Collingwood’s first post-literate council


Post-literacyAt the Corporate & Community Services standing committee meeting this week, the committee discussed the Art on the Street festival, its operation and management to be taken over by the BIA. That’s probably a good thing because any affinity to culture and cultural events at the council table evaporated early this term. A cup of yogurt has more culture in it than The Block has. The whole ‘cultural economy’ thing and all the benefits that cultural tourism can bring has simply flown away this term.*

That report led to a discussion of a local Word on the Street festival, a “national celebration of literacy and the written word.” Apparently there is a move afoot to bring it back (it’s held in September, so I suppose that won’t be until fall 2018). Councillor Kevin Lloyd semi-jokingly suggested that council entertain regular poetry readings at the start of each council meeting to help publicize the event. There was an uncomfortable silence at the committee table (The Block not being able to easily recognize irony or sarcasm).

The stolid faces of The Block collective were shaken by his (somewhat sarcastic) suggestion. The idea that they might have to sit, in stony Politburo-like silence while someone read a poem clearly unnerved them. Even Sleepy Councillor Ecclestone tossed and turned in his sleep, in the grips of a bad dream where words and phrases were dancing around him with menace and malice.

How were they supposed to respond to poetry? Would they make the usual banal “gee that was swell” comments they toss out like candy to staff for run-of-the-mill reports? Or – a frightening thought – would they be expected to comment intelligently and coherently on the nature of the poem, its symbolism, its rhyming scheme, its use of metaphor, how it compared with the work of other poets? That would take The Block far from the safety of their comfort zone over the deep intellectual ocean, a place they had never ventured to.

When The Block plumb the depths of their collective intellect, they don’t need a ruler, much less a measuring tape to measure down to their seabed. Their ship of state is already stranded on its shallow reefs. Keep in mind that their greatest collective intellectual achievement this term is a bylaw that prohibits residents from throwing birdseed on their driveway. To expect them to do anything intelligent with culture – you’re better off wishing for something more achievable. Like world peace. Or the overnight reversal of climate change. Or the Rapture.

Poetry is part of literature and The Block Don’t Read. That is the hurdle they can’t jump, won’t jump. Since they don’t even read their agendas, much less reports and studies (especially those with actual facts that might contradict their inflexible ideology or conspiracy theories), we can’t really expect them to make the leap into literature. A long leap that would be. And poetry is even further from their ken because it requires a different sort of reading: one that includes thinking, an appreciation of metaphor and allegory, an ability to piece together fragments into cohesive whole.

A recent blog piece in the Huffington Post was titled, “We Cannot Afford To Have Leaders That Do Not Read.” Its author, Ashanti Kunene, wrote, “…readership becomes much more important than leadership.”

Readership is in essence what Walter Ong calls the analytic management of knowledge. Reading books, essays or long-form articles [actual texts, not 140 character tweets or Facebook posts] creates positive habits of thought, encourages the cross-examination of ideas and allows one to detect abuses of logic and common sense.
At a very basic level, it means that no one can mislead you with passionate political rhetoric; it means you can identify discursive abuses of power and as such make better decisions. Further, the ability to tell the difference between real and fake news relies on how far one has critically read and engaged in thought. Facebook and Twitter cannot be our only source of information when the noise and inaccuracies far outweigh informed, evidence-based opinions.

Clearly, Collingwood has a problem. We have neither leadership nor readership. We cannot afford leaders who don’t read and yet we have them, creating policy, directing staff, chasing personal agendas and vendettas at public expense. The Block is our town’s first post-literate council, based on the McLuhan definition:

A post-literate society is a hypothetical society in which multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read or write, is no longer necessary or common. The term appears as early as 1962 in Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy…
A post-literate society might still include people who are aliterate, who know how to read and write but choose not to.

People who can read at some level, but choose not to. The Block in a nutshell. And that is, at least to me (an avid reader), both disheartening and frightening.

To paraphrase Chris Hedges from his polemic The Empire of Illusion, post-literacy, “…prevents people from seeing what is done in their name or even what is done to them.” What, you ask is done to The Block? Aren’t they the ones doing, not being done to? Not quite.

In an article on post-literate America on Truthdig, Hedges wrote,

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés.

Change ‘America’ to ‘Collingwood’ and you can see The Block in his description: informed by “simplistic, childish narratives and clichés” rather than facts and empirical evidence. A council dominated by a post-literate majority.

While The Block as a collective have titular power, the real power rests in their leader, DM Saunderson and the recently “retired” interim CAO. I put that in quotes because despite a public retirement and a going-away party (sparsely attended, I’m told), he retains on the town’s payroll as a paid “consultant” to continue to pull the strings from the sidelines.

A literate council would not have permitted the conspiracies and the disinformation to be presented as the basis for public policy without challenge, without questioning, without speaking to others and getting the facts. But a post-literate council doesn’t have the intellectual tools to analyze, assess, research, and make independent decisions. None of The Block asked the questions, contacted staff to get the answers, or read the rebuttals. They took everything they were fed as gospel. Who needs proof when you already know everything? Such is our Block. More literate politicians might call them gullible.

As Hedges adds,

Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice.

Sound familiar? Who can truthfully call any of The Block competent, sincere, or honest? Perhaps they have failed the second part: appearance, in that they don’t even bother to appear to have those qualities. What’s another deceptive, in-camera meeting to them these days? And as for facts… meh. They haven’t let facts interfere with their agenda since day one.

Hedges paints a bleak picture of the post-literate world, but one that has a local resonance:

Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice.

A narrative at odds with the facts? We’ve become accustomed to that, this term. Just look at the way The Block and the administration have fabricated their one-sided stories around the shared services agreement, the Collus-PowerStream share sale, the hospital redevelopment, the airport business park, Block 9… tall tales, all far removed from the realities. In fact, I can think of no issue, no initiative The Block have undertaken in which they have been open or honest, even including the aforementioned birdseed bylaw. But like I’ve always maintained, The Block don’t care about facts or truth. They care only about their own agendas.

Post-literacy goes hand in hand with that other current trend, postmodernism. Frederic Jameson described postmodernism in an essay, arguing,

… the culture of postmodernism would be characterized by “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.”

While a lot of the articles and essays about post-literacy refer to the decay of American culture and the rise of Donald Trump** and spectacle politics, it’s here in Canada, too. A 2016 letter to the Toronto Star from a teacher noted how it is affecting our current classrooms,

A broad disinclination to pick up a book without being compelled to do so, alongside a stubborn disinterest in any concept of a shared general knowledge, might be blamed on any number of factors. But when a teacher has to pause to explain a passing reference to World War II, for example, since there will inevitability be people in the class who’ve never heard of it, despite their having spent almost 20 years in school already, an uneasiness begins to set in.

You can tell from the questions The Block ask at the table, especially about items in the agenda or staff reports, that they don’t have a ‘shared knowledge’ of what is being presented, and that they need constant explanation and clarification of even the most basic items and issues. Staff should not have to explain again and again what a dividend is. But watch the recorded shows and you’ll note that none of The Block write down the explanations, so little is retained. We are forced to watch them ask the same questions over again at subsequent meetings.

In fact, it was this inability to grasp and retain such basics that led The Block to break public trust (for the umpteenth time this term) in August and appoint Councillor Doherty as the town’s representative on the Collus-PowerStream board despite her publicly-stated inability to understand the very concept of a dividend. But then none of them did, and when presented with numerous well-qualified public applicants, the Block hunkered down into defensive mode and appointed one of their own to the board because that way they would be able to avoid having to face facts that challenged their limited understanding.

A 2016 opinion piece in the Globe and Mail asked, “Where have all the readers gone?” Its author, Pierre Denton, challenged readers to,

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought. Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.
If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

He adds a sentiment dear to my own heart: “I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday, I will find the time to read them.” Ah, so many books, so little time. But the point he is making is the same as others:

Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

So far, true of The Block. I would suggest they balk at even 1,000 words and their attention flitters away, gnat like, after only a few hundred (they would never be able to get through even the shortest of my blog posts, as you, dear reader, can…). Denton adds:

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

One only has to tune into a Collingwood Council meeting and hear the garbled, meandering, incoherent comments, the bluster and bloviation instead of reasoned discussion. When none of The Block appear to understand the elementary concept of a dividend, you know that learning – therefore reading -is not highly prized among them.

Denton offers advice which, of course, The Block will ignore in large part because reading might tear down their alt-facts wall and challenge their paranoid conspiracy theories:

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.
It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end.

And similarly, Kunene concludes in his HuffPost blog:

We have to change the world if we want to survive and for us to change the world means that we must read! Read and read some more. Not just status updates or twitter threads. It’s readership before leadership comrade, we need leaders that are readers as well. We can’t afford leaders that do not read. The future of humanity depends on #Readership.

The Block have depended this term on comments made behind closed doors by the sole-sourced lawyers and consultants, the interim CAO and the DM – all done without a written record or anything to back up or verify their veracity. The Block, like all True Believers, accept those words as truth, but with no actual evidence or fact to justify that belief. As noted in a piece by Joe Weisenthal on American post-literacy politics on Bloomberg,

The easiest way to grasp the difference between the written world and the oral world is that in the latter, there’s no way to look up anything… Oral culture rewards redundancy, because when an audience can’t go back and consult a text, speakers must guard against distraction and confusion. Repetition is one useful technique… Oral traditions are all about hammering the point home.

And in The Block, we have an ideological oral culture, a very secretive one at that; not a written, and certainly not a literate culture. And the longer they avoid reading, the harder it becomes for them to return to the habit. The less they will be able to absorb and understand and retain. How many of them even have a library card, let alone frequent the facility?

As author Yann Martel, commenting on Stephen Harper, noted,

…what novels, short stories, poems can bring to a person – that aspect hasn’t been very important so that’s what I mean by he’s post-literate.

So Councillor Lloyd’s suggestion isn’t necessarily a sarcastic dig at the post-literate Block. He was serious. Lloyd – who reads a lot (I know this because we lend each other books all the time) – might actually be suggesting palliative intellectual care for his colleagues. While they are likely too far gone to resurrect into full literacy, they might find the soothing words of poetry a balm to their aching brains. And at the very least it might benefit the rest of the audience who are often driven into a catatonic state by the mind-numbing, self-serving speeches from The Block every meeting.

Yes, let’s have poetry before every meeting. Or a short reading from a piece of literature. Something cultural entertaining, enlightening, uplifting or even amusing. Let’s open the windows and let some literacy into the dark, closed room of council. Show our residents that Collingwood hasn’t entirely fallen to the post-literate blight and that, despite The Block, there is still some culture here.

Collingwood deserves better.

* It’s not that The Block simply don’t care about culture (they don’t): they have no time to even consider it while they pursue their wild conspiracy theories. The destruction of our community occupies their full attention. Besides, culture is a topic that has to be discussed in public and The Most Secretive Council Ever has no interest in public engagement. They love conniving in secret too much.
** From The New Republic, Sep. 2017:

It’s not just that Trump is a creature of TV, but that he’s also allergic to text. Tony Schwartz told The New Yorker that in the 18 months he spent with Trump co-writing The Art of the Deal, he never saw a single book in Trump’s office or apartment. In May of 2016, when Megyn Kelly asked him to name the last book he’d read, Trump said, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” He told the Post two months later that he doesn’t have time to read books: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” By early this year, The New York Times was stating it as accepted fact: “Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television.” The president even has trouble digesting briefing books, so his aides now use “big pictures” and “killer graphics” to hold his attention.

How very like our own Blockheads!

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  1. A few samples articles about why reading is important, how and why successful people read, what reading does for community and cooperation, and for politics… there are many others you can find that corroborate these.

    In my study of successful people, the one thing they all seem to have in common is a passion and dedication for reading.

    Want to know one habit ultra-successful people have in common? They read. A lot.

    Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed.

    Whether you re-read the same book or article to remind you of concepts, or read content on time management and organization as a constant reminder to work on these things, reading is valuable because it keeps important concepts top of mind.

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