Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Das Capital

If New York is the city that never sleeps, Washington, D.C. is quickly coming to be known as the city that sleeps all the time, at least insofar as "functional literacy" is concerned.

A study by the State Education Agency recently revealed that fully one-third of the residents of our nation's capital not only would be unable to wade through Karl Marx's modern classic on class struggle, "Das Kapital," or make it through a novel by John Dos Passos, but have difficulty doing such basic tasks as reading train schedules, maps, and completing employment appications. What's more, D.C.'s senior population ranks number one in low scores. (AP)

While the U.S. Department of Education study attributes the astonishing 33% illiteracy rate to the recent proliferation of immigrants whose grasp of English is tenuous, this number becomes even more mind-boggling when considering that the national illiteracy rate is 20%, hence Washington, D.C.'s rate is 13% higher than the national average .

Factoring out the growing number of people moving to our nation's capital from Spanish-speaking countries, and Ethiopia, consider for a moment that D.C. is the nucleus of legislation, as well as home to Congress, and the Supreme Court. What a statement this makes about the direction in which we're going, and growing.

Still, fair is fair, and literacy, too, may be seen as a relative concept which leads one to wonder if future generations of Americans might well look back at these desperate times, and wonder if congressional approval of the USA Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, as well as other stultifying legislation that aims to tweak definitions of torture, as well as what is legitimate, if unauthorized, domestic surveillance may be seen as a by-product of functional illiteracy. Or, more to the point, will we yet live to see the day when historical revisionists may have their way with the way we define what it means to navigate our way through the world with words?

Will, for instance, a scholar at Harvard, say in the year 2110, look back at statements made by a former administration official claiming the right to edit scientific reports about global warming so that they reflected an official, if erroneous, report by the National Academy of Sciences as a newfangled form of functional illiteracy? Or, will the hazardous effect of our perversion of greenhouse gases be such that human intelligence will exist only on paper, and no longer as a matter of fact?

And, more importantly, what will our future Harvard historian have to say about a Senate Judiciary Committee that aggressively sought subpoenas for White House officials who were charged with lying about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons, yet stood quietly behind the obscene appropriation of funds for a war that only one who is functionally illiterate can justify.

While we send heartfelt congratulations to Senator Leahy, and applaud his efforts to get to the bottom of who gave the green light to fire these federal attorneys, truth is, if the Senate had subpoeaned the White House, four years ago, and paid this much attention to fraudulent claims of "weapons of mass destruction," we wouldn't be in Iraq now!

So, some might even call it poetic justice that the greatest number of those deemed "functionally illiterate" should find themselves in the proverbial backyard of those who govern them. In an odd sort of way, it looks like Karl Marx may have been right; those who decide what functional means, as well as what literacy is, more often than not, are running the manor, and not mowing the lawn. The irony is, the economics don't matter when considering the concept of nuclear proliferation, and the clear and present danger of human extinction brought on by corporate greed.