also the extension of the semi-divine logic of economic profit
to a field that used to have a connection with transcendence in the
past?  How do we measure a good work of art today?  By analyzing its
intrinsic quality?  Depending on its message?  Do we judge its value by
the techniques employed in putting it together?  Let's be honest.  The
"great" artist today is that who enjoys fame (i.e., image once again,
entertainment) or the one whose pieces are sold for a high amount of
money in the market.  Once again, we let the market decide what is worth
and what is not, just to complain immediately afterwards about the lack
of solid values.  Remember, "everything solid melts into the air".