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Comparison Essay

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Hunger in America

Egypt riseth up like a flood, and his waters are moved like the rivers; and he saith, I will go up, and will cover the earth; I will destroy the city and the inhabitants thereof. Ð'§ Come up, ye horses; and rage, ye chariots; and let the mighty men come forth; the Ethiopians and the Libyans, that handle the shield; and the Lydians, that handle and bend the bow. Ð'§ For this is the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries; and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood... Ð'§ Go up into Gilead and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt; in vain shalt thou use many medicines, for thou shalt not be cured. Ð'§ The nations have heard of thy shame...

THE EPIGRAPH is, to be sure, unusual, and a bit long. Please read it anyway. Twice. Read it not with the reading of the schools, not as 'a receiver of a communication,' but as a thoughtful inquirer into the meaning of what is said, as one who intends to say something about what is said.

Read it slowly, as you would read a gnarled sonnet of Donne, moving your lips the while. Listen. Discover its voice and its tone. Judge the effects of diction, its rhythms, its curt images and its metaphors. Pronounce it, at last, not right or wrong, which is useful only with regard to 'a communication,' but good or bad, either well-wrought or ill. Consider how, if there were going to be a test, you could justify your verdict. Do all of that now, and do it well, for there is going to be a test -- every day of your life, and what follows is the dreadful tale of a man who failed it. So take your time. We can wait.

Good. All of that has made you an understander, not just a receiver.

What understanding have you of the word 'medicines'? What sorts of 'medicines' does he have in mind, who speaks those words? Is he thinking of such things as antibiotics and decongestants, or even some imaginable ancient equivalents?

In what tone and with what intent does he say those words? Are they a taunting rebuke to that 'daughter of Egypt,' assuring her that she has no hope at all of evading the just consequences of her deeds: or are they a bit of helpful advice on health-care?

Or can it be that the bloody aggressions of Egypt have nothing to do with the case? Did the speaker, all in the midst of his imprecations against the trouble-makers of a turbulent time, take a little time off to issue a commandment to us? When he says, 'In vain shalt though use many medicines, for thou shalt not be cured,' is he ordering us, or anyone at all, to refrain utterly from all medical knowledge and practice?

If that is what you have concluded from your reading of the cited passage, then you are utterly illiterate. You cannot read. It matters not at all that you know the letters and the words.

Consider now the plight of a man who knows the letters and the words, but who can not read at all. Because he can not read at all, and because he imagines that he can, he was found guilty of certain criminal acts related to the death of his son.

Bill Barnhart's child died of hunger at the age of two and a half. For five months, what nourishment the boy had been able to swallow was gobbled up by the tumor that was growing in his belly. The child shriveled and the tumor prospered, until its greed undid them both. After a meager last supper, a few dry Cheerios and a sip of grape juice, host and guest died quietly together.

Barnhart, along with his wife, was eventually convicted of endangering the life of a child, and involuntary manslaughter. He can not, for the life of him, understand why.

He is as much aggrieved as grieved. He understands the passage that you have so carefully read, along with a few carefully selected other passages that he can not read, as God's commandment to him to keep sick children away from doctors.

'I did nothing wrong,' he said. 'My conscience doesn't bother me.'

That, we do believe. Conscience is a high wall of scrawled graffiti where the world can write what it pleases, a random anthology of pet notions, unexamined sentiments, and popular slogans remarkable chiefly for their vagueness. Conscience stands always in need of editing, a job that can't be done except through thoughtful reading of the scrawls.

But something bothers Barnhart. He is baffled and vexed, all unable to account for his suffering. He wonders why not one member of the jury was willing to 'stand up for God's rights,' in which notion he sees neither the absurdity nor the irony. In a speech whose devastating and utterly unintended power makes him sound like a character in a play by Arthur Miller, he points out the very passage cited above, and says to a reporter (Michael E. Ruane, in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, June 17, 1984):

I want you to read that and see what you expect somebody to take out of that there. I'd like you to tell me what your interpretation is. I'd like you to study the whole thing out.

How long would it take to sit down with Bill Barnhart to study the whole thing out? That is exactly what he needs: the whole thing, the whole art and power of language and thought.

Literacy is not a knack. It is a moral condition. The ability to read attentively, reflectively, and judiciously is also the ability to be attentive, reflective, and judicious. It is not an optional adornment for just and sane living. It is a necessity. It is the necessity. It is not a variety or portion of education. It is education. It is the whole thing, the wholesome nourishment of the mind by which it may grow strong enough to be the master of the will and not its slave, the judge of desire and not its procurer, the censor of sentiment and not its tool, and the inquisitor of belief, not its flack. It is our only path to whatever wisdom we can have, which is our only path to whatever goodness we can know, which is our only path to whatever happiness we can enjoy.

Bill Barnhart is not a happy man. His 'faith,'



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