Democracy & Literacy

Here is a particularly insightful passage from an insightful book. It’s about the sad relationship between illiteracy and a dysfunctional democracy.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War
by Joe Bageant
Chapter 8, American Hologram: The Apocalypse will be Televized
pp. 249-251

“[ . . . ] of the 89 million to 94 million American adults—nearly half of the U.S. adult population—who are functionally illiterate. According to the National Institute for Literacy, they “lack a sufficient foundation of basic [literacy] skills to function successfully in our society.” Of these, 17 percent to 20 percent can read just a little. That means that they cannot fill out job applications, understand food labels, or read simple stories to their children. Another 25 percent can read, but not well enough to follow five consecutive paragraphs of text or dense documents such as sales contracts.

[ . . . ]

“Of course there is more to literacy than reading words. In our culture it helps to be able to contextualize an infomercial, not to mention Tom DeLay’s crimes. Almost none of the Royal Lunch crowd, however, even knows who Tom Delay is. They do not watch the national news unless the United States attacks somebody or there is a flood in New Orleans. Even if they took the trouble to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, none of them would see it as anything other than a story about animals.

“In our culture there is also the need to interpret legions of symbols and acronyms (IBM, CBS, GM, FBI, CIA, OBM, MCI, FEMA, HUD…) that turn up every day in advertising, product packaging, corporate brochures, government pamphlets, and news stories. Functional illiterates, however, cannot separate industry from government, or the news from an advertisement or an infomercial. Hence the inability of Carolyn (the old flame I bumped into in the Food Lion parking lot) to tell a nonprofit charity from a quick-buck manufacturer of magnetic yellow ribbons. From inside the American hologram an eagle is an eagle and a yellow ribbon is a yellow ribbon. Uneducated and trapped within the hologram, people like Carolyn and Bobby will never be capable of participating in a free society, much less making the kinds of choices that preserve and protect one, unless the importance of full literacy can somehow be made clear to them.”