Friday, January 16, 2009

Verse Umpteen

As announced in my previous entry, here are several more passages from the excellent "Notebook" section of the current Harper's. There's not a word of these passages that doesn't comport with what I've been saying, far less eloquently to anyone who would listen for the past several years.

The attentive reader will also note that this species of thinking, if that's what we chose to call it, is exactly what Stephen Colbert lampoons every day on "The Colbert Report." Nobody so illustrates this kind of thinking and its inherent danger than people such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and others of their ilk. These people who wield huge influence on basis of bluster and manipulation of the truth. Whose success absolutely depends on the ignorance of the audience. An audience too ignorant to understand that they're being manipulated by people whose ignorance in some ways rivals their own.

So, to continue:

The gut tells us things. It tells us what’s right and what’s wrong, who to hate and what to believe and who to vote for. Increasingly, it’s where American politics is done. . . . We know because we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart, like love.

I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance, and to try to do something about it if at all possible. I carry that burden to this day, and have successfully passed it on to my children. I don’t believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about—constitutional law, for example, or sailing—a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it.

Quite possibly, this belief in our own opinion, regardless of the facts, may be what separates us from the nations of the world, what makes us unique in God’s eyes. The average German or Czech, though possibly no less ignorant than his American counterpart, will probably consider the possibility that someone who has spent his life studying something may have an opinion worth considering. Not the American. Although perfectly willing to recognize expertise in basketball, for example, or refrigerator repair, when it comes to the realm of ideas, all folks (and their opinions) are suddenly equal. Thus evolution is a damned lie, global warming a liberal hoax, and Republicans care about people like you.

But there’s more. Not only do we believe that opinion (our own) trumps expertise; we then go further and demand that expertise . . . those with actual knowledge supplicate themselves to the Believers, who don’t need to know. The logic here, if that’s the term, seems to rest on the a priori conviction that belief and knowledge are separate and unequal. Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There’s a kind of Biblical grandeur to it, and as God’s chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it’s based on, it’s slippery, insubstantial—not solid like the things you believe.

The corollary to the axiom that belief beats knowledge, of course, is that ordinary folks shouldn’t value the latter too highly, and should be suspicious of those who do. Which may explain our inherent discomfort with argument. We may not know much, but at least we know what we believe. Tricky elitists, on the other hand, are always going on. Confusing things. We don’t trust them.

There’s no particular reason to believe, after all, that things will improve; that our ignorance and gullibility will miraculously abate, that the militant right and the entrenched left, both so given to caricature, will simultaneously emerge from their bunkers eager to embrace complexity, that our disdain for facts and our aversion to argument will reverse themselves. Precisely the opposite is likely.

And this is exactly what I'm afraid of. That the situation is now irreversible. I'm personally convinced that the tide of ignorance is now irresistible, that it is going to overwhelm us no matter what we do with our educational system, no matter what Obama does. And what makes this so dangerous is that people will not be equipped to resist any of the many species of evil charlatans who will certainly be vying for power. A populace armed with nothing but ignorance will fall for any kind of lie, little lies, big lies, outrageous lies. Like waterboarding somebody is not torturing them, or that torture is a legitimate interogation technique under certain circumstances. Somebody convince me that I'm wrong. Please.
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