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We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today

15 April 2014

Summary:  One of the great themes of the FM website is our clouded vision, the American people’s inability to clearly see the world and our susceptibility to propaganda. It’s central to almost all of our large problems. It’s one of the most important issues of our time, for I doubt that reform remains impossible for a people so confused and gullible. Today we have an incisive essay about this by Charles Simic, a poet and keen observer of our society.

Girl looks into a mirror

If only we had a mirror in which to see ourselves, and the nature of our folly

Matthew 7:5: “… first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Contents

  1. The Age of Ignorance
  2. My comment on Simic’s essay
  3. About the author
  4. For More Information

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Age of Ignorance

by Charles Simic, Blog of the New York Review of Books
20 March 2012
Posted with their generous permission.

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.

An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.

It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught.

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Clear vision

Clear vision is power

Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

Even regional history has gotten a short shrift. Students who come from old New England mill towns, as I have discovered, have never been told about the famous strikes in their communities in which workers were shot in cold blood and the perpetrators got away scot-free. I wasn’t surprised that their high schools were wary of bringing up the subject, but it astonished me that their parents and grandparents, and whoever else they came in contact with while they were growing up, never mentioned these examples of gross injustice. Either their families never talked about the past, or their children were not paying attention when they did. Whatever it was, one is confronted with the problem of how to remedy their vast ignorance about things they should have already been familiar with as the generations of students before them were.

If this lack of knowledge is the result of the years of dumbing down of high school curriculum and of families that don’t talk to their children about the past, there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past. I recall being stunned some years back when I read that a majority of Americans told pollsters that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 terrorist attacks. It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past—many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.

No doubt, the Internet and cable television have allowed various political and corporate interests to spread disinformation on a scale that was not possible before, but to have it believed requires a badly educated population unaccustomed to verifying things they are being told. Where else on earth would a president who rescued big banks from bankruptcy with taxpayers’ money and allowed the rest of us to lose $12 trillion in investment, retirement, and home values be called a socialist?

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth:

  • Christians are persecuted in this country.
  • The government is coming to get your guns.
  • Obama is a Muslim.
  • Global Warming is a hoax.
  • The president is forcing open homosexuality on the military.
  • Schools push a left-wing agenda.
  • Social Security is an entitlement, no different from welfare.
  • Obama hates white people.
  • The life on earth is 10,000 years old and so is the universe.
  • The safety net contributes to poverty.
  • The government is taking money from you and giving it to sex-crazed college women to pay for their birth control.

One could easily list many more such commonplace delusions believed by Americans. They are kept in circulation by hundreds of right-wing political and religious media outlets whose function is to fabricate an alternate reality for their viewers and their listeners. “Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt.

What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.

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(2)  My comment on Simic’s essay

“Yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
— Leo Tolstoy, “Three Methods Of Reform” (1900)

Simic’s essay says what I’ve said in dozens of posts, but more eloquently. However at the end he concludes with the standard trope of partisan writing in America: it’s all the bad people on the other side. Note that the material before does not remotely justify such a conclusions. To mention just one point, conservatives do not control State and local school boards across the country, to have created the “dumbing down” he accurately describes.

As I have shown so many times, liberals see this phenomenon clearly at work in conservatives. And vice versa. Neither see it in themselves, even when their own analysis shows the deep roots of our ignorance and gullibility — on a scale and to a degree without precedent in our history (these things are human characteristics, present to varying degrees always and everywhere).

Nothing will change so long as each side considers this a problem of their foes. Correct diagnosis of ones foes but blindness to our own faults empowers our foes, as the 1% laugh at our divisions and confusion. Only when reform starts within ourselves can we regain control of our political machinery.

Where this begins I do not know. But a willingness to see clearly, no matter how disturbing the view, might be the best starting the point.

(3)  About the author

Charles Simic is a poet, essayist, and translator. He has published some twenty collections of poetry, six books of essays, a memoir, and numerous translations. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Simic’s recent works include Voice at 3 a.m., a selection of later and new poems; Master of Disguises, new poems; and Confessions of a Poet Laureate, a collection of short essays that was published by New York Review Books as an e-book original. In 2007 Simic was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. His New and Selected Poems: 1962–2012 was published in March 2013.

— From his bio at the NYRB, which also lists his reviews published there.

(4)  For More Information

(a)  Posts about the importance of clear vision (neither Left or Right is “reality-based”):

  1. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  2. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  3. Examples of America’s broken vision. Here’s why we cannot clearly see our world., 21 October 2012
  4. What does a “broken OODA loop” look like?, 23 October 2012
  5. Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America, 1 December 2012
  6. Who lies to us the most? Left or Right?, 25 February 2013
  7. Learning to see beyond the American Pravda, 24 May 2013
  8. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance., 29 October 2013
  9. The achilles heel of both political parties, waiting to be exploited by reformers, 7 November 2013
  10. The missing but essential key to building a better America, 21 November 2013 — Clear sight about our condition
  11. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America, 24 November 2013
  12. Today you can take the first step to reforming America, 6 February 2014 — Seeing the world clearly is revolutionary

(b)  Posts about ignorance and delusions of the Right:

  1. Can Obama turn America into something like Zimbabwe?, 22 February 2010
  2. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  3. More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011
  4. Seeing the world through conservative eyes, 15 February 2014
  5. A look into the GOP mind: untethered from reality and drifting in the wind, 3 March 2014

(c)  Examples of the Left’s exaggerations and misinformation about climate change:

  1. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010
  2. Kevin Drum talks about global warming, illustrating the collapse of the Left’s credibility, 17 December 2012
  3. Lessons the Left can learn from the Right when writing about climate change, 12 December 2012 — More from Phil Plait
  4. Fierce words about those “wacky professional climate change deniers”, 20 January 2013
  5. A powerful story about global warming in Alaska that has set Twitter aflame, 23 June 2013
  6. The North Pole is now a lake! Are you afraid yet?, 3 August 2013
  7. Climate science deniers on the Left, captured for viewing, 29 September 2013
  8. Why the Left is losing: another example of incompetent marketing, 26 February 2014
  9. The Left sees “Climate buffoons” and “deniers”. What do they see in the mirror?, 7 March 2014

(d)  Posts about propaganda, molding our minds:

  1. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  2. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  3. The similar delusions of America’s Left and Right show our common culture – and weakness, 26 March 2010
  4. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  5. The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
  6. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  7. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  8. Who lies to us the most? Left or Right?, 25 February 2013
  9. We can see our true selves in the propaganda used against us, 14 May 2013
  10. A nation lit only by propaganda, 3 June 2013
  11. The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans. That molds our opinions., 24 July 2013

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. RoHa permalink
    17 April 2014 2:48 am

    “Where else on earth would a president who rescued big banks from bankruptcy with taxpayers’ money and allowed the rest of us to lose $12 trillion in investment, retirement, and home values be called a socialist?”

    Was this Obama or Bush? I ask because all your presidents look alike to me. (In policy, at least.)

    Like

  2. RoHa permalink
    17 April 2014 6:07 am

    I’ve never heard anyone ever call any American president a socialist. So Obama, then?

    Like

    • 17 April 2014 1:46 pm

      RoHa,

      I’ve read those on the far Right call every Democratic president back to and including FDR called a “socialist” (often a “communist”). So, yes, Obama.

      Like

  3. RoHa permalink
    21 April 2014 3:17 am

    “I’ve read those on the far Right call every Democratic president back to and including FDR called a “socialist” (often a “communist”).”

    Wow! Many years ago I had a friend who said that he would consider the US to be civilized when they elected a black, atheist, openly lesbian, socialist as President. I told him that I couldn’t imagine Americans electing a socialist. But some of your citizens believe that you did!

    Like

  4. OldSkeptic_2 permalink
    21 April 2014 9:33 am

    Well in a sense no one rich and/or powerful has been anything but an atheist. Amazing how they can turn around simple words and use to justify their actions (war, poverty, death, etc). I don’t think there ever has been one in the past that has allowed ‘religious’ dogma get in the way of getting power and wealth or creating death.

    One thing I find very ironic is that the US, full of ‘religious’ people, very full of militant ‘Christians’ and so on, has worked very hard to ethnically cleanse Christians in the Middle East. Though all people there have suffered very badly, the single ethnic/religious group that has suffered the most have been the ME Christians. Iraq was the classic, but ‘our boys’ in Syria…how many nuns and priests have they killed again? But look at El Salvador (etc) and the deliberate atrocities against Nuns, (etc) there, so this is not a flash in the pan thing.

    And, this I love, ‘our’ Saudi Arabia where Christianity is illegal, have just passed a law making atheism a ‘terrorist’ offence….

    Not a word from the various Churches in the US…..need I add ..’of course’.
    You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    But power elites, through all history have used (and abused) religion. Where it is useful to justify their actions, such as : grab money from a group, kill lots of people, war, justify wealth extraction and poverty, etc, etc. religion is allowed and encouraged. If it steps out of line it is ruthlessly crushed.

    The US is no exception to that. Though the UK had the best answer, make the Sovereign the head of the Religion (who obviously talks directly to God), so anything the elites do is automatically justified by God. Clever eh?

    Amazed the US hasn’t done that one yet……but give it some some …lol.

    Like

    • RoHa permalink
      22 April 2014 2:00 am

      You do know, don’t you, that the Kings and Queens of England (and, later, Scotland) outrank God. Henry VIII and Queen Victoria both made that clear, though in different ways.

      Like

    • 22 April 2014 2:11 am

      RoHa,

      Can you provide supporting citations for that statement — that the monarchs of England believed they “outranked God.” Sounds quite daft.

      Like

  5. RoHa permalink
    22 April 2014 4:19 am

    A bit tongue in cheek, I admit.
    Henry VIII made himself head of the English Church, so that God would work for him rather than the Pope.
    The clergy said that God had decreed women should suffer during childbirth. Queen Victoria, who had a lot more experience of childbirth than the average clergyman, overruled God and chose anaesthesia.
    Mind you, to me it is self-evident that British monarchs outrank God. At least we know they exist.

    Like

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