Elementary education for all citizens was achieved early in Athens, at least a century before Socrates, and literacy seems to have been widespread. This reflected the rise of democracy. But the higher education remained the monopoly of the aristocracy until the Sophists came along. They provoked upper-class antagonism by teaching the art of rhetoric - for the ability to speak well in public was the open door to middle-class political participation in the debates of the assembly and the higher offices of the city. page 42Not only that, but having the laws posted publicly was one of the great reforms of this pre-Socratic period as well. Ignorance of the law was thus no excuse as long as the laws were posted where any citizen could read and discuss them. Ancient Athens had no lawyers as we understand that profession today, since every citizen was expected to understand and argue the law themselves. Notice that I have qualified the type of democracy I'm talking about, that being "mass democracy" as existed in Athens in Socrates's time. Small communities could be democratic without literacy but beyond a certain number, writing becomes a necessity. Before we get all warm and complacent with our current good fortune, let's consider my next point . . . Third, while there is a connection between literacy and modernity and democracy, there is also one between it and propaganda, that is manipulation in the modern mass state. This is how Jacques Ellul described it in his classic, Propaganda of 1965:
Primary education makes it possible to enter the realm of propaganda, in which people then receive their intellectual and cultural environment. The uncultured man cannot be reached by propaganda. Experience and research done by the Germans between 1933 and 1938 showed that in remote areas, where people hardly knew how to read, propaganda had no effect. The same holds true for the enormous effort in the Communist world to teach people how to read. In Korea, the local script was terribly difficult and complicated; so, in North Korea, the Communists created an entirely new alphabet and a simple script in order to teach all the people how to read. In China, Mao simplified the script in his battle with illiteracy, and in some places in China new alphabets are being created. This would have no particular significance except that the texts used to teach the adult students how to read — and which are the only texts to which they have access — are exclusively propaganda texts; they are political tracts, poems to the glory of the Communist regime, extracts of classical Marxism. Among the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Ouighbours, the Manchus, the only texts in the new script are Mao’s works. Thus, we see here a wonderful shaping tool: The illiterates are taught to read only the new script; nothing is published in that script except propaganda texts; therefore, the illiterates cannot possibly read — or know — anything else. Also, one of the most effective propaganda methods in Asia was to establish "teachers" to teach reading and indoctrinate people at the same time. The prestige of the intellectual — "marked with God’s finger" — allowed political assertions to appear as Truth, while the prestige of the printed word one learned to decipher confirmed the validity of what the teachers said. These facts leave no doubt that the development of primary education is a fundamental condition for the organization of propaganda, even though such a conclusion may run counter to many prejudices, best expressed by Paul Rivet’s pointed but completely unrealistic words: "A person who cannot read a newspaper is not free." pp 109-110Following Ellul, the modern mass state has to create a mass culture to support it and win the support of the population since traditional norms will not necessarily support the actions of said state. Basic literacy - especially mass education for children - is the best means of achieving this goal. This is what Ellul refers to as the first stage of literacy, basically reading at the level of a 5-6th Grader. The second, and higher level, that is being able to "reflect and discern" what one has read and dividing a text into what one agrees with and what one does not or is unsure of, is possessed by only about 10-15% of the population, according to Ellul. How exactly does this come about? How does basic literacy open the door for propaganda and manipulation? The modern citizen of a mass state is an individual, one isolated from traditional forms of thought and alligance. There is little connection with community, family or religion in the traditional sense, whereas there is a host of lesser connections with "society", most of them increasingly of the materialist/consumerist sort, well those and "nationalism". This view went back to the turn of the century, but became fairly unquestioned as a result of the First World War. Walter Lippmann is Public Opinion (1922) wrote:
BECAUSE of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following. What privileges do within the hierarchy, symbols do for the rank and file. They conserve unity. From the totem pole to the national flag, from the wooden idol to God the Invisible King, from the magic word to some diluted version of Adam Smith or Bentham, symbols have been cherished by leaders, many of whom were themselves unbelievers, because they were focal points where differences merged. The detached observer may scorn the "star-spangled" ritual which hedges the symbol, perhaps as much as the king who told himself that Paris was worth a few masses. But the leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out. No wonder he hates what he calls destructive criticism, sometimes called by free spirits the elimination of buncombe. "Above all things," says Bagehot, "our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it." [Footnote: The English Constitution, p. 127. D. Appleton & Company, 1914.] For poking about with clear definitions and candid statements serves all high purposes known to man, except the easy conservation of a common will. Poking about, as every responsible leader suspects, tends to break the transference of emotion from the individual mind to the institutional symbol. And the first result of that is, as he rightly says, a chaos of individualism and warring sects. The disintegration of a symbol, like Holy Russia, or the Iron Diaz, is always the beginning of a long upheaval. These great symbols possess by transference all the minute and detailed loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture, the faces, the memories that are his first, and in a static society, his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality. The great symbols take up these devotions, and can arouse them without calling forth the primitive images. The lesser symbols of public debate, the more casual chatter of politics, are always referred back to these proto-symbols, and if possible associated with them. The question of a proper fare on a municipal subway is symbolized as an issue between the People and the Interests, and then the People is inserted in the symbol American, so that finally in the heat of a campaign, an eight cent fare becomes unAmerican. The Revolutionary fathers died to prevent it. Lincoln suffered that it might not come to pass, resistance to it was implied in the death of those who sleep in France. Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand. pp 150-51.The leadership/elite of a state (Lippmann makes no distinction) use symbols to influence and manipulate the masses. But what of the "self-sufficient" individual? Lippmann dismisses that notion quickly. That's not the way the mass reacts, since while the individual thinks and reasons, the mass "feels". How else are they to know what to believe if they are not told essentially what to believe? Lippmann concludes this chapter with some of the most disturbing conclusions ever put on paper by an American intellectual:
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach. p 158I think literacy as I have defined it very important in Western development, but I am reminded by my earlier reading of Ellul and Lippmann that Venkat makes an important point when questioning what exactly literacy is and the assumptions that we make in regards to it. If anything the events of the last ten years in the US have only reinforced the validity of what Ellul, and earlier Lippmann, had to say as a result of experiencing the power of state propaganda starting almost a century ago.