"In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, [literature's] incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, and foolishness - [literature's] incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand - ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing. Literature in America does fulfill these obligations."
The novelist John Gardner wrote these words in his essay collection "On Moral Fiction," and they are absolutely correct.
Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems - and those political issues of our communities and our country - in a moral and human way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling and acting.
They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition - about ourselves and about others. They can give us insights into the hopes and fears of Americans as well as the crucial problems, issues and policy decisions facing the Obama administration.
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As Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism. Throughout history, the imaginations of young people have been fired by characters that function as role models. Yet when we look back upon the past 30 years, we find instead mass media-driven role models who are less than healthy.
We find troubling and false symbols of success, fantasy or celebrity.
All the while, we are surrounded by a technology of speed and efficiency that neither questions its means nor knows its ends. Mass-marketing and advertising techniques have created an entirely new moral climate in America.
The superficiality, the alienation, the escapism and the hollowness are a result of a steady bombardment of confusing and deadening messages designed to reduce us to passive consumers.
We have paid a heavy price: a sharp decline in both civic participation and meaningful public discourse. We became serious about unserious issues and unserious about serious ones.
The consequences are downright frightening: eight years of George W. Bush, an economy tanking, our infrastructure decaying, the bottom dropping out of the housing market, unemployment soaring, banks bankrupt, debt spiraling and two costly wars gone sour.
The sad truth is that for the past three decades, the acquisition of more and more material goods has become our highest form of endeavor. Terminal consumerism has become a way of life. As novelist John Nichols puts it, "Thirty-six flavors doth not a democracy make."
As we have come to worship the idols of power, money and success, we have neglected the core political principles of justice, equality, civic engagement, community and democracy.
The decline in our political culture has occurred in direct proportion to the increase in TV-driven soft news, celebrity scandal-mongering and superficial political coverage. Every day the electronic media - in particular cable TV - feverishly compete to hype news into entertainment.
And when they get a Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, Elliot Spitzer or Larry Craig - especially if it has a sex angle - they stage extravaganzas that would make Barnum and Bailey blush.
With the attention span of viewers decreasing with each generation, and with the networks and cables competing for a large audience, what counts is who can make the fastest and the most enjoyable images. Faster images may tickle the pleasure centers of viewers and achieve higher ratings and more money for media owners, but they make America dumb.