(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez)
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 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, along with 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 recent address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange are increasingly reduced to the highly spectacularized embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television and 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 a club for white, male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of a lunatic 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 craven, but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. 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 then 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 lie suggests 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 Hofstatder made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. But 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 politicsâ€”one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. The type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions; it is also a principle 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 a result of this widespread illiteracy that 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.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina). (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed - and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show, where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems. Most importantly, as the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly private discourse, everyday politics is decoupled from its democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into genuine public debate, social concerns and collective action. This is a form of illiteracy that is no longer marginal to American society, but, increasingly, becomes one of its defining and more frightening features. The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem, it is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and, certainly, modes of dissent that call the totality of a society into question. As the society becomes incapable of questioning itself, the new illiteracy parades as just its opposite. We are told that education is about learning how to take tests rather than learning how to think critically. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with. We are told that character is the only measure of how to judge people who are the victims of larger social forces that are mostly out of their control. When millions of people are unemployed, tossed out of their homes, homeless or living in poverty, the language of character, pop psychology, consumerism and celebrity culture are more than a diversion; they are fundamental to the misdirected anger, mob rule and illiteracy that frames the screaming, racism, lack of civility and often sheer and legitimate desperation.
Authoritarianism is often abetted by an inability of the public to grasp how questions of power, politics and history and public consciousness are mediated at the interface of private issues and public concerns. The ability to translate private problems into social considerations is fundamental to what it means to reactivate political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. Just as an obsession with the private is at odds with a politics informed by public consciousness, it also burdens politics by stripping it of the kind of political imagination and collective vision necessary for a viable notion of meaning, hope and political agency. Civic literacy is about more than enlarging the realm of critique and affirming the social; it is also about public responsibility, the struggle over democratic public life and the importance of critical education in a democratic society. The US government is more than willing to invest billions in wars, lead the world in arms sales and give trillions in tax cuts to the ultra rich, but barely acknowledges the need to invest in those educational and civic institutions - from schools to the arts - that enable individuals to be border crossers, capable of connecting the private and the public as part of a more vibrant understanding of politics, identity, agency and governance. The new illiteracy is not the cause of our problems, which are deeply rooted in larger social, economic and political forces that have marked the emergence of the corporate state, a deadly form of racism parading as color blindness and a ruthless market fundamentalism since the 1970s, but it is a precondition for locking individuals into a system in which they are complicitous in their own exploitation, disposability and potential death. The new illiteracy is about more than learning how to read the book or the word; it is about learning how not to read the world. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States. At the core of any viable Democratic politics is the ability to question the basic assumptions central to an imagined democracy. This is not merely a political issue, but an educational issue, one that points to the need for modes of civic education that provide the knowledge and competencies, for young and old alike, to raise important questions about what education and literacy itself should accomplish in a democracy. This is not an issue we can ignore too much longer.