Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Americas

Chris Hedges has written a fascinating and disturbing account of two Americas: a minority America that is print-based and literate, and a majority America that is image-based and illiterate. I'm not sure that I completely buy Hedges argument or the pessimism it entails, but I think he's on to something that should give thoughtful Americans - and thoughtful Christians - pause.

Here are some excerpts:

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 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.

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. ...

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 clichés, 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.

Read it all.


Perpetua said...

Actually, I was with him until this:
"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."

I don't know how he gets to "the Christian Right" from all that comes before in the essay. The least educated lowest, income voters vote Democrat. The Christian Right tends to have completed High School and may have some college, if not more.

Protestant Christianity and literacy go together because being able to read the Bible was the presenting fight of the Reformation.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Perpetua.

It may be true that Mr. Hedges jumps to conclusions without showing the reader the chain of reasoning or sufficient empirical warrant for doing so. But that doesn't justify the assertion that the "least educated, lowest income voters vote Democrat."

Based upon what I have heard in various media since the recent presidential election, that assertion flies in the face of both the rhetoric deployed in this and in previous presidential campaigns, while also flying in the face of empirical reality.

On the rhetorical front: how long have we been hearing from Republican candidates and strategists that those who support Democrats are highly educated elitists who are out of touch with real Americans - perhaps even latte-sipping socialists?

On the empirical front: according to a news report on a Gallup Poll taken back in June, "voters with a high school education or less were as likely to prefer John McCain as to prefer Barack Obama for president. That represents a change from earlier in the campaign -- McCain led Obama among this group during the prior three months, but by diminishing margins."

IOW, one of the newsworthy points here is that Obama was actually making headway among lower educated, lower income voters, thereby giving the Republicans a run for their money. And if I'm not mistaken, Barack Obama ended up doing extraordinarily well among well-educated persons across racial lines.

Switching gears now ...

While I am aware of the concern among Protestant Reformers that the laity be able to read the Bible, and their corollary concern for literacy, I'm not so sure that "being able to read the Bible was the presenting fight of the Reformation." Indeed, I'm not so sure we can narrow down the Reformation to any one particular cause (see, for example,this link from a BBC Education Web Guide that notes several causes). One of my seminary professors (a liturgics scholar, and now a bishop), once suggested with good reason that the need to return the chalice to the laity in the Mass was a sufficient reason for the Reformation. That may be true. But it doesn't exhaustively explain either the need for or the reasons why it happened.

So on both the political and historical fronts, and with all due respect, I think your comments oversimplify very complex realities.

Perpetua said...


Please read your own source, the news report on the Gallup Poll:
"Voters with less formal education have been a core Democratic constituency in the last four presidential elections, preferring Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry to their respective Republican opponents."

With all due respect, it is oversimplifying a more complex reality to argue that because the Democrats take the highly educated elites, they do not also take the least educated lowest income demographic. Democrats take the lowest income, least educated voters and the highly educated voters. The Republicans tend to take the middle demographic.

My second point was that he seems to be equating the Christian Right with illiteracy and I know of no facts that support that. (Let's not get side tracked into the causes of the Reformation.)The real issue is that he has raised some important points about social classes in this country and then made an unsupported claim equating the Christian Right with the lowest social classes.

Bryan Owen said...


I'm not saying that because the Democrats take the highly educated elites, they do not also take the least educated lowest income demographic. I'm in agreement with you on that - but that's now how your original comment put the matter.

As for the Republicans tending to take the middle demographic - that may be changing since Obama did so well in previously Republican stronghold states like VA. We shall see.

And I fully agree with you about Mr. Hedges' unsubstantiated claim equating the Christian Right with illiteracy. That strikes me as deeply biased.

As for my points about the Reformation and getting sidetracked - I only made those points in response to your original comment.

Perpetua said...

Hi Bryan+,

Thank you for your considered response. I think it is important that we don't conflate education and income. But I did a brief google search on the exit polls and couldn't find the data for education. However, this Pew Research Center article shows that for income, the results were:
<$50,000 60% Obama/ 38% McCain
$50,000-99,900 49% Obama/ 49% McCain
>$100,000 49% Obama/ 50% McCain

Of course, all this shows is that the low income was decidedly for Obama; this doesn't support my previous claim that there is an increase in support for Democrats at the elite level. My memory is that for the 2004 election, the economic break point was $25 million. I think it was that people with wealth above $25 million went for Kerry. Also, my memory was that in terms of education, graduate education tips for the Democrats, however professional degrees, Med, Law and MBA tip Republican.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing the Pew Research Center report, Perpetua. This is all quite interesting, and it will be fascinating to see how these trends continue or change in the coming years.

Perpetua said...

Anglican Curmudgeon just linked to this article which has more info on income and voting. Obama got 49% of those earning over $100,000 but 52% of those earning over $200,000:
"Back then, President Clinton got 38 percent of the vote among those making over $100,000. This year Obama earned 49 percent of that vote. He also got 52 percent of a new polling category — those making over $200,000 a year who were no longer among the top 1 percent of earners, as they had been in past elections, but were now the top 6 per cent."

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing, Perpetua. Unfortunately, the link appears to be broken. I'm assuming that this is the link you meant to share. Please correct if I got this wrong.

eric said...

I must say, Hedges nailed down a "problem that has no name," a subtle yet distinct feeling that something is amiss in the world.

It provokes an unsettling sense of disconnect to realise that the majority of nearby conversations are vastly different than the conversations held in one's own circle.

And it seems like blame is shunted one way or another for this problem -- those "ignorant black people," or "uneducated women" or "dowdy old folks" or "inept teenagers" or "stupid Republicans" or "brainwashed Christians," when in reality it does transcend these barriers.

I wonder what the solution is?

This has given me a lot to think about, thanks for posting!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Eric. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in response to Hedge's interesting and disquieting essay. I hope you've had an opportunity to read it in its entirety. The excerpts I've posted don't do it justice.

I'm not as up on the whole emergent church thing as I should be, but what little I've read has noted (and in many cases celebrated) the tendency of that movement to embrace the very shift that Hedges finds disturbing: the move from a print-based to an image-based culture. Do you know much about any of this, and if so, what are your thoughts?

eric said...

The Emerging Church movement is a semi-reformational group *mostly* from conservative, evangelical Protestants. (Some of the mainliners are trying to come along for the ride, but it's not really working, in my opinion. Thank God!)

Since it includes more tradition and a slightly more historical grasp on Christianity, I think the Emergent movement is essentially something positive for the evangelicals. (We already embrace tradition and history, so I can't find much value in the Emergent church, as applied to ours.)

However, I think that there is an attempt among all churches, across the board, to embrace this culture. Which is how we get awful things like this:


The Episcopal Church has always been more grounded in intellectualism, and it is largely because of this that we're shrinking. I know that sounds "elitist," but as Hedges points out, most serious intellectual endeavors are!

How often have we heard whines that theology is destructive to "the Spirit" and "God's Word?" That we should just read and accept the Bible in an uncritical, unthinking light? Thus, the Episcopal Church (and many others) are accused of being "un-Biblical" and shunted off to the side. Turns out, people want to check their brains at the door!

I don't think this is the only problem plaguing our beloved church, but I do believe it's the largest. There's an intellectual disconnect between us and society. (And it's not just us of course, other denominations are suffering in the same way.)

Bryan Owen said...

Yikes! What an awful t-shirt!

I appreciate your comments about the so-called "emerging church." I still have much to learn about what's really going on with all of that.

I think you're on to an important point in saying that there's "an intellectual disconnect between us [The Episcopal Church] and society." However, I would add that there is also a disconnect within The Episcopal Church that creates what I call Anomic Anglicanism and which is a driving force behind Failing Christianity. Whether or not Hedges is fully correct in his analysis, it seems to me that the consumerist, individualist culture in which we live is doing an extraordinary job of eating away the heart and soul of the historic Christian faith from the inside.

Time will tell ...