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The Production of Ignorance

(photo: Jan Michael lhl/flickr)

When an official Chinese web site can with a straight face call the Dalai Lama a Nazi, it’s easy to see that American Gullibility, as celebrated in Melville’s The Confidence Man, for instance, is no longer ours alone.

Believing that President Obama is a Muslim is no different than believing the Dalai Lama is Albert Speer in a shemdap, although it must be pointed out that the demonization of Islam implicit in the former is itself depraved and ignorant.

As an advocate of popular democracy who believes the wisdom of the people is and always will be far superior to the judgment of any individual leader, the spread of ignorance presents something of a challenge. But it’s important to remember that ignorance is not some baseline human quality. It is manufactured. The confidence men in charge of most of the globe find it far easier to deceive the stupid and the gullible. Intelligence, discernment, wisdom, judgment – these are enemies of the modern State.

Charles Simic puts it well:

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

Because we are born uneducated by the standards of every known culture, newborns might find themselves in, elders have to cultivate intelligence, of course. Education takes some effort. The production of ignorance takes far less. One might say that the anti-education crowd gets a big bang for its unspent buck.

There’s a joke going around today that right wing conservatives believe in the sanctity of life from conception until birth. It’s not a joke, really, since, as David Brooks is so fond of reminding us, many of these neo-Hobbesians believe humans are born evil and that most stay that way:

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.

This is the convenient truth of the elite who thought it up. Comfortable in their own enlightenment, they teach that everyone else is in need of their self-aggrandizing, authoritative instruction. This is the old con of the Church. It’s one the Reformation wanted to dispense with, though it, like many revolutions, ended up reproducing some of the of very same cultural traps they so wanted to escape.

This isn’t a bad rule: any philosophy that tends to enhance the wealth or power of the philosopher bloviating about it can probably be rejected without further thought. I put most things Hobbesian and all things Randian in that category.

Anyway, back to the production of ignorance. What the powers want most to do is enforce obedience to their particular moral codes without teaching the kind of creative, independent thinking that leads to insights into the tricks of the powers that teach it.

In America, it has usually been external threats that led the elite to improve education for the masses. It has certainly not been the noble goal of creating independent thinkers that might one day toss the powers from their thrones. Baby Boomers were great beneficiaries of the Soviet Union and it’s nuclear weapons, Sputniks and such. From about 1953 to 1989, public education enjoyed its most glorious years.

Despite the constant pro-education rhetoric from virtually all politicians, public education has been in decline ever since. One might say America’s commitment to education collapsed with the Berlin Wall.

The U.S. education system is now only average when compared to other countries around the globe.

Making a bad situation worse, faux-populist politicians like Sarah Palin actually tell voters that their ignorance is a virtue. The irony is lost on the anti-government crowd that their hatred of intelligence, discernment, wisdom and judgment is the very thing the State they hate wants them to believe.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith