Friday, December 12, 2008

"Weep for the Republic"

Some salient quotes from Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008), a truly disturbing book for those of us who are concerned about the future of American democracy. Unfortunately, the book offers little hope that we're going to overcome the fundamental problem of vast, insuperable public ignorance. It's too far gone. Jacoby is perfectly correct in zeroing in on this problem. I have many times said the same things. The founders, especially Jefferson, knew very well that democracy cannot work without an educated electorate. We've got living proof in our own time. I was appalled that twice the electorate fell all over itself to elect Ronald Reagan president. And although it made him no less dangerous, Reagan, the affable bumbler, at least had some charm to compensate partially for his shallow knowledge and cartoonish understanding of American history. The aggressively ignorant Bush is something else. He makes Reagan look like a genius. That this country could twice elect an ignorant, boorish, unlettered lout like George W. Bush as president is more than enough indication--to me, at least--that we've hit bottom.

Herewith some chewy tidbits from the latter chapter of the book.

Out-of-power (in Washington) liberal intellectuals also have a good deal to answer for, and one of their most serious failures of vision has been a reluctance to acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance. Liberals have tended to define the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years and to see an outraged citizenry, ready to throw the bums out, as a solution. While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is long-term problem in American public life. Like many Democratic politicians, left-of-center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that makes serious deceptions possible and plausible -- not only about Iraq but about a vast array of domestic and international issues.


Memory has been the greatest civil casualty of the past 50 years, but before people can be expected to remember anything, they must absorb certain basic facts and ideas worth remembering. Americans . . . have a shaky grasp not only of basic mathematics and science but of the milestones of their nation's history and the fundamental ideas and structures on which their government rests. Surveys conducted by the National Constitution Center show that while Americans hold the Constitution in high esteem, they know relatively little about the nation's founding document. Asked whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority could name only freedom of speech. After that, only four in ten could name freedom of religion and one in three freedom of the press. More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights; 42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that "the first language of the United States is English"; and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion. The young are even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About half of adults -- just 41 percent of teenagers -- can name the three branches of government. Only four in ten adults -- but just two in ten teenagers -- know that there are one hundred U.S. Senators. The vast majority of both adults and teens have no idea of when or by whom the Constitution was written. Among the teenagers, nearly 98 percent cannot name the Chief Justice of the United States.

Does this scare you as much as it does me? My regular readers know that this appalling subject--the gross ignorance of the Americn people--is a particular interest of mine. Jacoby is the first author I've encountered on this subject who clearly articulates the idea that this ignorance is destructive of the nation's very fabric because it turns the populace into a credulous herd which is easily manipulated by evil and unscrupulous leaders. The Iraq war is a prime example. Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity, Fox News: more examples. These will not be the last catastrophes we will lay at the feet of Queen Ignorance. As one of my good grad school buds would say, "Weep for the Republic."
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