November 12, 2008
One aspect of the recently concluded campaign for the White House that I found difficult were the character assassinations made by both President-elect Obama and Senator McCain. It is all too easy in today’s sound-bite driven world to generate something damning about another person using out-of-context quotes, or references to half truths. And it appears that we as a nation more readily respond to situation-comedy style zingers than anything with substance.
American’s are becoming steadily less literate and it shows in how we decide major issues. A recent study of campaign rhetoric found that the 1860 the Lincoln-Douglas debates were conducted at nearly a 12th grade level. The Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 were barely 8th grade level, and the last three election cycles have all been closer to 6th grade level. We are facing some tremendously complex issues involving science, religion, finance, economy, ethics, and cultural differences - and yet we can’t elect a president unless he or she can speak to us at a 6th grade level. From, America the Illiterate:
The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. During the 2000 debates, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6). In the 1992 debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while George H.W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did H. Ross Perot (6.3). In the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the candidates spoke in language used by 10th-graders. In the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas the scores were respectively 11.2 and 12.0. In short, today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. It is fitted to this level of comprehension because most Americans speak, think and are entertained at this level. This is why serious film and theater and other serious artistic expression, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of American society. Voltaire was the most famous man of the 18th century. Today the most famous “person” is Mickey Mouse.
All we have done in this election is to grant ourselves a chance at change. The Obama campaign made tremendous use of the Internet through Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and the campaign’s own web site. The President-Elect has created a website called change.gov which aims to introduce some level of transparency into the transition between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. We, as the citizens of this country, as members of this republic, owe it to ourselves to consume any and all communication from the Administration in power, and to demand more communication. I am pleased that the Obama Administration seems to be headed toward greater use of the Internet, bypassing traditional media outlets. I don’t want my information filtered through an organization that exists solely for “commercial consideration.”
Most news has become entertainment, “infotainment,” and as such has little value and even less meaning. I read several different news sites every day, comparing and contrasting stories to try and suss out the real story behind the agenda of the reporting agency. I read foreign and US sources, national and local, opinion and “factual” pieces, and I still feel like I am getting an incomplete picture. If the Obama administration follows through and delivers a dynamic, up-to-date information portal it will move me, and everyone else who utilizes it, one step closer to the source. Yes, I expect the White House to put their own spin on stores they “self report” on government web sites. However, with the White House version in hand I can then mine the news sites for their take and hopefully develop a more informed opinion of my own.
Television has made Americans passive. We want, expect, to be told what to think, how to dress, who to like, what to fear, and what to believe or distrust. Without a critical eye toward the source of those values, we are little better than automatons, blindly doing the will of others. That 80% of American households didn’t purchase a single book last year is a frightening. No, reading isn’t a panacea, it doesn’t guarantee that the reader will gain enlightenment. But it does exercise different parts of the mind than does passively getting your information after someone else has digested it for you and reduced it to a palatable pulp.
Finally, now that the election is over it is time for all of us who voted for a change to uphold our end of the contract we signed with America and with President-Elect Obama. We need to stop gloating and start giving. We need to stop asking and start doing. Electing a new president isn’t going to magically fix what ails this country. He cannot do it alone. We all need to be involved. Write to your Congressional representatives (you can find out who they are at Project VoteSmart) and tell them what you want, and what you don’t want, in this new administration. Participate in the public forums on change.gov. Exercise your citizenship. I know I will.