14 September 2009

One of those moods...

I'm in a funk. Every now and then I get this way when I spend too much time reading the comments on news stories, because I soon conclude that we are by and large a nation of morons.

Now that, my friends, is a depressing thought.

To think that over 200 years ago we created a modern democracy that relied on an educated electorate, and to that end we've developed compulsory education, financed state-run institutes of higher learning, and increased literacy rates to amazing levels. These are great achievements that are always under attack from regressive forces (maybe not the literacy rates, but equal access to education has never served those wishing to preserve power for a small elite).

However, we have to realize a few things:
  • Literacy does not equal comprehension or critical thinking. I've taught too many students who can read the words on the page, but can't tell you what they mean in their own words. At the extreme, some students will actually tell you the opposite of what the sentence states; many students fail to distinguish the writer's own position from the writer's gloss of another author's work.
  • Knowing how to surf the web does not equal information literacy. Too many users have no skill in differentiating the reliability or validity of sources. They don't understand that peer-reviewed journals are better overall as sources of reliable information than publisher or company claims or fan pages. The critique of mainstream media has disintegrated into a thoughtless assertion that all sources are equal. Even if people don't believe it in theory or are willing to say it, in practice that's exactly what we've lost. Cousin Joe who lives in his mom's basement and wears a tin foil hat has as much validity to the internetters as the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • The medium may in fact be the message. Television is passive; the internet is interactive. At least that's the story we tell ourselves, but the growth of streaming capabilities means that the internet is increasingly being used as another method for viewing television shows or movies. Being able to comment on said shows and movies is not exactly revolutionary. "Real life" simulacra like Second Life and fantasy worlds like "World of Warcraft" may in fact create rich experiences for their users, but the fact remains that they more or less recreate the same social conditions and interactions as the real world while all the time removing the users for greater and greater periods of time from the real world. To borrow from a movie -- and yes I realize the irony in that and also in blogging about this phenomenon -- that's the real matrix -- the illusion of life.
How do we explain the widespread popularity of frauds like Glenn Beck? What does Glenn Beck supply his audience that works for them? Does he make them laugh? (this component should not be overlooked: plenty of people will do strange things "for the lulz") He doesn't provide reassurance that all is right with the world -- in fact he does just the opposite, pronouncing that we are more or less one inch away from establishing "worker re-education camps" and that at any moment a government secret police squad is about to come through each and every one of our doors taking away our guns, our presses, and claiming the right of jus primae noctis.

So since he isn't providing reassurance that all is right in the world, what is he giving them? Reassurance that they are right and the world is wrong? Both of these impulses are fairly powerful, so it isn't all milk and honey people want to hear about (I mean, the US of A would be a very different place if a few malcontents weren't convinced that the Church of England was dead wrong). Is it the seduction of the easy solution? In other words, he provides simple remedies that seem to make sense?

I like the latter explanation mainly because we are fairly intellectually lazy as a culture. Reading long boring things like history or laws isn't a popular pastime. Showing an interest in such pursuits is likely to get you branded as a snob, a geek, or (especially if you're a boy) a homosexual (and let's be honest, in the world of the school-age, where homophobia rules and homophobes haven't yet learned to disguise their hatred, the label is the kiss-of-death socially). This anti-intellectualism pervades our culture, which explains the contempt we have of the universities (the "ivory tower," not part of the "real world," populated by "eggheads") and our inability to support extended inquiry into issues (it's no mistake that the best news program on television is the PBS NewsHour, because that format wouldn't survive in a commercial situation

Exploring issues takes time, and anyway, shouldn't we already "know what's right"? I mean, if you have to think about it, then you must be a terrorist or a communist. Or a communist terrorist. Doesn't taking the time to compare and contrast ideas, or heaven forbid trying to understand someone's motivation, simply reveal a lack of certainty and therefore an absence of morality? It's always better to be quick with an answer and assert that it's the only right answer available.


m.a. said...

I am having the same problem. I almost burst into tears over illiteracy and the comments in the newspaper. I actually think that the comments should be disallowed.

cs said...

The comments section on these articles are obviously seen as nothing more than a battlefield, and I would guess that freepers sit around targeting a few pet sites. Interestingly, the Chronicle of Higher Education comments get freeped a lot, and you can tell because the absolute idiocy of the comments make it clear the writers haven't been anywhere near higher education.