UNINTELLIGENT BY DESIGN: Cruel Rhetoric Continues Unabated, But Literacy…?

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”

Put another way:

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
—Groucho Marx

As most anybody knows, Sarah Palin was accused by some of having encouraged the tragic shooting in Arizona via her comments: evidently she twittered, Don’t retreat, RELOAD!, and on her website she had ‘crosshairs’ on a map put over certain districts across the country where she disagreed with politicians from that area. Included in the ‘crosshairs’ was the political district of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who, along with several other heart-breakingly unfortunate people, was tragically gunned down in Tucson on January 8, 2011. Shot in the head, Gifford remains miraculously alive and recovering, on what her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, calls a “rough road ahead.”

Months before the shooting, Giffords spoke presciently about the dangers in office and threats in her area, particularly over her support for the Health Care Bill. As all who have followed the tragedy know, before the shooting, she also mentioned the Sarah Palin ‘cross-hairs’:

“We need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and—you know, even, for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But, the thing is that, the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”


The truth is, and this tragedy notwithstanding, volatile rhetoric in the US is not even mildly new historically (nor, in the US, are striking per capita death rates by shooting). Sarah Palin said as much in her post-shooting statement, in which she was clearly careful to not mention her use of ‘cross-hairs’ targeting certain politicians.

Palin said:

There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those “calm days” when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?

Whatever its political intention, this statement is not inaccurate. I mentioned this historicity of spiteful rhetoric a while ago, and showed some examples via a startling yet funny youtube piece. And the “dueling pistols” Palin mentions may be referring to the jaw-dropping historical moment when Alexander Hamilton was shot and killed in a mutually agreed upon duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 (and we think MMA is brutal).

Hamilton is generally considered Thomas Jefferson’s opposition or counterpoint amongst Founding Fathers, and has been on many a stamp, and his face graces the rapidly devaluing American ten dollar bill.

Speaking of Jefferson and high-octane attacks, his ‘propaganda team’ called US President John Adams, for example:

“….[a] hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

No offence to hermaphrodites, but that is meant to be insulting. Vitriol, 1800s style. And I mean early 1800s. Maybe even very late 1700s.

And let’s be honest, the Internet has provided a magnificent new forum for truly democratized verbal violence and cruelty, which simultaneously makes us believe we are proudly exercising free speech. We may be, but we’re certainly not maximizing free speech’s potential**.


So if political rhetoric has always been polarized and aggressive, has anything changed (other than female emancipation, the end of slavery, rock ‘n roll and high-speed internet)? I’ve been reading Chris Hedges’ intense yet depressing book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, and it turns out an analysis of certain presidential scripts by the Princeton Review perhaps offers a clue:

[Back in the late 1850s, pre-Civil War] In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas addressed the crowd using a vocabulary suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon debate [1960], the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the 2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high seventh-grade level (7.6).

In short, over the last 150 years, according to this small sample, we may be stupider. Whether its the chicken or the egg first, or whether it relates to an ever-expanding constituency (getting the vote was tough to come by 200 years yore), political candidates have dumbed down their presidential rhetoric considerably.

What does this mean in light of present day madness? I can’t say for sure, but we may just be devolving from something much worse than a “….hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman…”. We may, as a whole, be all that and illiterate. To simplify, given the demands of the modern world, we is stupider.

We’re being talked down to! Who would’ve thunk? And we’ve not been able to demand, collectively, something more like detail, clarity and insight. This is disconcerting. I say, toss around insults all you want, but do it with some panache! Is that the word?

Hedges did say that the Obama speeches may have pushed up the discourse a grade or so—so we’re finally in high school again. And they say you can never go back again. Just listen to the Presidential debates or the evening news, and you’ll have an outbreak of acne and anxiety. Hey, I still get that.

So what about the level of our political discourse? Well, the fact is, according to Hedges (pg 44):

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic…Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate—a figure that is growing by more than two million a year.

How that works, I don’t know, but could it have something to do with immigration? Hedges continues:

A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates.

That is depressing. I would be lost without reading, not to mention illiterate. And finally:

And it is not much better beyond our borders. Canada has an illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the whole, a proportion that mirrors that of the United States.

There you have it. Forgive my own grammatical indiscretions, not to mention my countless typos and just the general disease of being a dough-head.

My friends, take back your intellectual district. Intellectual self-defense is up to you. On the other hand, there may be something good on TV tonight, so screw it.

And in all honesty, remember this: this political bandwidth of rhetoric, and politics in general—although they seem to smother and control our entire lives, delivered via the mainstream press and made sacred by the manipulation of the word democracy—they are actually a tiny section of a deeper, more complete bandwidth that is actually our life. Sure, this political bandwidth wears suits and ties and increases pensions and so on, which makes it look bigger and smarter than it is, but in so many integral ways this bandwidth lacks real understanding of being a person. It lacks tenderness, mystery, long-term thinking, depth of character, honesty, integrity and authenticity.

All I can say is we are so much more than this bandwidth. So change the station a little more often. Think more, read more—we are and can be more discerning, more brilliant, than we even imagine. And may violence decrease, and clear, non-manipulative communication increase, and may Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery continue* (and all others shattered by this madness).

Love more,

Pete x

* I just got word in a comment that Gabrielle Giffords has been talking, asking for toast. It sounds strange, but my dad would do the same thing, with butter and marmalade. What the body can endure.

**I hasten to add the Internet is also mind-boggling with stunning potential for freedom, as an information and ideas source, and the sharing of said ideas.


2 Responses to “UNINTELLIGENT BY DESIGN: Cruel Rhetoric Continues Unabated, But Literacy…?”

  1. Karen says:

    Personally, I believe reading is part a modeled behavior we can learn anytime from anyone, and a drive we all have that has to be kindled in us. It also goes back to what I said about showing our children how to learn. They have to see us doing it. Don’t offer broccoli and leave yours on your plate.

    I believe illiteracy is increasing so quickly in North America because immigrants are included in the stats. That aside, the majority of students accepted to college have to take remedial English and Math courses (don’t count toward credits, but still cost $$$). We push students to pass standardized test, but they still can’t read at the level necessary to start college. Just a little scary?

    Did you know there’s a term for a person who uses rhetoric, via the mass media, knowing it could incite violence on the part of “lone wolves,” then denying any responsibility for that violence? The term is “stochastic terrorist.” Can you think of any? I can.

    The Hamilton/Burr duel, if memory serves, had to do with some heavy personal issues between the men, aside from political. Also, the site for the Hamilton/Burr duel was the bottom of the Palisades cliffs on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, in Weehawken, right on the river. It was then, and still is, a very narrow strip of relatively flat surface at the water’s edge. As I understand it, both men had intended to purposely miss; however, Burr’s shot ricocheted off the wall of the cliff and hit Hamilton. If I can find the books, I’ll send you the citations.

    The situation behind the Jefferson/Adams verbal attacks occurred during the Presidential election in which they ran against each other. Adams and Jefferson had been close friends despite not always agreeing politically, but tension had been building. Adams was less shocked by the content (US Founding Fathers would make the toughest politician today run in tears from the Senate!), then the fact that Jefferson allowed it to be disseminated in such large amounts. After the election, Adams left Washington, DC, and the men didn’t communicate for years until, after Abigail Adams’ contacted Jefferson I believe, they reached out to each other. They communicated quite often after that until they both died on July 4, 1826, hours apart, on the 50th Anniversary of American Independence. (Kinda spooky, huh?)

    By the way, I read today that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is able to speak again. So miraculous!

    Love to you and those you love,

  2. Fantastic additions, Miss Karen. I think I read that about the 50th anniversary for both, somewhere, sometime. Wild. I’m not sure, but I thought with Hamilton, he never fired, because he felt it was un-Christian-like or some such crazy thing. Dude, if you’re not going to fire, cancel the duel! I should check ol’ wiki to find out the ‘real truth,’ but I love the sudden spreading of rumours of a 207 year old duel, too.

    You rock! By the way, stochastic terrorist. Who would have thought there was a word for it? Then again, who would’ve thought there wasn’t?

    Pete x

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