Thursday, April 9, 2015

“Tell Me What you Read and I’ll Tell you Who You Are”

This is a famous quote, but most people don’t know that it was penned by a twentieth century French Catholic writer named Francois Mauriac, or that the famous century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger whose life span corresponds almost exactly to that of Mauriac said: Tell me how you read and I’ll tell you who you are.”  I don’t know whether this was an example of intellectual one-upmanship, but clearly, the act of reading was seen by both as fundamental to character formation.
While the US struggles with No Child Left Behind and mandatory testing, the evidence is mounting that this basic skill is not fostering curiosity, as shown by what Americans read, and how they read. The mainstream media has succeeded in its aspiration to severely limit American knowledge of other nations and peoples, thus leaving government and business free to interact with them solely in pursuit of their own interests. 
Having entered into a free on-line trial of the New York Times for a month, I received an e-mail inviting me to discover the ten most read stories of the week It was even more disheartening that what I had expected. 
During the week in which the US and five other major countries reached a historic deal over nuclear weapons with a country that has been ostracized for forty-five years, and during which yet another country in the Middle East descended into civil war, what were the most read articles published by ‘the newspaper of record’?
Admittedly, the list is based on its on-line readership, while most older readers still turn the pages over their morning coffee. On the other hand, on-line readers represent the generation that is about to inherit the most awesome responsibilities the world has ever known, so I think the list is worth pondering:
See the most emailed stories of the week

1. On Conquering Fear, David Brooks’ latest, centered on Moses and his nemesis, the Egyptian Pharaoh.

2. A review of a new mini series, Wolf Hall, set in the court of King Henry VIII

3. Review of ‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’

4. Stunning views of earth from space

5. A retired Japanese fighter pilot warns Japan against revising its constitution to enable it to wage war again.

6. Mad Men and its love affair with 60’s pop culture

7. As quakes rattle Oklahoma, fingers point to oil and gas industry

8. Bigotry, the Bible, and the Lessons of Indiana

9. The Conscience of a Corporation by Timothy Egan, about Hobby Lobby

10. Review of the Broadway show Skylight.

While Brooks’ piece may be a sly way of telling Netanyahu to get a grip, together with the story about the World War II Japanese pilot who favors pieace and the finger pointing to the oil and gas industry, only three out of ten most read stories address the multiple crises threatening survival on planet earth!

In a  vivid confirmation of Chris Hedges indictment of politics as spectacle, Times readers are blissfully unaware that we may be heading for nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine; none of them care that Boko Haram assassinated another 175 Christians in Kenya, that the Palestinian Authority formally joined the World Criminal Court, or even that California, which provides most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, has had to ration water in the state’s most severe drought ever, as global warming accelerates.

Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are, tell me how you read and I’ll tell you who you are.  Is on-line reading a kind of shorthand, adorned with colorful pictures that draw attention away from the real world, allowing readers to remain in a bubble that floats above it, ready to burst at any moment?

Of all the articles, columns, videos and 
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  1. As a history and politics professor to art university students, I find that, with rare exception, I am their only bridge to the urgent issue agenda you outline above, Deena. On the other hand, many of my students perk up over a 15-week semester, stay in touch longer-term, and return to my classroom for other course offerings. Regardless of whether I'm teaching Modern US, US and the World, Politics and the Media, Berlin Hot and Cold (1938-1949), etc., we take 20-30% of class time each week to discuss global hot spots, and then, work together to connect the dots and explore constructive steps for those so motivated. Frankly, too much focus on catastrophic concerns will cause students -- and NY Times readers -- to shut down. Just as important is to give people an avenue for action, accomplishment, and empowerment. Perhaps if the mainstream, corporate media played its pro-democracy role, and actually encouraged civic engagement -- beyond bowing before the ballot box once every 2 or 4 years -- people would be more able to absorb the otherwise mind-numbing and depressing "news" that only adds to their state of anxiety and sense of despair in our bait-and-switch society.

  2. It's heartening to know there is someone out there who does what needs to be done with students. I'm wondering whether you know of colleagues with similar offerings, and whether you get together to promote this appraoch.