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Thu

17

Apr

2008

A Review of Eric Larsen’s "A Nation Gone Blind"
Thursday, 17 April 2008 05:33
by Sean M. Madden

A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit
By Eric Larsen
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006
ISBN: 1-59376-098-1
291 pp.; $16.00

Two years have passed since Eric Larsen’s A Nation Gone Blind was published — two long years during which time I, and doubtless many others, would have been less pained had I, we, known that another soul had penned these words of truth, nowadays so seldom heard. For it is truth which is central to Larsen’s book, his solitary search for it, and his well-wrought conclusion that the public at large and even our so-called intellectual classes — including writers, editors and academics (in the humanities no less) — are no longer able to think well due to a preponderance of feeling and zeal which has largely crowded out clear reasoning based on empirical evidence and logic.

Al Gore said as much, a year later, in The Assault on Reason. Like Larsen, Gore points out that the foot soldiers and carpet bombers of this assault are the mass media, especially the television broadcasters who have brought us — in their quest for maximized profits — not to our knees but onto our derrieres. In Gore’s words, “The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television,” which he goes on to report Americans watch “an average of four hours and thirty-five minutes every day,” or “almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time that the average American has.”

Yet ever the scripted statesman and corporate board member, Gore perpetuates in his treatise the platitudes which are, themselves, indicative of what Larsen refers to as the Age of Simplification:

It is too easy — and too partisan — to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us?

Need we ask? Need Gore have asked, as late as 2007? Of course they have failed us, utterly and miserably. But the more foundational question is whether we do, in fact, have a Congress, an independent judiciary, checks and balances, free speech or a free press, or whether “we are a nation of laws”?

At best, Gore’s platitudes are half-truths. At worst, they bespeak of the farce which Frederick Douglass decried in his July 5, 1852 speech in his hometown of Rochester, New York, after being invited to join his fellow townspeople in commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Like Douglass, Larsen has the chutzpah to resist politic bromides:

For the same reasons [that America's literary future looks grim], the social-political future is equally or more unpromising. The odds in favor of the United States remaining a free country are insufficient to encourage a bet on the prospect. Worse, the question as to whether we’re now a free country may be a mere technicality.

The author was born in 1941, the timing of which Larsen sees as fortuitous as he thereby caught a brief glimpse of the old America, when our representative democratic republic had yet to devolve into a national security state, a ruinous amalgamation of government, corporation and mass media which has programmatically de-educated erstwhile citizens, converting us in our blind passivity into mere consumers. “Each person,” he says, “must be transformed in such a way as not only to remain indolent in the face of leadership’s tyrannies and injustices, but also to adhere to his or her role as a cog, if you will, in the vast economic machine that keeps the whole state going.”

Therefore the mass media, television in particular but also radio and print media, must propagate “the Big Lie — the Umbrella Lie — [which] is that any half-truth the media gives us is in fact a whole truth.” Real-world complexity must be simplified and neutered of meaningful content so as not to scare off advertisers or, more fundamentally, to cause the public to question the corporate-state paradigm the overbearing existence of which is the missing and unspeakable other half of “the Big Lie.”

In other words, our nominal democracy relies upon we the people — its nominal citizens — not being given any information of significance which may cause us to think, or even to feel fully, to see and to feel reality as it truly and objectively is.

In the Brave New World which is the present-day United States, we must be transfigured, disfigured, into something less than human. “The ideal consumer could be identified as the person who never votes but always buys, who never thinks but always wants. This wanting should always be kept, insofar as possible, on the sensory, emotional, and voluptuary level: It must be, as with food or sex, a desire that results in its own gratification but awakens again as desire soon afterward.” As an American living in the UK, I would say — to the displeasure of Britons who by and large (blindly) consider themselves to be above the American fray — Larsen’s words hold as true here as well. Why wouldn’t they when the U.S. and the UK have long operated as conjoined twins?

A retired English professor, prize-winning novelist, and critic — and, I daresay, a philosopher — Larsen traces the advent of the Age of Simplification to 1947, the year, he points out, which heralded in the National Security Council. I hasten to add that the same National Security Act which established the NSC also and simultaneously created the CIA, the permanent and, by its nature, secretive and extralegal agency which serves not to protect our national security so much as it precludes the very possibility of any semblance of open, transparent democracy — that is to say democracy, period — whose people are secure from arbitrary lawlessness and tyranny, from without, yes, but more so from within. Further, the agency’s exploits abroad have a history of at-home blowback.

In follow-up to his discussion that television must not broadcast content of any “significance or importance” which “might trigger emotion or inspire thinking, thereby harming or endangering the sponsor’s interest by jeopardizing the continued acceptance of the half-truth as whole,” Larsen asks, rhetorically:

Would HBO, on the other hand, run a noncomic and nonfictional dramatic series about U.S. government figures or agencies assassinating foreign statesmen and American citizens, laundering money for corporate interests, importing drugs into the United States, or “allowing” catastrophes like 9/11 to occur, if only by not preventing them, for the purpose of reaping political benefit therefrom?

Clearly Larsen therein refers, in great part, to the CIA, which it is worth noting is but one of 16 member agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.

Like a philosopher of old before philosophy itself was shut up, split up and stifled within the academy, Larsen’s purview spans the whole of what it means to be human, and his sweep of subject matter exerts itself as an opposing force against the tendency to arbitrarily truncate, categorize and proscribe.

So while A Nation Gone Blind has been pigeonholed as a book on “Current Affairs & Politics,” it likewise abounds with words of wisdom concerning the arts of writing and thinking, the uses and abuses of language, and the key teaching of the literary arts and the arts generally. This teaching Larsen sees as the engaging, in equal measure, of the intellectual and the emotional (or thinking-feeling) self in an “art-experience” which enables us, as necessarily solitary beings, to be able to partake of the universal.

This thesis, as with the rest of the rich, layered tapestry which composes the whole of Larsen’s argument, is woven with great care — a complexity which may be mistaken by the blinded as insufficiently linear — until Larsen has shaped, molded and finely articulated four decades of thought during which time he led college classes in English language and literature, the literary arts, generally, as well as in the seminal texts of Western civilization. And it is clear that he has thought long and hard about the changes he witnessed in the classroom and in his colleagues during his teaching career.

In brief, Larsen’s less-senior colleagues — themselves educated, de-educated or anti-educated in the midst of the Age of Simplification — have been politicized. As Larsen is also political this, in itself, is not the problem. The problem arises when his colleagues in the humanities, generally, but in the literary arts and in English departments, in particular, forsake literature as art to, instead, push sociopolitical messages, or propaganda, by way of the books. Larsen acknowledges that this liberal-left “new professoriate” means well. But in the process of doggedly pursuing social and political justice, these teachers — many no doubt unwittingly, which amounts to another sign of their blindedness — are not educating, but indoctrinating students, not teaching them how to think, but what to think:

And this atrocity, believe it or not, this benighted ruination of all that undergraduate education ought to be, this example of simplification and almost perfect failure and of — I’ll say it, tyranny — comes about, in large part, from the desire to do good.

Yet, Larsen observes:

Instead, unbeknownst to themselves, they are actually laboring for their own worst enemy, the oppressive and not-to-be-trusted political-economic-corporate “government.” They are, in truth, actively helping to demean, subvert, and destroy what’s genuinely individual in people, and they are helping to replace it with the latest perfected model of the diminished, obedient, passive consumer. They are, from dawn to dusk, collaborating with the very enemy they think that they especially have the wisdom to defeat.

By this point the simplification-inflicted may have stopped reading this review in anger and disgust at having landed upon another right-wing rant concerning the great cultural divide. But they would be mistaken, and this would provide yet more evidence of their infliction, as Larsen — no Allan Bloom, politically — is himself “a left-leaning liberal” and, as we’ve seen, a vociferous critic of the corporate-state. To his credit, Larsen doesn’t divulge where he is on the left-right continuum until Page 244, as he rejects the notion that the entirety of one’s being must fit into one monolithic political package. He laments the loss of an age when T.S. Eliot could consider himself “an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics,” and adds:

Almost no one any longer believes, or is capable of believing, that the individual life can consist of or be made up simultaneously of different areas, elements, or categories; and that these elements can (or must) be governed by different rules or assumptions from one another; and, above all, that these different areas, however greatly different, can still be equal to one another in significance.

So goes the gist of Larsen’s indictment of his academic colleagues.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he is no less critical of a group of 15 prominent American writers who after 9/11 were invited, and paid, by the U.S. State Department to submit essays for an anthology to be issued abroad. As official propaganda, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibits domestic distribution of the anthology; however, it is available on the State Department’s website designed for foreign readers.

The essay question which the State Department assigned was, “In what sense do you see yourself as an American writer?”

Larsen’s critique of the essays composes the bulk of Part 1 of his three-part book. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that the writers — amongst them four Pulitzer Prize winners and two U.S. poet laureates, including the then-standing laureate, Billy Collins (Robert Pinsky’s the other) — fared poorly overall. Larsen assigned grades to the essays as he would to his students’ work. While the essays “were, by and large, just awful,” having just now named two of the writers, I must add that Larsen gave Collins an A+ and Pinsky a B-. Significantly, however, both of these writers were born before 1947.

Even to read Larsen’s criticism as a bystander is to undergo many a cringing moment. He is brutally honest as he dissects the essays. But as they were written by premier American writers to share with the world, to in effect serve as narrative-based American ambassadors — and were, presumably, the very best that each of these writers could produce on the topic of what it means to be an American writer — the essays and their authors are fair game for the criticism they elicit from Larsen. And while frank, he also criticizes with compassion as he sees that many of the writers, those who produced the worst essays, are products of the Age of Simplification and have been blinded by their milieu. They are simply unable to think well, their thinking and their writing lacking specificity or any indication that they are aware of their own thinking or their own selves.

I shudder to contemplate the many writers, thinkers and academics who may never come across Larsen’s uncommon — and thus all the more vital — observations and admonitions which he has shared with us, and who continue to portray themselves as intellectuals, but whose intellectual prowess may be considerably less than they imagine. But despite the prognosis, Larsen continues to hope against failing hope that we who claim, or aspire, to participate in the life of the mind and the arts will awaken to our plight and then act to, literally, save our own selves and, thereby, our failing nation.

Books like A Nation Gone Blind can, indeed, inspire an individual toward these ends, for I myself was similarly moved, in the spring of 2001, by Stephen Bertman’s Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory in which the author makes a case for general education as a means for Americans to regain a sense of the past which we are so dangerously close to losing. In Chapter 6, entitled “National Therapy,” Bertman discusses various Great Books programs, and specifically St. John’s College, as doing their part to solidify our tenuous connections to the historical events and great minds that have shaped modern society. Had I not discovered his book on the “New Books” shelf as I was about to leave the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, I likely would never have decided to attend, let alone earn two master’s degrees from, the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College, a tiny pocket of the world (actually two tiny pockets as SJC exists on two campuses, in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico) where the literary life is, against all odds, alive and well.

But these tiny pockets are clinging like barnacles against an ocean of mass-media-induced passivity and mediocrity, tidal waves of deception, half-truths, misdirection and, perhaps most damaging of all, a litany of lies of omission.

And even St. John’s has its own creeping ideology — which to the extent that it surfaces at all in explicit form appears antithetical to that of Larsen’s “new professoriate” but, in the end, has the very same effect — which, through propagandizing, threatens to extinguish the light of a true liberal arts education. That ideology is Straussianism, the presence of which, a senior tutor confided to me in hushed tones, “is a millstone around the neck of the College.” Like Larsen, this now-deceased St. John’s tutor, Beate Ruhm von Oppen, expressed concern that students were being indoctrinated, not educated. And her assessment is all the more poignant given her 40-plus years teaching at St. John’s in addition to working in British intelligence during WWII analyzing Nazi propaganda.

Let us return, in closing, to Frederick Douglass’s speech of July 5, 1852:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. [ . . . ] I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. [ . . . ] Knowledge was [in the past] confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. [ . . . ] Intelligence is [presently] penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.

Whereas Douglass found hope, encouragement and even cheer in the intelligence of his age as well as in the principles and outcomes of the Age of Enlightenment, Larsen’s hope is understandably, and almost unbearably, diminished in this, our, Age of Simplification. “And the last thing the corporate-state wants is large numbers of true selves that actually have whole consciousness.” Yet the fulfillment of Larsen’s fading hope is contingent upon just such a whole self, and, indeed, many such selves:

Only such a person, therefore, will be able to see through the omnipresent lies, deceit, conditionings, shortcuts, and hypocrisies that constitute and perpetuate the Age of Simplification all around us at every moment of the day and night and that nevertheless are unseen and unsensed by most. Only such a person, one who still can see, could make it possible that something, somehow, might still be done to save us all.

And yet where such a person might come from, although I may once have known, I no longer have the least idea.

Will we — can we — grasp the lifeline Larsen has thrown us?

Sean M. Madden is an American writer living in East Sussex, England. His work appears on websites ranging from Information Clearing House to UPI’s ReligionAndSpirituality.com, from Thomas Paine’s Corner to Guerrilla News Network, and from Carolyn Baker’s popular website to the Populist Party of America website. Sean also edits and writes for his iNoodle.com and MindfulLivingGuide.com blogs, and welcomes correspondence from readers. His email address is sean@inoodle.com.
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