Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Slow Death of Print-Culture

In a recent episode of NBC’s 30 Rock, Tina Fey and the cast are forced to rethink their career options when the fictitious “TGS” TV show is forced into “indefinite hiatus” due to the extended absence of Tracey Morgan’s character. This prompts Fey’s Liz Lemon to seek out new writing opportunities, only to realize what few “employable” skills she actually possesses. “I have a degree in Theater Tech with a minor in Movement,” she laments. “Why did my parents let me do that?”

Furthermore, she becomes concerned society no longer values the work writers like her do. “Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds and poking each other on Facebook,” screenwriter guest-star Aaron Sorkin says.

While the episode is played for laughs, Fey’s observations on the diminishing value of writers in contemporary society strike at something very near and dear to your humble blogger. Not only does society no longer value writing as an art, but the loss of print culture threatens the intellectual health of our nation.

There is the decline in reading as a leisure activity, for one thing.

According to statistics from the National Institute for Literacy and the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book in 2007. Forty-two percent of college graduates do not read another book (for pleasure or otherwise) after college, nor do one-third of high-school graduates.

Newspapers and print-based magazines have not fared any better in recent years. The average reader spends about 45 minutes with a print copy of The New York Times. (And about seven minutes on the Times’ website, so don’t try to tell me people are obtaining all their news online.) Contrast these disheartening statistics with the two hours a day Americans 15-24 spend watching television, and the close to eight hours a day they spend online, according to a 2007 story by CBS.

Indeed, I have noticed a disturbing new trend when I frequent my local library. I see many young patrons, but they are almost exclusively relegated to the computer station, while only the elderly and middle-aged peruse the book shelves.

Those who choose not to read (or are incapable of doing so; 30 million people cannot read a simple sentence) have effectively cut themselves off from high-culture. They are left ignorant of history and current events, local and national politics, and the great works of fiction and literature that have, for centuries, enriched and given greater meaning to our lives.

Their lack of reading denies them the means of self-reflection, and the ability to think critically and independently. They flock, instead to visually-oriented mediums like TV and the Internet, that promote a sort of hive-mind mentality, and quick browsing as opposed to in-depth reading.

Most of all, I fear these young people will never experience the revelatory joy of having your life forever altered by a book. “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it,” Henry David Thoreau states in Walden. “I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

This transition from a print-based society to an image-based one is proceeding rapidly, according to author and journalist, Chris Hedges. In his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, he observes:

“The illiterate, the 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 the credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clich├ęs and slogans. They are hostage to the constant jingle and manipulation of a consumer culture.”

A nationwide decline in literary habits inevitably leads to a population that receives all its news and information from deceptive, right-wing propagandists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

To this day, many Americans erroneously believe U.S. soldiers discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A growing majority do not believe global-warming is a reality, despite the mounting scientific consensus otherwise. And conservatives continue to blame public workers and teachers for the national deficit, despite recent reports that major corporations like General Electric do not pay any income taxes.

I am certainly not suggesting one should believe everything printed in corporate newspapers, either.

But those who do not read are more prone to the spin of faux journalists who often promote corporatist agendas, and do not back up their claims with facts or references. Given the homogenous nature of the corporate television media, non-readers often have nowhere else to seek out an alternative viewpoint on a given issue, or become aware of facts that CBS or NBC have omitted.

But then, I am not entirely sure who I am trying to convince here, since I am pretty certain nobody reads this blog. Which, ironically, also proves my point.

At one point during the aforementioned 30 Rock episode, Liz observes a child pointing at a newspaper dispensary box and asking her mother, “What is that?” Sitting in my small apartment, surrounded by my aging, dog-eared collection of books, I found the scene more heartbreaking than hilarious.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Businesses to LePage: "Tear Down This Painting!"

I have intentionally avoided writing about Republican Governor Paul LePage in this blog for two practical reasons.

First off, I am aware there are countless other bloggers in Maine focused almost exclusively on LePage, and I do not want to appear redundant. The Portland Phoenix, for example, has spent nearly every issue since LePage’s election commenting on his every move.

And second, I hate writing about Paul LePage for the simple fact it completely bums me out the man is actually our governor. LePage makes me genuinely embarrassed for my state.

Alas, recent events in Augusta have forced me to cave. Gov. LePage’s decision to tear down the now infamous worker mural in the Labor Department deserves Guerrilla Press’s attention. So here we go.

As of this writing the mural has been removed from the Labor Department’s walls despite the protests of Maine labor activists and artists on Friday. The removal came as a swift surprise. According to a story in the Portland Press Herald, LePage staffers will not disclose the mural’s current location. Initial speculation that the mural may be relocated to Portland City Hall has been dampened, as many of the Council members now express opposition to the move. The Council has delayed vote on the issue “indefinitely” according to the story.

(On Friday, when a local TV news network asked LePage how he would respond to protesters’ threats to literally block officials from removing the mural his response was typically juvenile: “I’d laugh at them, the idiots. That’s what I’d do. Come on! Get over yourselves!”)

On the face of it, it is easy to see how the mural controversy may seem like much ado about nothing. “It’s just a painting,” you may be thinking.

But the issue is about more than the painting itself. It is the piece of history the painting depicts. The mural is a celebration of the rich and involved history of organized labor groups and unions in the state of Maine—and how those groups have impacted the plight of working people here for the better.

However, it seems LePage and the big business interests he is loyal to would rather Maine residents remain ignorant of that history. In their view, workers should have no labor protections, union representation or any worker rights whatsoever.

As it is, many Americans are quite ignorant of the pivotal role labor unions played in shaping this nation. After the stock market crash of 1929, there arose a general consensus that free-market, laissez-fare capitalism had failed the country. Many Americans began to seriously consider socialism as not only a viable alternative to capitalism, but a far more desirable one.

It was during this time the railroad workers went on strike, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions. Socialist leaders like Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair rose to the forefront of American politics, with Debs running for president under the Socialist ticket five times—once from prison, after he was arrested under the Espionage Act for publicly denouncing World War I.

But try quizzing your parents or neighbor about the historical significance of people like Debs, Sinclair, Emma Goldman or Helen Keller (beyond the “Miracle Worker” story that is). They have likely never heard of these individuals. That is because the entire history of socialism and the labor movement has been mostly erased from history. Students learn about the Great Depression in high school history class, sure. But I learned about Debs largely through my own interest and independent study. (The late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States gave me a fuller, far more complete understanding of American history than any class I ever attended in high school, college or graduate school.)

Whether or not it was his intent, LePage’s dismounting of the Labor Department mural is another step in this process of historical sanitation and corporate revisionism. Simply put, Big Business does not want Maine citizens to know the power of labor unions in helping organize and advocate for working people, because that power represents a threat to them.

One more note on this issue. Gov. LePage claims he removed the mural because it is “biased” against businesses and employers. (This, despite the fact the painting is located in the Labor Department—not the Chamber of Commerce.) “You cannot have workers without employers,” he tried to justify his decision in a recent news piece.

If the issue here is really about “balance,” and making the business leaders that frequent the Maine Labor Department feel “welcome,” why not simply add a business-oriented painting or picture of some sort elsewhere in the building (perhaps even directly beside, or across from the mural)? I have no idea what such a picture would look like (depict a corporate logo, perhaps?), but that is beside the point. You do not strike a “balance” by removing one aspect of history and replacing it with another. (LePage claims the mural will be replaced by a “neutral” picture, but this remains to be seen.)

Even LePage’s justification for removing the mural does not make logical sense. But then, very little our new governor says or does make any sense to rational, thinking people. Which is precisely why I do my best to avoid writing about the man. I have a headache now just thinking about it.