Friday, December 11, 2009

Knowledge is Power

One of the many intriguing observations Carl Sagan makes in his bestselling 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is that slaves in the pre-Civil War United States of America were not permitted to learn to read. This in itself is not exactly a revelation—I imagine that it’s more or less common knowledge—but how Sagan relates this fact to modern-day America, where most of us were told from a very young age that knowledge is power, is keenly insightful and more than a little disconcerting. As Sagan put it, quoting Frederick Douglass along the way, this
was a most revealing rule: Slaves were to remain illiterate. In the Antebellum South, whites who taught a slave to read were severely punished. “[To] make a contented slave,” [Douglass] wrote, “it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.” This is why slaveholders must control what slaves hear and see and think. This is why reason and critical thinking are dangerous, indeed subversive, in an unjust society.

Now, it’s probably fair to say that being fined or whipped—or even both—isn’t as harsh a penalty as being, say, sent to prison or killed (or both), but it’s also fair to say that these punishments are exceedingly vicious given that they were meted out for teaching someone to read, an activity so contemptibly familiar that distressingly large numbers of unashamed Americans don’t even bother with it anymore.

According to a poll released in 2007 by Associated Press–Ipsos, 27% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2006. Now, reading at a pace of a single page per day would be enough to get through an average-length book in a year. That’s less than five hundred words a day—maybe five minutes’ worth of work for a slow reader—but roughly 80 million Americans either couldn’t do that or didn’t bother to try.1

Granted, this statistic applies only to book-reading, so it’s very possible that some or all of those 80 million people read something else over the course of 2006. American readers have thousands of magazines to choose from and at least five or six surviving newspapers to read, not to mention millions of street signs, cereal boxes, and insightful billboards.

And some of this decline in book-reading could be attributed to the Internet, where the staggering volume of free and easily accessible reading material at least somewhat compensates, one could argue, for its dubious relevance, quality, or sanity. But be honest: do you really think that folks who don’t read books (or magazines, newspapers, or cereal boxes) go online to find reading material?

Neither do I.2

And granted, that AP-Ipsos poll is from three years ago; it’s possible that since 2006, some of those millions of non-readers have turned things around. Given how easy it is (or, at least, should be) to go from reading zero books a year to reading one—by my math, a net increase of just one book—a measurable improvement here should be a piece of cake. But it seems at least likely that reading in the United States of America—much like common sense, common courtesy, the 33⅓ RPM record, the barbershop quartet, and the leprechaun—runs the risk of continuing to dwindle into insignificance. That’s dangerous, Sagan tells us, and while he’s focusing mainly on scientific literacy in The Demon-Haunted World—rather just on literacy in general—I’m inclined to agree with him.

An illiterate society is an ignorant one; an ignorant society is an illogical and superstitious one, easily swayed by hucksters, tricksters, charlatans, demagogues, and dictators. Knowledge really is power, and ignorance is slavery.

In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan draws connecting lines between laughable (and sometimes horrible), obvious superstitions of our past to their surviving descendents, the superstitions and pseudoscience of today. As he sees it, Dark Ages humanity’s belief in demons (specifically succubi and incubi),3 astrology, and witch-burnings don’t differ significantly from modern humanity’s fixations on the “face” on Mars, alien abductions, astrology (still alive and kicking, for some reason), the healing powers of crystals and magnetism, the Bible Code,4 Ouija boards, the “lost continents” of Atlantis and Lemuria,5 and pretty much every word ever printed in the Weekly World News.

There are plenty of ways to have your mind taken away from you—you could trash it with drugs and alcohol; you could be struck by an anvil or a falling piano, Tom and Jerry–style; you could, like Phineas Gage, have a giant metal rod explode through your skull; you could have your head ripped off by bloodthirsty Care Bears.6 But don’t just give it away for nothing. Our abilities to learn and to reason are what makes us human—that and some crazy genetic bullshit I won’t even try to understand7—don’t let ’em take them from you without a fight.

1. Some time ago—probably right around the time the AP-Ipsos poll came out, in fact—I had a brief conversation with a woman who claimed, without embarrassment, to have read only five books in her lifetime. She was probably in her early thirties, and had had to read a couple of the books for school—two books in (presumably) twenty-four semesters being not a particularly bruising pace—and one of the other three on her list was a book on the Atkins Diet. Call me picky, but I don’t think that counts.
2. To be fair, I suspect that readers and non-readers alike go online for roughly the same things: a. porn, b. shopping, c. porn shopping, d. fantasy football, e. porn . . . x. to settle bets, y. to check e-mail, and finally z. for insightful reading material.
3. Sagan makes a very convincing connection between the Dark Ages’ succubi and incubi (horny little demons who, although their existence was commonly accepted, went completely undetected by anybody except the humans they seduced in the night) and today’s alien abductors (horny little bald aliens who probe their victims quite thoroughly and rudely). These aliens have apparently mastered space, time, travel across impossible distances, and the ability to slip silently and undetected from the exosphere through skies blanketed by radar by a watchful military, all the way down through solid walls and into your bedroom . . . and they're sex-obsessed but haven’t the faintest clue what’s going on with human biology. If it's generally (of not universally) accepted nowadays that these demons were mere myths, why are we any more willing to give credence to their little grey-skinned descendants?
4. Sagan doesn’t mention the Bible Code in The Demon-Haunted World; that addition is mine. I hope sooner or later to share my thoughts on the subject, once I figure out more or less what they are.
5. Think Atlantis, but in the Indian Ocean. Or possibly the Pacific. An old roommate of mine once told me, at great length, about the “serious” book he was reading about the search for Atlantis. I still don’t know whether to cringe at the subject matter and at how ready he was to believe it, or just be happy that he was reading.
6. Don’t even try to tell me you don’t think this could happen.
7. I’m using irony here. Get it?


  1. Wait...what? are you kidding me? let me re-read all this again... Is it me or is Fredrick Douglass describing Fox News? hhhmmmm would you say ultimate freedom is ultimate slavery?

  2. Flyjake - if what you mean by "ultimate freedom" is "illiteracy", then I think that's exactly what Some Guy said. Illiteracy is slavery. And I am the complete opposite of a fan of the mainstream media - but how does Fox News fit in here?

  3. Squid Bandit - thank you for your comment and question. what I mean is that if one has ultimate freedom then they are free to chose to do ANYTHING they want. In doing so they are enslaved with too many choices and end up in the basement smoking pot and playing Xbox and doing nothing. - no offense Bowling guy.

    As for Fox and F.D. - the way I see it, is that Fox News tends to just show one side of the story (not unlike all the other media outlets) and then tell the people what to think with Beck and ORelly's 'opinion' shows. All the while hitting the Rep. bullet points over and over again. Taking away the burden of thinking and reason. Just like what F.D. and Sagan said about slaves.

  4. Check this out! - - no more books for Laredo Texas. Sad, however lets hope this will spur people (in Laredo) to pick up a book, or two.

  5. Jake: I don't think that ultimate freedom = ultimate slavery. Being stuck in the basement smoking pot, playing Xbox, and doing nothing isn't a consequence of having too much freedom, but rather a consequence of not making good choices about what to do with that freedom. I think that an ingredient of true freedom is having the willpower/mental muscle (acquired, in part, through literacy) to make the most of one's freedom.

    While I don't pretend to be a fan of Fox News (I avoid TV news in general, not as a rule but simply because I have better ways to waste time), I don't really think they're fundamentally any different from other news sources. Only their perspective differs. That's not to say they're not a source of ignorance . . . but I think my problem with what you're saying is that you seem to be specifically equating the "Republican bullet points" with ignorance/slavery, rather than blaming news media as a whole. And while I'm certainly no Republican, I'd have to disagree with you there.

    And is a month too long to wait to post replies to comments? I'm guessing it is!

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