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Tick, Tick, Tick: a Case for Reading

The rich keep getting richer and the rest of us just keep getting old

Stephen Stills

It behooves one to understand that the U.S. is a police state. It’s a unique variety, but nonetheless, an honest-to-god military dictatorship. Smedley Butler saw it coming. Ike confirmed it in his famous farewell address.

Beware, Ike warned, of the rising Military Industrial Complex.

U.S. hegemony is unique because the world never had a rich “lone superpower” ritually terrorize the planet before the U.S. grew its ugly force of absolute imperial strength, and turned from Cold War espionage to flat-out bombing campaigns from Korea and elsewhere right up until this moment.

No empire before this one had the Bomb—or used it—to back up its quest.

Tick, tick, tick repeats the doomsday clock.

It is damn near impossible to imagine a way to dismantle such terrifying power without a sweeping change of consciousness, which isn’t likely to happen. People are too attached to the spoils of empire, and it is precisely because they don’t want to confront their hypocrisy and shame that they are not in the streets with actual revolutionary fervor.

So now, brief forays into protest rule the day.  Occupywas unique in and of itself, until it was no longer tolerable to the very police-rule I am talking about. The powers-that-be played along—until they didn’t, and the batons and pepper-spray came out.

Women and kids shouting “No More” in the streets do not a revolution make, either, though they’re to be lauded as tame and earnest awakenings.

Tick, tick, tick goes the doomsday clock.

One of the daft, yet entirely predictable, results of Donald Trump’s presidency is the sheer numbers of winnowing protests that have been spawned by his recklessness.  They are marches sparked by identity politics and social indignities, imagined and real. Unfortunately, they seldom ring of anti-imperialism. The current protests’—if you can call them that—net effects have been minimal. They’re too fragmentary, partitioned, and designed by self-interests rather than communalism.  As important as the parts are, they haven’t the “mass” necessary to provoke real change.

They threaten nobody at the top.

The last effective mass protests could be said to be Vietnam War protests.  Accompanying those long marches were conjoined civil rights campaigns, race riots, teach-ins, symposiums, campus sit-ins, and more aggressive acts bordering on anarchy.  There was, in other words, an actual mass within the “mass movement.”

That was the last time the linage of elites that has historically influenced U.S. governance felt threatened or truly frightened by anti-imperialists.

How else to explain the spawning of Nixon and the subsequent flow of corporate shills who have, as they like to mythologize, “served?”  Raped would be a more truthful word.

Since then, political/corporate elites have swatted dissent away like flying bugs at a corporate picnic.

This begs the question. Why don’t Americans try to educate themselves and address this tailspin?

In other words, why are so many Americans uninformed conformists who insist that education and reading are worthless?  How has such a vast anti-intellectualism gained its impetus?

Americans are too busy to read. They admit it, claim it, and in some cases exaggerate it. They’re too busy in their jobs, too busy with their families. They can’t be bothered because they must work hard to stay afloat. They glance at the morning “news” over coffee, and then off they go to their offices and factories.

Supposing for a minute they’re lucky enough to have decent employment, of course.

They slog through their days, turning the lathe, selling stuff, filing papers, changing tires, cooking meals, making deals, and on and on.

They’re the remnants of the good old American middle-class, or more likely these days, they’re the core of the burgeoning working-poor.

In the evening, after a couple of drinks or more at the local bar, they’ll flick on their televisions to see what major calamity has stricken the nation.  Some of them will tune into Fox News.  Others will opt for CNN or MSNBC.

Some, who may consider themselves enlightened, will opt for the PBS News Hour.  All of it is corporate-designed information, and very little of it has anything to do with the truth, or the reality of their lives.

Fortified by what they regard as the news of the day churned out by rightists and liberal-centrists, they turn to their hobbies. Woodworking in the garage, reality TV programs, sporting events; these things occupy them right up until bedtime.

A dwindling number of them read important books of great literature, philosophy and history, or the sanest scribbling of them all—poetry—but the vast multitude can’t be bothered.  They surf the web, which is a quick way to bone up on what others are thinking—and to find something coveted to buy.  You see, they’re often too busy to open a book.  If they open one in bed, they’re too tired to read but a paragraph or two before nodding out.

If they’re not academics or individuals otherwise deeply curious about some aspect of intellectual life, they’re not into reading. Their time is better-spent doing other things or nothing at all.

They catch a few hours of unconsciousness wrapped in warped dreams and then they’re up the next morning, ready to do it all again.

Tick, tick, tick, etc.

In my mind, that’s a big problem and at least partly indicative of what’s wrong with the U.S. at this time—people either don’t understand or choose to ignore what is happening around them.

In my own limited quest to discover how and why things happen, I read. I like to read.  I’m all for it.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone is. I know a fellow—I won’t mention his name—who in all seriousness said to me, “Man, you read and all you do is regurgitate other people’s ideas.”

He’s into scooters and scooter-club riding.

You see, in his mind a type of learning I favor has been reduced to regurgitation, and that somehow has evolved into a negative value.  No exceptions. His claims that to read and cite sources for your discoveries, as in an essay or conversation centered on ideas, is essentially a waste of time, a valueless exercise. Without knowing it, he’s assailed and killed a style of pedagogy evident since Socrates.

Yes, there are many like him. They don’t talk much, but they judge everything via uninformed opinions. It’s scary.

Somehow he has gotten it into his mind that the accumulation and absorption of important ideas—what is referred to as knowledge—carry no weight.

Let us separate out, for the purpose of my response, the difference between reading and practical experience.  The latter is of course an inarguable aspect of learning.  I’m not here to argue or quantify the difference.

I will not make the mistake my acquaintance makes and short-change either methodology.

Readers, no matter their discipline, often are forced to recall knowledge. For example, your doctor usually has a compendium or two handy to help him comprehend what ails you. He’s no doubt read them many times, or you would hope he has.

I’d hate to be treated by one who can’t recall his knowledge of diseases.  One who knows the basics and demonstrates imagination in the application of what he knows may in fact be a great doctor, which is what you want.

Regurgitate is an ugly word. It has an ugly sound. In the context of anti-intellectualism, it has an ugly purpose. It is designed to tear down rather than build discourse.

It is designed to blow up reason and enhance ideology.

It is a favorite word of those who would ignore or deny history, for history is purely regurgitation in the minds of those unaccustomed to nuance and subtlety.

Sadly, history is often taught that way to young, hungry minds, deadening them by junior high.

Here’s what my acquaintance doesn’t understand. Reading offers the basics, a foundation for originality. To gain knowledge you must read. If you can then use what you have learned and create by taking a step ahead, devise something new, foment a revolution of ideas rather than ideology, then you have accomplished something.

By all means, tear that motorcycle engine apart and put it back together again, and be proud of your ability to do so.

But consider this—if one doesn’t bother to read, he hasn’t even a small glimmer of a chance to give back, or fight back on a very fundamental plane. You haven’t a chance to go beyond what you think you know.

Short of experience, you haven’t a chance to truly learn, absorb ideas, and be creative in your own right.

I have two reactions to the sort of anti-intellectualism I’ve just described.  First, it makes me angry. Second, I wonder how one lives without reading?

You may not die if you don’t read, but you certainly won’t live fully, either.  Rather you will find solace in delusions and dogma, and you will be poorer for your lack of effort.

If you’re so damn smart that you can get along without reading, you’re a unique human being, albeit one the pols can see coming from a mile away as they continue to abuse their power and coalesce in our nascent fascistic order.

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Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.

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