Has the U.S. Become a Country of Illiterates ?

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Words are the vehicles through which we, as humans, express thoughts. Without attention to the meaning of  words and the manner in which  which they are expressed, ur thoughts become unfocused and our ability to distinguish between that which is true and that which is untrue becomes unmoored.

When language is used imprecisely - or in a slovenly or cavalier  manner - the underlying quality of thought is similarly compromised. The link between language and thought is explored in George Orwell's profound novel, 1984. In that seminal book, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the  Ministry of Truth. His job is to help to create for the omnipresent tyranny which governs Oceana a new language, Newspeak. Newspeak is the ultimate language of control: Each year in the Ministry of Truth, thousands of words are  eliminated. In addition, antonyms are collapsed into synonyms. Hence,  "Freedom is slavery, "Ignorance is strength, "War is peace." 

As Orwell reminds us in the appendix to that novel, when one loses the capacity to use words correctly, one loses the capacity to think; when one loses the capacity to think,  the ability to rebel or to imagine alternatives to the status quo is irrevocably  extinguished. 

On an individual level, it is a sad fact that too many of American citizens lack the basic skills in reading, writing and comprehension to use language to communicate effectively or  coherently. Few can read a newspaper such as The New York Times with good  comprehension; fewer still read any newspapers or books at all. Hence, ungrammatical, vulgar and vernacular expressions are commonplace as the reliance upon often unverified and false  information conveyed by social media has exploded . Even Across the class divides, one detects a decline in literacy. Pervasive illiteracy among large segments of the American population has been widely documented, quantified and continues to be chronicled. 

By almost every indicator - whether measured by linguistic, scientific, historic, economic, geographic or legal literacy - Americans, as a people, fare  poorly. We have become a "sound-bite" culture. The consequence of this pervasive illiteracy is that many American citizens cannot distinguish between a fact and an opinion, or distinguish myth from reality. In addition, the illiteracy of the American population creates a docile and easily manipulated public. At the  political level, the inability to understand and to use language properly has created a vacuum into which slogans and cant have become substitutes for serious public discussion or analysis of issues.

The misuse of words impairs our ability to reason and to understand social reality. The deceptive or imprecise use of words denotes fallacious or imprecise thinking. Sometimes, when words are used as epithets for the purposes of ad hominem attacks, the intent of the author of the words is to elicit  an emotional reaction and to thus foreclose the possibility of serious reflection or consideration by appealing to the listener's prejudices. Thus, during the past six decades go cite one example,  the words "liberal," "government" and a panoply of related synonyms such as "tax and spend," "death tax" and "government mandates"  have been used by various right-wing politicians and media outlets to convey something sinister, while slogans such as "free enterprise," "individual rights" and the  "American way" have been invoked to convey something wonderful and patriotic. 
The calculated use of these words has been to persuade citizens to acquiesce to the roll-back of government regulation and programs in the public interest, and to thwart efforts to regulate heretofore unregulated entities such as hedge funds, financial instruments such as collateralized securities and debt obligations. Since Supreme Court's ill-fated 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010),  "dark money" has inundated our political system at all levels and turned American politics into little more than a Moroccan bazaar controlled by the highest bidders and the wealthiest donors.   

By 2008, under the political cover provided by this linguistic subterfuge, the unrestrained pursuit of self-aggrandizement precipitated a severe and prolonged fiscal crisis in the United States and throughout the world. By 2016, that same flawed process enabled an unabashed prevaricator, misogynist and barely literate sociopath to become President of the United States.

Because so many Americans are unable to describe with any kind of precision scientific, economic or political concepts, the range of  discourse and the limits of what it is possible for us to achieve collectively - as a society - has become pathologically narrowed. What are essentially "food- fights" among competing interests are accorded a gravitas far in excess of their due. At the same time, what is accepted as  conventional wisdom is designed to protect the status-quo on behalf of the 1% while impoverishing the rest of us. The relentless repetition of emotionally-charged and hysterical  arguments that continually warn of government over-reach by the Republican "noise machine" has become a form of "group-think" that  animates our anxieties, wards off meaningful debate or careful reflection, and vitiates our ability to  to entertain or imagine alternative solutions to existing social or political problems. 

We have become a politically passive and increasingly illiterate society. Unless we can overcome - quickly - our increasing, dismal state of ignorance, the prognosis for all of us and our descendants is not hopeful. 

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