Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Johnny Makes Shit Up

I've seen two instances recently of people trying to read the new Health Care Bill on TV. One was on Comedy Central; the other was on Fox.

And yes, obviously, first one had to get through the jokes about how fat and heavy the bill is. But then they actually tried to read it.

The interesting thing is that on Comedy Central, John Stewart was genuinely trying to make sense of what he was reading (with an unable non-assist from Betsey McCaughey), while on Fox, Greta Van Sustern was simply making fun of the hieroglyphic text.

And the text IS barely decipherable. I've decided that this is the root problem. Yes, we have disingenuous pundits who spin things to cause hysteria. Yes, we have town hall teabaggers who repeat whatever they have heard, but at nine times the volume (and with guns). But at the bottom of the whole shitpile are these twin evils: People don't know how to write, and people don't know how to read.

Friends, it just shouldn't be that hard to read legislation. As complicated and old-fashioned as the Bill of Rights may be, at times, most of it is legible. Any eighth grader ought to be able to make sense of it. And since many people out there in America have nothing beyond an eighth grade reading level, I think it's important--a civic duty, really--to make sure that legislation is written at a level that is readable by them. This is not the middle ages. These are not gnostic, hermeneutic texts to be interpreted by an educated priesthood and explained for the peasantry. Say what you mean. Say it simply enough that everyone can at least understand what you've said. Let us argue about whether or not we agree with it, instead of arguing about what is actually on the page. Watching Jon Stewart spend ten minutes saying, "No, it doesn't say, it just doesn't say that" is painful. And ultimately a waste of time.

This goes back to middle school and high school. We need to teach people how to read--not Jack and Jill, and not The Great Gatsby (well, yes, the Great Gatsby, but that's another argument), but the things that will actually influence and affect their day to day lives. Who teaches kids how to read a lease? Or a mortgage? Or contrasting editorials on the same topic?

Reading and writing.

Who teaches students how to write business letters? Not the crappy sample letters we were all taught, that don't relate to anything real but format. I mean real letters, of the kind we might have to write, once we leave home. How do you let your landlord know that you are withholding rent until he makes the repairs you've been asking him for? How do you communicate with your elected representatives (without calling them Hitler)? What language do you use to express anger appropriately, reasonably, so that you are not attacked (or dismissed) for being a loony or a hothead, but are heard?

We like to criticize TV pundits, and the 24-hour news cycle, and our fellow barbarians, for the crappy level of political discourse in our country. And they're all to blame. But They are not separate from We. And We, as a country, are not raising our children with the skills they need to participate in a civil society, much less a democracy. We are raising them to have opinions, and to express them loudly and obnoxiously. But we are not raising them to doubt, or to analyze, or to support their opinions with facts, either verbally or in writing. So...we get what we deserve.

Or, as the great Pogo Possum once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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