The New Know Nothing Party and the High Price of Willful Ignorance

by John Atcheson, February 19, 2013 by Common Dreams

Ignorance: The condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.

Excerpt

Here in the 21st Century the Republicans have become the new Know Nothing Party...  Just as the original Know Nothings employed fear, bigotry, ignorance and hate to motivate its base, so too does the Republican Party… one area of willful ignorance eclipses all others in terms of its denial of fact and the consequences of that denial:  Climate change. The scientific consensus is clear at this point, and it’s backed up by empirical evidence…We are trading away children’s future….So we have a clear and present danger, a strong scientific consensus, and empirical evidence that we are on the verge – or well into – irrevocable global disasters of epic proportion. How does the Party of Willful Ignorance respond?  With intentional ignorance, of course. The question is why. And the answer is simple. They sell ignorance because it is in the interests of their true constituency – the uber wealthy and the corporate special interests.  While tackling climate change would avoid catastrophic costs and create jobs, it will hurt the coal, oil and gas interests. Austerity preserves the status quo on who has and who doesn’t.  Them that has would continue to get, them that doesn’t would lose even more.

Hawking government as the problem lets them turn over trillions in retirement and health care profits to the private sector while increasing your individual debt.  It converts education from a public right to a private profit center. It allows them to justify cutting back on regulations so banks can once again screw you with impunity. It trashes your air, pollutes your water, and destroys your climate..We the people must seize control of the political process with our votes.  Progressive principles won the recent election, and a majority of Americans support progressive positions on a case-by-case basis. If we fail to translate these individual beliefs into broader political practices and votes, it’s due largely to the mainstream media, which regularly presents the “debate” about issues as opposed to the reality of the issues.  Thus, Rubio can still trot out the entire Republican playbook of lies and willful ignorance…As a result, our democracy is diminished; our children’s world is compromised; and our economy remains in service only to the uber rich.

Full text

Here in the 21st Century the Republicans have become the new Know Nothing Party.  Just as the original Know Nothings employed fear, bigotry, ignorance and hate to motivate its base, so too does the Republican Party.

Look at the litany of the new Know Nothing’s commitment to willful ignorance.

For example, the idea that debt and deficits spell doom and austerity will grow the economy.  This buffoonery can no longer be attributed to ignorance – history tells us it isn’t so, and the failed experiments in Europe confirm it.  At this point, holding fast to this notion can only be explained in terms of willful ignorance – AKA bald-faced lies.

Or take the trickle down fantasy that has dominated their economic policy for 30 years.  Nothing trickled down, but a great deal of our wealth has trickled up.  Believing in trickle down can only be explained as a de facto act of economic aggression on the middle class and low-income earners.

We could go on and on here with the Republican’s commitment to lying.  Government as inefficient. The private sector as the provider of all good things by pure serendipity. The Republican’s commitment to freedom and liberty –except when they want to shove an ultrasound device into your vagina, tell you who you may or may not marry, who can and cannot fight in wars … on and on it goes.

But one area of willful ignorance eclipses all others in terms of its denial of fact and the consequences of that denial:  Climate change.

The scientific consensus is clear at this point, and it’s backed up by empirical evidence.  Events that were forecast to occur are occurring, although they’re happening more quickly than modelers expected.

We are trading away children’s future.  If we don’t act, they will face  extreme droughts, a billion or more climate refugees, food scarcity, vast stretches of new deserts, rapidly rising sea levels, extinction of some 50% or more of species, wildfires unlike any that humanity has ever witnessed, floods of biblical proportions, and spreading of tropical diseases, and literally trillions of dollars of defensive investments made in a futile attempt to fix an unfixable disaster.  And unchecked, ocean acidification will destroy virtually all fisheries, and could ultimately effect the generation of atmospheric oxygen.

So we have a clear and present danger, a strong scientific consensus, and empirical evidence that we are on the verge – or well into – irrevocable global disasters of epic proportion.

How does the Party of Willful Ignorance respond?  With intentional ignorance, of course.

The question is why.

And the answer is simple. They sell ignorance because it is in the interests of their true constituency – the uber wealthy and the corporate special interests.  While tackling climate change would avoid catastrophic costs and create jobs, it will hurt the coal, oil and gas interests.

Austerity preserves the status quo on who has and who doesn’t.  Them that has would continue to get, them that doesn’t would lose even more.

Hawking government as the problem lets them turn over trillions in retirement and health care profits to the private sector while increasing your individual debt.  It converts education from a public right to a private profit center. It allows them to justify cutting back on regulations so banks can once again screw you with impunity. It trashes your air, pollutes your water, and destroys your climate.

So why do the Democrats and the press not confront this willful ignorance as the Big Lie it is?  For three and a half years, Obama barely contradicted Republican talking points. But the Republican’s lunatic positions force him to adopt progressive positions in the campaign, just as he had in 2008. But this quadrennial embrace of progressive rhetoric fades as soon as the election is over, and he drifts into the pragmatic compromiser.  And it’s not just Obama.  How could Reid not change the Senate Rules on filibusters?  In fact, the whole Democratic Party acts like the skinny kid in the cafeteria, willfully giving up his lunch money.

To some the answer is that Democrats are actively complicit – that the entire political process is a Kabuki dance in which each Party plays its part. But the fact is, Republicans get 8 times more in political contributions from corporations than Democrats do, so the vested interests seem to see a real difference.

But whether we are in the midst of a Kabuki dance or victims of political cowardice may not matter.  The outcome is the same, and so is the solution.

We the people must seize control of the political process with our votes.  Progressive principles won the recent election, and a majority of Americans support progressive positions on a case-by-case basis.

If we fail to translate these individual beliefs into broader political practices and votes, it’s due largely to the mainstream media, which regularly presents the “debate” about issues as opposed to the reality of the issues.  Thus, Rubio can still trot out the entire Republican playbook of lies and willful ignorance, and the press treats it as a legitimate debate and focuses on a drink of water.

As a result, our democracy is diminished; our children’s world is compromised; and our economy remains in service only to the uber rich.

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/02/19-0

Will Republican Voters Believe Anything? The Right’s Hyperbolic, Dysfunctional World

By Gary Younge, Alternet.org, March 28, 2011 

Excerpt

Polls suggest there are between one in three and one in four Americans who would believe anythingThese are national polls that span the political spectrum. So you can imagine how concentrated the distortions become when filtered through the tainted lens of the right. The challenge for the primaries is neither new nor unique to the right. The tension between appealing to the base and to moderates is the perennial test of any successful candidate in national United States politics. To win the party nomination you must appeal to your motivated base. To take the country as a whole you generally must engage the wavering centre. What is relatively new, however, is the level of logical dysfunction and hyperbole [7] within the American right…what you need to say and do to be credible within the Republican party essentially deprives you of credibility outside it…With just a few exceptions only social conservatives (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun) can get elected within the Republican party, so it has ceased to be much of an issue in primaries.

Full text

Polls suggest there are between one in three and one in four Americans who would believe anything. More than a third [3] thought President George Bush did a good job during Hurricane Katrina; half of those thought he was excellent.

Throughout most of 2008, as the economy careered into depression, just over one in four believed Bush was handling the economy well. As Bush prepared to leave office in January 2009, bequeathing bank bailouts, rampant unemployment, and Iraq and Afghanistan in tatters, a quarter of the country approved of his presidency.

These are national polls that span the political spectrum. So you can imagine how concentrated the distortions become when filtered through the tainted lens of the right. A poll earlier this month revealed that a quarter of Republicans believe a community rights organisation called Acorn will try to steal the election [4] for Barack Obama next year, while 31% aren’t sure whether it will or not. It won’t. Because Acorn does not exist. It was defunded and disbanded after a successful sting operation by conservatives a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, a poll last month showed that a majority of Republicans likely to vote in the primaries still believe Obama was not born in the United States. He was. But no number of verified birth certificates will convince them.

Such is the nature of the electorate that will select Obama’s principal opponent for the 2012 election. And such is the reason why a viable Republican contender has yet to emerge despite trough-loads of money and the Republican successes of the mid-terms. Among Republicans the latest polls suggest [5] a crowded, splintered field of possibles with Mike Huckabee leading on 19%, followed by Mitt Romney on 15%, Sarah Palin on 12% and Newt Gingrich on 10%.

And if Republicans are unconvinced, Democrats are untroubled. When Obama is pitted against any of them in six states he took from Republicans in 2008, polls [6] suggest he would win all but one – he would lose to Huckabee in North Carolina by 1%. He fares best against Palin, trouncing her by double figures everywhere but Ohio. Despite his favourability ratings suggesting the nation is evenly divided on his job performance, a national Pew poll suggests 47% would back Obama’s re-election against 37% who would prefer a Republican and 16% who did not know.

The challenge for the primaries is neither new nor unique to the right. The tension between appealing to the base and to moderates is the perennial test of any successful candidate in national United States politics. To win the party nomination you must appeal to your motivated base. To take the country as a whole you generally must engage the wavering centre.

What is relatively new, however, is the level of logical dysfunction and hyperbole [7] within the American right, trapped in a fetid media ecosystem where all the Kool-Aid has been spiked. In short, what you need to say and do to be credible within the Republican party essentially deprives you of credibility outside it. The Republicans seem to realise this, but like an obese glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet, they just can’t seem to help themselves.

When asked which of their possible contenders they believe to be qualified [8] for the job they can think of one, Mitt Romney, and even then barely 50% believe so. The person they say they like the most, Sarah Palin, is also the one they believe is least qualified: only 29% believe she can actually do the job.

This was evident in Iowa, the state that holds the first caucuses in the primary process next year, where many of the possible candidates converged [9] over the weekend. On Friday, at a forum for Iowa pastors called “Rediscovering God in America”, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, an outsider, vowed to do “everything that we can to stop abortion”. The next day at the Conservative Principles Conference, where Barbour spoke, abortion didn’t come up. “It is absolutely critical that we elect a new president,” he said. “I think the best way, perhaps the only way, is for us to make sure the 2012 campaign is focused on policy.” He added: “The American people agree with us on policy.”

When it comes to Libya, Newt Gingrich has vacillated [10] from “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening”, on Fox News 12 days before bombing started, to “I would not have intervened” four days afterwards. Meanwhile, congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who once called for an investigation of “anti-American” lawmakers, told the conference: “It can’t just be a Republican. Do you hear me? It can’t just be a Republican.” She urged Iowa conservatives to set the tone for the nation, saying: “We need to have people who have guts, who you won’t see melt like wax when they get there.”

Some feared that Iowa, which holds such a crucial role in the nomination process, could be too extreme to pick a competitive candidate. “We look like Camp Christian out here,” Doug Gross, a Republican activist and former nominee for governor, told the New York Times. “If Iowa becomes some extraneous rightwing outpost, you have to question whether it is going to be a good place to vet your presidential candidates.”

Strategically the division between social and fiscal conservatism has largely been settled. With just a few exceptions only social conservatives (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun) can get elected within the Republican party, so it has ceased to be much of an issue in primaries. Once nominated, candidates stress only fiscal conservatism for fear of scaring away centrists. Once elected they emphasise both, evidenced by the growing efforts to restrict access to abortion by legislators who barely raised the issue of abortion on the stump.

When I saw Rand Paul speak [11] before 35 people in Leitchfield, Kentucky, just over a year ago, he never mentioned abortion, and nor did anyone else. “I’m not running for preacher,” he told me. “I’m running for office.” Now he’s a senator who supports slashing aid to planned parenthood. Meanwhile, the Kentucky legislature has recently passed a bill requiring a woman to view an ultrasound before she has an abortion.

But the strategic question of where and how to strike a balance between principle and pragmatism, or even whether such a balance is desirable, still eludes them. So too does any consensus on the kind of facts – Obama’s religion and place of birth being just the two most obvious – that would enable others to take them seriously.

With little more than 18 months to go before the election there is still time for a candidate to emerge who can fudge the difference and straddle the divide. An event like the Arizona shootings might also force a reckoning between the right and reality. But generally speaking, incumbent presidents lose elections; challengers don’t win them. Obama is vulnerable on many fronts. With unemployment still high, poverty and home repossessions growing, Guantánamo still open, two old wars not yet over and a new one just begun, he deserves more than token opposition. There is just over a third of the country who think that Republicans are providing it. But then they believe anything.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/150409/will_republican_voters_believe_anything_the_right%27s_hyperbolic%2C_dysfunctional_world

Links:
[1] http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/index.html
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/gary-younge-0
[3] http://legacy.rasmussenreports.com/2005/Katrina_September%2018.htm
[4] http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/weigel/archive/2011/03/15/only-25-percent-of-republicans-think-acorn-will-rig-2012-election.aspx
[5] http://www.gallup.com/poll/146792/Huckabee-Slight-Edge-Palin-Down-GOP-Preferences.aspx
[6] http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2011/01/obama-doing-well-in-key-states.html
[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/11/us-right-republicans-obama-fraternity
[8] http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2011/02/romney-and-birthers.html
[9] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/us/politics/27iowa.html?_r=1&hp
[10] http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/03/newt-gingrichs-libya-shift-issue-by-issue.php?ref=fpb
[11] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/20/republicans-obama-tea-party
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/right
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bush-0
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/obama-0
[15] http://www.alternet.org/tags/right-wing
[16] http://www.alternet.org/tags/huckabee
[17] http://www.alternet.org/tags/beck
[18] http://www.alternet.org/tags/palin-0
[19] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

37 Percent of People Don’t Have a Clue About What’s Going on

By Mark Morford, San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 2013  |

Excerpt

about 37 percent of Americans are just are not very bright. Or rather, quite shockingly dumb…reading anything even remotely complex or analytical is something only 42 percent of the population enjoy doing on a regular basis, which is why most TV shows, all reality shows, many major media blogs and all of Fox News is scripted for a 5th-grade education/attention spanThe smarter you are, the less rigid/more liberal you become…How to reach the not-very-bright hordes, when they simply refuse to be reached by logic, fact, or modern mode? …In the wealthiest and most egomaniacal superpower in the world, why is the chasm so wide?…There is no easy answer… the discussion itself is, by nature, elitist, exclusionary, requiring fluid, abstract thinking the very people we’re discussing simply do not possess, and therefore cannot participate in…It is not enough to say people believe what they want to believe. They will also believe it in the face of irrefutable counter-evidence and millennia of fundamental proof.

Full text

Six percent of Americans believe in unicorns. Thirty-six percent believe in UFOs. A whopping 24 percent believe dinosaurs and man hung out together. Eighteen percent still believe the sun revolves around the Earth. Nearly 30 percent believe cloud computing involves… actual clouds. A shockingly sad 18 percent, to this very day, believe the president is a Muslim. Aren’t they cute? And Floridian?

Do you believe in angels? Forty-five percent of Americans do. In fact, roughly 48 percent – Republicans and Democrats alike – believe in some form of creationism. A hilariously large percent of terrified right-wingers are convinced Obama is soon going to take away all their guns, so when the Newtown shooting happened and 20 young children were massacred due to America’s fetish for, obsession with and addiction to firearms, violence and fear, they bought more bullets. Because obviously.

In sum and all averaged out, it’s safe to say about 37 percent of Americans are just are not very bright. Or rather, quite shockingly dumb. Perhaps beyond reach. Perhaps beyond hope or redemption. Perhaps beyond caring about anything they have to say in the public sphere ever again. Sorry, Kansas.

Did you frown at that last paragraph? Was it a terribly elitist and unkind thing to say? Sort of. Probably. But I’m not sure it matters, because none of those people are reading this column right now, or any column for that matter, because reading anything even remotely complex or analytical is something only 42 percent of the population enjoy doing on a regular basis, which is why most TV shows, all reality shows, many major media blogs and all of Fox News is scripted for a 5th-grade education/attention span. OMG LOL kittens! 19 babies having a worse day than you. WTF is up with Justin Timberlake’s hair [3]?!?

It is this bizarre, circular, catch-22 kind of question, asked almost exclusively by intellectual liberals because intellectual conservatives don’t actually exist, given how higher education leads to more developed critical thinking (you already know the vast majority of university professors and scientists identify as Democrat/progressive, right?) which leads straight to a more nimble, open-minded perspective. In short: The smarter you are, the less rigid/more liberal you become.

Until you get old. Or rich. And scared. And you forget. And you clamp down, seize up, fossilize. And the GOP grabs you like a mold.

Oh right! The question: How to reach the not-very-bright hordes, when they simply refuse to be reached by logic, fact, or modern mode? How to communicate obvious and vital truths (conservation, global warming, public health [4], sexuality, basic nutrition, religion as parable/myth, the general awfulness of Mumford & Sons) the lack of understanding of which keep the country straggling and embarrassing, the laughingstock of the civilized world?

And who are these people, exactly? And are they all really in Kentucky and Florida and Mississippi? Are they all in the Tea Party? Is failing education to blame? A dumbed-down media? Reality TV? In the wealthiest and most egomaniacal superpower in the world, why is the chasm so wide?

There is no easy answer, but there is a great deal of irony. It is a wicked conundrum that you and I can debate the definition of elitism, whether or not it’s fair to criticize those who believe that, say, gay marriage means kids will be indoctrinated into homosexuality, or that evolution is still a theory, or that Jesus literally flew up out of a cave and into the sky, when the discussion itself is, by nature, elitist, exclusionary, requiring fluid, abstract thinking the very people we’re discussing simply do not possess, and therefore cannot participate in.

Discussion of elitism is elitist. Intelligence can talk itself blue about what to do about all the dumb; the dumb will never hear it.

It’s a fact even recognized by Louisiana’s own Gov. Bobby Jindal, who had the nerve to defy his own state’s (and his own party’s) famously low IQ by saying, after the last election, “The GOP must stop being the stupid party [5]. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”

Of course he’s right. But where would that leave their base? And who will tell the megachurches? And does Jindal not know Louisiana is where they teach that the existence of the Loch Ness monster is evidence that evolution is a lie [6]?

Brings to mind a stunning study about facts and truths. Have you ever heard it? It goes something like: Here is hard evidence, scientific evidence, irrefutable proof that something is or is not true. Here is dinosaur bone, for example, which we know beyond a doubt is between 60 and 70 million years old. Amazing! Obviously!

But then comes the impossible snag: If you are hard-coded to believe otherwise, if your TV network or your ideology, your pastor or your lack of education tell you differently, you will still not believe it. No matter what. No matter how many facts, figures, common senses slap you upside the obvious. You will think there is conspiracy, collusion, trickery afoot. The Bible says that bone is only eight thousand years old. Science is elitist. Liberals hate God.The end.

It is not enough to say people believe what they want to believe. They will also believe it in the face of irrefutable counter-evidence and millennia of fundamental proof.

This! This is what stuns and stupefies liberals and progressives of every intellectual stripe. We cannot understand. We cannot compute. We think, “Well, if more people just had the facts, just heard a reasonable and cogent argument or read up on the real science, surely they would change their minds? Surely they would see the error in their thinking?”

Oh, liberals. All those smarts, and still so naïve.

Here is the body of Jesus! We found it! In a cave in a hole deep in an iron-gated alcove beneath the Vatican! Turns out he is not the Messiah after all! Turns out – look at those tribal tattoos! Those mala beads! That blond hair! – he’s a wild non-dualist guru from parts unknown. Christianity is a total fabrication! Always has been, always will be.

Here is hard evidence coupled with an ocean of common sense that more guns equal only more violence and death! Stat after stat, mass shooting after mass shooting proving we have it all wrong about protection and fear. Also! At least 2,605 people have died by gun violence [7] in America since the Newtown shooting. Can we ban them now? No [8]?

Here is overwhelming evidence that global warming is ravaging us like a furious god, and not only are we complicit, not only have we blindly raced forth into the abyss, we are, if all goes according to current trends and speeds and attitudes, totally f–king doomed [9].

Ah, unicorns. You look better every day.

© 2013 The San Francisco Chronicle

See more stories tagged with:

elitism [10]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/education/37-percent-people-dont-have-clue-about-whats-going

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/mark-morford
[2] http://www.11points.com/News-Politics/11_Things_Americans_Wrongly_and_Frighteningly_Believe
[3] http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/wtf-is-going-on-with-justin-timberlakes-hair
[4] http://www.foodpolitics.com/2013/03/daily-news-op-ed-bloombergs-soda-ban-should-be-only-the-beginning/
[5] http://swampland.time.com/2013/01/25/bobby-jindal-weve-got-to-stop-being-the-stupid-party/#ixzz2NGpxGlV4
[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/louisiana-students-loch-ness-monster-disprove-evolution_n_1624643.html
[7] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html
[8] http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/07/us/georgia-gun-requirement/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn
[9] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/were-screwed-11-000-years-worth-of-climate-data-prove-it/273870/
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/elitism
[11] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

The Decline of Critical Thinking

The Problem of Ignorance by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON, CounterPunch Weekend Edition April 5-7, 2013

Excerpt

…most Americans were…readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble…the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention…The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities…

They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth…

the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired… loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end…The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors….

Full text

In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble.

Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.

To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka.  If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.

Ideology and Bureaucracy

The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Moments of Embarrassment 

That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight.  Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:

McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”

Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”

Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfully restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.

Teaching Critical Thinking?

As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.

Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.

It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well-educated among us know what happened to him.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/05/the-decline-of-critical-thinking/print