Sunday, July 12, 2009

Methland, The Dumbest Generation, Empire of Illusion

Methland by Nick Reding,(Bloomsbury 2009) which was saved from possible oblivion by a front page article in last week's Sunday NYT Book review, is a terrific piece of journalism that tells two stories- the decay of a small town, Oelwein Iowa, killed by big agriculture, and globalism and whose residents turned to methampetamine to stay up all day working or escaping from road-kill reality,and viewed through the lenses of its doctor, prosecutor, and chief of police as well as some of its meth lab operators. It's a brilliant synthesis of investigative journalism and a nuanced portrayal of American life as more and more communities start to resemble developing nations and not the prosperous middle-class America we grew up with. A page-turning read as well.

The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein,Tarcher pb$15.95) and Empire of Illusions, by Pulitzer-Prize winner Chris Hedges(just out from Nation Books ($24.95)both treat of the triumph of spectacle and the decline of literacy in America.
Dumbest Generation uses multiple federal and state studies to prove that the advance in computer intelligence, and spatial understanding of our youth has been accompanied by an appalling decline in their respective reading and writing skills, as well as civic education,visits to museums etc.The author calls for a return to the traditional values, liberal arts education and more emphasis on learning. Yes, there are too many choices,'tis true, too much infotainment,and useless screen time, but the answer remains clouded- Turning in the last chapter to the Daniel Bells and Irving Kristols of the world, whose sorry propping up of a failed establishment in the late 60's ,funded by the same defense research that overwhelms universities today, is not the solution either. Maybe no one has the answer.

Empire of Illusions,whose author wrote the polemic War is a Force that Gives us meaning, and American Fascists( a book on the Christian radical right) examines the decline of literacy and the replacement by spectacle, the growth of violent porn, the decline of wisdom and replacement by elite business schools catering to a generation of money- hungry uneducated business school graduates and finally the decline of America, a subject covered by Chalmers Johnson and others equally well. It's an unrelenting course in misery, punctuated by the author's pleas for a love saves all solution at the end- Don't get me wrong- Hedges is right on target throughout this book and remains a great moral voice in the wildernesss of our lives. But it was hard springing up with joy in the morning after staying up at night to read its bitter truths.
Two passages stand out though- the comparison of Orwell's dystopian 1984 to Huxley's Brave new World. Orwell's was a society that relied on coercion and control, and Huxley's on a surfeiting of happy, irrelevant trivia to dope the populace.With the growth of mobile screen culture(we love it ok!) offering thousands of soporific alternatives to reading the morning newspapers, to the endless housewives and business commuters mindlessly playing sudoku we are truly, in the words Of George HW Bush, "in the deep doo-doo".Huxley, after all, was the visionary here.

The other passage contains a pungent quote from Andrew Lahde,a Santa Monica hedge fund manager,who made an 850 percent gain by betting on the subprime mortgage collapse,then abruptly shut his fund down in 2008 and took the profits before the crash. Said he ,in a farewell letter to investors:

"The low-hanging fruit,ie idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking" and speaking of the oligarchic class- he went on:
"These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received...rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government.All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy ended up only making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God Bless America."

Well. someone has to keep the Hopium flowing - who can that be?

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