The dumbing down of our culture continues apace, and there seems to be little hope of turning things around in the near future. A generation that knows far more about the latest moves of the Kardashians than who is the current President or Prime Minister is in pretty poor shape – and one easily manipulated by mischievous leaders.
Keeping a people ignorant, dumb, uninformed, historically illiterate and intellectually deprived while allowing them to be steeped in pop culture, MTV, easily accessible porn, and all things trivial and meaningless is a great way to control them.
When the masses succumb to intellectual constipation, then the job of any dictator or tyrant is made very easy indeed. No wonder keeping the masses sedated on bread and circuses worked so well in Roman times. A dumbed down populace is an easily controlled populace. Just think of the close connection between tyranny and book burning.
And the postmodern West has only made all this much worse. By delighting in images over content, we are getting even further dumbed down, and even easier to be led like senseless sheep. Over a decade ago Arthur Hunt penned an important volume on all this called The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway, 2003).
In it he lamented the fact that in the West we have a real decline in reading and a vanishing book culture, coupled with a rise of vacuous imagery and entertainment. This is a major threat to both freedom and to biblical Christianity. Indeed, the Christian faith is primarily a word-based religion.
Hunt warns that we are “entering a high-tech version of the Dark Ages.” Says Hunt:
The devaluation of the word and its hostile supplanting by the image is a direct assault upon “the religion of the Book.” In accordance to this thought, we are all in danger of becoming pagans. Not just pagans, but mindless and defenseless pagans who would prefer to have someone tell us how to think and behave. The possibility of tyranny still exists for us today because we have lost the biblical and mental defenses to arm ourselves against demagoguery. Our children are not being equipped to spot counterfeit leaders who would lead us astray with an overabundance of pathos. Kenneth Burke told us that one reason we should study Hitler is to “discover what kind of medicine this mad-man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America.”
I want to show in the following pages how Tomorrowland has the potential to become a total triumph for idolatry. Paganism never really died in modern western culture; it was only restrained. American Protestantism effectively suppressed many pagan forms up until the twentieth century; but the advent of image-based media has brought forth a revitalization of the pagan gods in popular culture. Sex, violence, and celebrity, which are so pervasive in the media, conform to a pagan ideal. Ignoring history’s warnings of technology’s tendency to change us, we have blindly boarded a glitzy train with a one-way ticket to Digit City. Like Pinocchio, we are being hoodwinked into making a journey to Pleasure Island, and we could, quite possibly, share the same fate as those laughing donkeys.
I write all this in part because of some recent research on the reading habits of Americans. It is somewhat sombre news, depending on what is being highlighted. The findings are one of those instances of a glass being half full or half empty. For example the researchers give it a more or less positive spin as they discuss their findings:
A Pew Research Center survey finds that the share of Americans who have read a book in the last 12 months (73%) has remained largely unchanged since 2012. And when people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product. Fully 65% of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28%) and more than four times the share that has consumed book content via audio book (14%)….
Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months. Each of these figures is largely unchanged since 2011, when Pew Research Center first began conducting surveys of Americans’ book reading habits.
Another take on the numbers may be less encouraging. Eric Metaxas looks at the research in a more negative light. He emphasises the worrying fact that 27% of Americans NEVER read a book in any form in the past year. Yes that is indeed a matter of concern. He begins his new article on this as follows:
So, what are you reading these days? Actually, let me back up. Are you reading these days? In the developed world literacy is higher than it’s been at almost any time in history. And that is something to celebrate. But is it possible that even in our high-tech society where so much communication depends on the written word, we may be slipping back into a kind of pre-literacy?
New data from a Pew Research study has me wondering. It turns out that more than a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single book this year, in any form. And get this: One in three American men have not read one book in the last twelve months. And those with low incomes and no college education were even less likely to do so.
So what is going on here? We spend more time than ever reading texts, social media, and email—so why wouldn’t we be reading books, too? Well, a recent survey by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span is now a vanishingly brief eight seconds, down from twelve seconds in the year 2000. As the New York Times memorably put it, we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish.
When it comes to reading anything longer than a 140-character tweet, our ability to concentrate has plummeted. Be honest, now: How difficult is it for you to get through a half-hour Bible study without succumbing to the urge to check Facebook? It’s gotten so bad that Cal Newport proposed last month in the Times that fellow millennials take a radical step to save their careers: and quit social media.
Services like Facebook and Twitter weaken our ability to concentrate, he writes, because they’re “engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media throughout your waking hours, the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.”
Now, I don’t think quitting social media is the answer for most people, but Newport has a point. Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg is also right to compare our virtual world of constantly-updated snippets with pre-literate cultures where information was transmitted orally. In a society without writing or books, he explains, ideas had to be short, pithy, and memorable—in other words, “viral.”
The written word and books changed all of that. They allowed people to move beyond the immediate and concrete to express more timeless, complicated, and abstract thoughts. A literate people can reason and debate with one another across the ages. And that knowledge doesn’t die with individuals, or change with the telling. In books, knowledge becomes practically immortal.
Which is why it’s disheartening to hear that so many Americans today—especially men—are ignoring these treasures.
As professor Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.” It makes us not only more gullible but, as the recent consternation over “fake news” on both sides of the political aisle attests—easier to manipulate.
Yes quite so. A dumbed down, illiterate and entertainment-mad culture is one that can be so very easily controlled, manipulated and managed by a handful of clever despots. No wonder this dumbing down process is being so keenly encouraged and promoted.
Dumbed down masses easily become servile masses. Freedom however is much harder to take away from a people if they are well-read, historically aware, and consciously literate. So strike a blow against tyranny today: go out and buy a book and read it.
You will be glad you did.