The Other Side of the Miracle of Literacy

Like many miracles in human life, there is a downside, the terrible uses the marvelous razor sharp tool of the reading/writing mind can be put to.   For every expression of our highest values as humans there seems to be a dozen expressions of our lowest impulses.

The power of words, like the power of all other human things, has been harnessed to advance every hideous idea that has ever run wild in the world, giddily spilling rivers of blood.   You can’t have a war without the right words uttered, repeated, written, read, passed around.   “A modern-day Hitler” is usually good enough to send forces off to kill.

Back in Hitler’s day I wonder what handy, rousing image they used, back when Hitler himself was the modern-day Hitler, much of his monstrousness largely unknown until after he’d already declared Germany too weak to be allowed to live, after he’d tried to kill everyone else there, finally murdering his new wife, his dog and himself.

When history is written, both of these impulses, our best nature and our worst, are fighting it out, in the text, in the margins, in criticism by readers.  Events unfold as everyone sees them unfolding, the art that people are paid untold fortunes to create shapes how we come to see and remember these things.   Who are you going to believe, darling, me or your lying eyes?

A generation after the Civil War the wealthy daughters of the former slave owners were sick of being unfairly blamed for the bloodiest war in American history.   Intellectuals were recruited to paint a more flattering portrait of their daddies.  In the new history (one that would prevail for generations) the Ku Klux Klan was no longer a vicious terrorist group, fueled by hatred, it was an organization of high-minded modern day knights, fighting monsters for the purity of an imagined white womanhood.

For our purposes (for mine, really) the most hideous repurposing of the miracle of reading and writing is propaganda, political and commercial.   A genius nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, came to America to become a pioneer of manipulating masses of people to buy, products and ideas both.   His great insight was simple:  you sell an idea, and when people buy it you can get them to do whatever you want.  

This is sometimes called Public Relations and Bernays has been called the Father of Public Relations.  You skillfully relate to the public to get what you want out of them, whether it’s money, acquiescence or a willingness to do unthinkable evil in the name of an idea skillfully implanted in their pliable, manipulable heads.

Build the wall!  Lock her up!   Four more years! USA! USA!!!  Lock her up!   shut her up! Fuck her up!  USA!   USA!!!   Block that kick!  Block that kick!   USA!  USA!!!   Bash their skulls! Smash their faces!  Lock them up!    USA!   USA!!!

The miracle of the chanted word, yo.


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