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Autumn of the Republic?

Did America slip into a semiliterate

Did America slip into a semiliterate, polarized, pre-fascist state over the past decade or so, allowing greedy oligarchs and corporate elites to run the government? Two books I recently read offer reasonably persuasive evidence and arguments that the country did, and a third suggests that dictatorial mindsets could besiege Americans, with an assist from the Internet, if they don’t come to their more deliberative senses. Each of the books offers an informed diagnosis of the dangers that widespread ignorance and ideological polarization pose for American democracy, though none offers a comprehensive treatment for the malaise.

I read the three books in less than two weeks; friends ask how that was possible. The trick is to avoid not only Facebook and Twitter but also: celebrity news, cable news, Oprah, Jerry Springer, American Idol, The Swan, other reality-TV shows, professional wrestling, violent pornography, positive psychology and right-wing Christian fundamentalism.

The latter list includes some of the spectacularly mind-numbing American pursuits that Chris Hedges examines in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges submits that while they mesmerized large portions of the American citizenry, CEOs being paid millions of dollars a year to run companies that feed on taxpayer money usurped our government — with the help of elected officials bought by campaign contributions and tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who now write many of the nation’s laws.

“Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports,” Hedges writes. “The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate, semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clichés and slogans. They seek refuge in familiar brands and labels. … Life is a state of permanent amnesia, a world in search of new forms of escapism and quick, sensual gratification.”

Of course, they did not get into this clueless state by themselves. They were manipulated by “agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion,” Hedges continues. “They are the puppet masters. … The techniques of theater have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime.”

I know those fools are out there — many millions of them. I might even be one. But what is absolutely maddening about this book is Hedges’ penchant for stating sweeping, generalized claims as absolutes. And yet this master of divinity turned New York Times war correspondent become sociological scholar often bolsters his summations with just enough research, statistical data and anecdotal evidence to make them plausible. The book takes readers to Madison Square Garden for an exegesis of professional wrestling; to the Adult Video News Expo in Las Vegas for lengthy interviews with porn actors and producers and an inflatable doll vendor; and to Claremont Graduate University in California for a seminar on positive psychology, which Hedges terms a “quack science” that “is to the corporate state what eugenics was for the Nazis.”

As a resident of Miami Beach, where the pornographic sensibility is a way of life, I wasn’t shocked to read that annual porn sales in the United States “are estimated at $10 billion or higher” or that DIRECTV distributes “more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month.” But I shuddered when Hedges documented not just a growing appetite for violent forms of porn in America but their remarkable visual similarity to photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. “Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society,” he writes. “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy. … The Abu Ghraib images that were released, and the hundreds more disturbing images that remain classified, could be stills from porn films.”

Unfortunately, Empire of Illusion won’t enlighten or offend the large swaths of functionally illiterate Americans transfixed by smut, pro wrestling, reality TV or celebrity gossip, because those people won’t read the book. But this scholarly 193-page diatribe, which draws from a 100-author bibliography ranging from the late neo-Marxist Frankfurt School icon Theodor Adorno (The Culture Industry) to Princeton professor emeritus Sheldon Wolin (Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism), would surely madden many proud affiliates and alumni of America’s elite university system.

Hedges, who attended New England prep schools, Colgate and Harvard as a young man, and later taught at Princeton, Columbia and New York University, asserts in Chapter 3, “The Illusion of Wisdom,” that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and most elite schools “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think.” Elite universities are in the business of producing “hordes of competent systems managers” not critical thinkers. Those statements strike me as generally accurate. But I’d expect some fierce academic blowback from this notion: “The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive.” And Hedges suggests that these high-end schools “refuse to question a self-justifying system” in which “organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.”

Hedges not only blames the elite universities for our mortgage-fueled financial crisis but is sure their alumni on Wall Street and in Washington have no capacity to really fix the economic system. “Indeed, they’ll make it worse,” he predicts, exchanging his reportorial register for the absolutist. “They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one.” (He includes George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Obama’s “degree-laden” cabinet members in this group.)

If Hedges knows how to fix the system, he doesn’t tell us in Empire of Illusion. I hope that’ll be the subject of his next book, because in the meantime, “powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth” are waiting for “a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control,” he warns, without citing verifiable evidence for his dire prediction.

What if PBS, Fox and YouTube organized a national debate featuring Chris Hedges, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, his predecessor Hank Paulson, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? That panel is a little far-fetched, but it’s the sort of cross-ideological forum that Cass Sunstein prescribes in 2.0 as a way of preventing the nation from sliding into factional, perhaps even violent strife.

Sunstein is a law professor, author and perennial all-star in the world of public intellectuals; he took leave from Harvard Law School to be administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget. “The American constitutional order was designed to create a republic, as opposed to a monarch or direct democracy,” he writes. “Representatives would be accountable to the public at large. But there was also supposed to be a large degree of reflection and debate, both within the citizenry and within government itself.”

Of course, the Founding Fathers knew public debate could get ugly. Sunstein notes Alexander Hamilton’s belief that the “jarring of parties” was a good thing because it would engender deliberation and, over time, a “republic of reasons.”

Are we one today? Not as much as we could be, Sunstein thinks. His fundamental concern in 2.0 is the Internet’s potential for impeding deliberation between groups with opposing viewpoints, eventually increasing ideological rigidity and polarization to a point of no return. It’s vastly easier to join like-minded Internet “enclaves” across the world than to drive across town for a meeting in which someone might challenge one’s pre-established beliefs and positions. Sunstein walks readers through behavioral studies finding that when groups of like-minded individuals are isolated from different viewpoints, they tend toward consensus on the most extreme position held within the group.

At worst, Sunstein says, Internet-induced polarization could lead to social instability. “The danger is that through the mechanisms of persuasive arguments, social comparisons, and corroboration, members will move to positions that lack merit,” he writes. “It is impossible to say, in the abstract, that those who sort themselves into enclaves will generally move in a direction that is desirable for society at large or even for its own members. It is easy to think of examples to the contrary, as, for example, Nazism, hate groups, terrorists, and cults of various sorts.”

Clearly, the Internet has potential to create political good. Citizens have access to vast amounts of information and commentary. Even like-minded enclave proliferation can be good: The more there are, the greater the potential for inter-enclave discussion.

But a study of 1,400 liberal and conservative blogs found the vast majority of bloggers link only to like-minded blogs. Worse, another study showed that when “liberal” bloggers comment on “conservative” blog posts, and vice-versa, a plurality of comments simply cast contempt on opposing views. “Only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion. In this way, real deliberation is often occurring within established points of view, but only infrequently across them,” Sunstein reports.

One cure for Internet-driven polarization lies with “general interest intermediaries.” By that terminology, Sunstein means media outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, current affairs magazines, PBS, NPR and old-fashioned network news broadcasts: “People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experiences with diverse others, and also exposure to materials and topics that they did not seek out in advance.”

Of course, these are the media that are in decline because of the Internet. Sunstein imagines a greater role for private and public institutions, including the federal government, in ensuring enough general-interest intermediaries exist to make the republic’s communications system “a help rather than a hindrance to democratic self-government” and a counterbalance to the echo chambers of the Web.

For the most part, Thom Hartmann’s Threshold: Crisis of Western Civilization functions as a general-interest intermediary in book form. Still, readers can be forgiven for wondering, at times, whether they are in a no-conservatives zone. Hartmann is host of the Thom Hartmann Show, a nationally syndicated “progressive” radio talk show.

Just the same, Threshold is so geographically and temporally sprawling that it offers material even progressive readers might not have chosen in advance: a refugee camp in contemporary Darfur in southern Sudan (Lesson: Famine leads to war and more suffering.); ancient New Zealand, where the Maoris exterminated the moa birds, forcing them to become cannibals (Don’t repeat this mistake.); contemporary Denmark, where people happily send 30 to 60 percent of their income to the government in exchange for free health care, free university tuition, yearlong maternity leave, ample unemployment coverage and more (Americans should consider this.); Caral in ancient Peru, where anthropologists have found no evidence of weaponry (“Maybe peace is the natural state of things.”); the Iroquois people, who made certain decisions based on how they would affect tribe members seven generations hence. (If only the rest of us Americans would do that.)

In sum, Threshold is 262 pages of scientific and historical anecdote suggesting that unregulated markets, undemocratic behavior and unecological practices lead to catastrophe. If you haven’t already read a good overview of topsoil depletion, the marine fisheries crisis, rain forest destruction, the democratic behavior of red deer, the 1888 Supreme Court decision that defined corporations as “persons,” the $15 million that 30,000 corporate lobbyists spend weekly when Congress is in session, President Eisenhower’s premonition of a military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence,” the 2004 computerized voting machines controversy, the $1 trillion in tax dollars the U.S. government spent on war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not on infrastructure and schools, and the subprime loan/toxic securities debacle — you can find one in Threshold. Hartmann’s common-sense remedies include “recovering a culture of democracy,” “balancing the power of men and women,” “reuniting with nature,” “creating an economy modeled on biology” and “influencing people by helping them rather than bombing them.” His book offers few specifics on how these ends might be accomplished in the real world.

So are we drifting along in a pre-fascist state? Has our democratic system really fallen under the control of corporate America? Hartmann’s take obviously starts and stays (far) to the left of center, and we’ll just have to stay tuned and see whether future events support the dire view he and Hedges have of America’s political direction. Meanwhile, I’ll be on the lookout for a persuasive book telling me how it isn’t exactly so, and why America can escape from the economic and ecological spectacle it has made itself.

Founded in late 2007 by philanthropist Sara Miller-McCune, Miller-McCune is a nonprofit print and online magazine harnessing hard data and breaking research to support journalism that focuses on finding solutions to social problems. Supported by a combination of grants and advertising, Miller-McCune rejects any overriding ideology, believing that the best answers can come from anywhere.

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