The Bondage of Cultural Illiteracy

Voiced by Amazon Polly

“We could have a summer of love.” — Jennifer Durkan, Mayor of Seattle

At last I am free!” declared Martin Niemoller, holding a small book as the prison door was locked behind him. He had been allowed to keep a Bible, and his words would have been an inscrutable paradox only to those who do not understand the freedom ensured by literacy, and the greatest freedom endowed by words that are sacred.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., the Jews relied on literacy to preserve their culture, with the Mishna as the written record of what until then had been an oral tradition of rabbinic commentaries. While practical illiteracy seems to have been common, every male attained full manhood by reading some lines of the Torah. When the Living Word became flesh, He asked at least four times: “Have you not read…?” (Matt. 12:3; 12:5; 19:4; and Mark 12:26). On the very day of the Resurrection, He asked the two men on the Emmaus road why they did not understand what the prophets had written. Later, the obviously well-lettered official of the Ethiopian royal household was reading in his chariot when he encountered Philip and learned what Isaiah meant.

The first part of the Eucharistic Liturgy is the “synagogue part” because the “Synaxis” teaches from the Sacred Books. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3). Since the transmission of knowledge and its ancillary wisdom is fragile and dependent upon faithful stewards, civilizations require civilized people strong enough to defy barbarism. The most morbid way to destroy the moral integrity of people is to deny and obliterate awareness and comprehension of their history. In “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley wrote, “Almost all human beings have an infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” To take the artifacts of a civilization for granted is an almost absolute guarantee that they will be lost. There is much more evidence for that than just the winds blowing over ruined Angkor and Timgad, and forgetting them proves the point. As Belloc contemplated Timgad while visiting Algeria, he mused: “the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this, that he cannot make: that he can befog and destroy but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilization exactly that has been true.”

Romans commonly had Greek slaves as teachers, because they were better educated than themselves. In Scotland in the eleventh century, King Malcolm did not bother to learn how to read, for warriors expected clerics to do that for them. But he was charmed by the way his wife, Saint Margaret, could read to him; and the subjects she chose helped to direct the course and shape the customs of her adopted land. Malcolm took pleasure in decorating books for his lady, and one of them bound in gold and silver is preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon, born in exile in Hungary. She could read Latin, which served as the international language of culture much the way English is used in air traffic control towers around the world today. The power of the written word explains why Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 was followed by anti-literacy laws in all southern states except Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Frederick Douglass learned how to read and write secretly and would prove his own dictum: “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Because “new occasions teach new duties,” as the abolitionist James Russell Lowell hymned, on the day I am typing these words I am taking computer lessons from two African American friends of mine who are as patient with me as Margaret was with Malcolm.

Many were surprised in 1953 when President Eisenhower—in an eloquent commencement speech at Dartmouth, and without using notes or the yet-to-be-invented teleprompter—confounded his critics, who had caricatured him as inarticulate, by warning: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.” Having considerable experience of war, he had seen the consequences of thought control. At the time, it was an oblique nod to the “Red Scare” which, we now know through the Venona papers, was certainly not unfounded, but which invited the extremism of unstable figures.

Back in 1821 Heinrich Heine said: “When books are burned in the end people will be burned.” The destruction of the great libraries of Alexandria by Muslims in 642 and Cluny by Huguenots in 1562 had irreparable consequences. This also applies to the mutilation of art in all its forms. It is not a question of taste or subjective aesthetic judgment: it is simply the fact that to rewrite history is eventually to resent history altogether, to live in the present without past or future, mocking the venerable and venerating pastiche heroes.

In such a cauterized atmosphere, demagogues deftly beguile blank minds with illusions. Goebbels turned the death of a problematic 23-year-old Horst Wessell into a martyrdom, pretending that the sacrificial Aryan lamb had written his own “Horst-Wessel-Lied” sung as an anthem stirring enough to make millions march to doom, like the “Internationale.” Those well read in the annals of time will be aware that lies can sound like truths when sung to a good tune.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell warned with chilling foresight of a dystopia in which records of the past would be destroyed or falsified, monuments of culture would be pulled down, and “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” There is more than a whiff of that right now in burning cities, fostered by what is legitimately called “Fake News” describing the ransacking of part of Seattle as a “summer of love.” The mayor of Seattle said that the violent occupation of part of her city was a congenial block party, which is like illiterati calling the Normandy invasion a happy day at the beach. The cruelest illiteracy consists in a pantomime education which commands what to think rather than how to think, and erases from a culture any memory of its tested and vindicated truths. Technological literacy easily becomes a camouflage for cultural illiteracy. I have witnessed youths flee from a room at the sound of a Mozart sonata; the same youths enjoy vulgarities sung to discordant sounds on the most refined acoustical amplifiers. In this I hope I am not merely a stubborn anachronism, and I even boast at not being shocked by novelties. But I was indeed stunned into uncharacteristic silence when I showed a film version of a P.G. Wodehouse novel to recent college graduates, who required subtitles, because they could not understand the clipped English speech.

Cultural literacy can liberate from humbug, and there is a lot of that in selective indignation. Those who read enough may learn that self-conscious progressivism is often pompously regressive. As for racial taxonomy, it developed as a structured philosophy in the dark musings of some of those hailed as heroes of the “Enlightenment.” John Locke provided protocols for slavery in “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina” which gave slave owners “absolute power and authority” over their human chattel. In 1753, David Hume was “apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men…to be naturally inferior to whites.” Immanuel Kant was confident that “humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race… The Negroes are lower and the lowest part of the American peoples.” With exceptions like Emmeline Pankhurst, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement carefully segregated their parades. Carrie Chapman Catt promised, “White supremacy will be strengthened not weakened by women’s suffrage.” The first statue of a woman in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, representing Illinois, is of Frances Willard, who complained that “the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt.” Of her meeting with the black sculptor Edmonia Lewis, Willard noted: “She is good-looking for her race, though she has its salient characteristics of physiognomy and voice.” Woodrow Wilson simultaneously endorsed women’s suffrage and Jim Crow laws.

Absent the restraints of classical humanism, and contemptuous of its moral cadences, eugenics moved racism into the laboratory. In London, a bust of Marie Stopes remains unscathed along with a copy of the love poems she sent to Hitler in 1939. Margaret Sanger approved and encouraged the German sterilization program of physicians including Dr. Joseph Mengele. There was public indignation when the Catholic Church became the most strident opposition to the eugenics crusade by invoking its tradition of culture. When Jesse Jackson was a significant leader, he called abortion “black genocide,” and, at the March for Life in 1977, he asked: “What happens…to the moral fabric of a nation that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience?” But his political career required that he move from literacy to illiteracy, and in 1987 he joined another march at Stanford University, chanting: “Hey hey, Ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” Decadence takes only a decade.

Wisdom that comes from literacy requires a special agency of grace to distinguish the Fake News from the Good News whose Author asks each generation: “Have you not read…?”

Photo credit: Getty Images

Fr. George W. Rutler

By

Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU