Elevating Ignorance

By now, most people have heard about the twitter storm in the aftermath of NPR’s 4th of July tweeting of the Declaration of Independence. A number of Trump supporters responded angrily to the descriptions of King George as a tyrant; unfamiliar with one of this nation’s founding documents, these “patriots” assumed that the tyrant in question was Trump and unleashed their ire accordingly.

Pretty much everything to be said about that episode has been said, and I don’t intend to belabor yet another example of the lack of basic civic knowledge. (I’ll  even resist the temptation to say “See, I told you so.”)

What is worth thinking about, however, is what has been termed “America’s Cult of Ignorance.” An article addressing that issue began with my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The linked article is an excerpt from a book the author has written on the subject. He gives several examples of the harms done by widespread ignorance, then gets to the point:

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.

The author grapples with the phenomenon of “stubborn ignorance”in the midst of the information age, and concludes that “hilarious” as examples may be (see the NPR episode, for example) it is ultimately no laughing matter.

Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. And let’s face it: watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North Korea’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.

The problem, as he readily admits, is not that we do not have experts. We do. The problem, he says, is that we use them as technicians, as conveniences. We don’t engage with them.

It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger community, but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet. (More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight.) Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will. (Roughly half of Americans with children haven’t bothered to write one.) Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security. (Most U.S. citizens do not have even a remote idea of how much the United States spends on its armed forces.)…

Any assertion of expertise from an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.

A society that knows nothing, elects a know-nothing.


  1. It’s sad, but true. Fixing this problem may be the greatest leap forward in our history. It may also be the most difficult.

  2. “…the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, amid the sounds of silence…”

    Simon and Garfunkle, circa 1976

    The “sounds of silence” we are being inundated with today from our government are the empty words, phrases and declarations of our national salvation by our own government officials. We are currently on “Toad’s Wild Ride” as things get “curioser and curioser” and the rabbit hole has become a bottomless pit with the protection of the Constitution of the United States of America becoming a useless jumble of meaningless words.

    I vacillate between anger, despair and tears throughout each day. Those who tell me to stop watching are telling me the same thing as to leave doors and windows unlocked and put my money on the front sidewalk with a sign for thieves to help themselves. My only protection at this time is to remain aware and try to maintain at least a basic level of understanding our totally foreign (NO pun intended) mode of leadership which is headed for our destruction and slowly to it’s own destruction .

    “Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security.”

    This confusion, for the majority of Americans; is in part because we cannot relate to that amount of dollars and cents, it is as if reading a foreign language. We would much better understand how many millions (unless it has amounted to billions within 6 months) of our tax dollars have been wasted on the Trump family alone in salaries, housing and recreational costs. This knowledge might even awaken those who support Trump’s refusal to raise their minimum wage as they all live off of our tax dollars. “Money speaks, bullshit walks.” The Trump family bullshit alone is walking off with our money and the wasted millions (or is it billions?) on attempts to repeal and/or destroy the ACA is another line item budget figure that would interest most in this country…maybe even the “know nothings”. “Elevating Ignorance”?

  3. Would requiring all voters, at least for Federal offices, to take and pass a citizenship test such as we require our nationalized citizens to do before granting them citizenship with the right to vote, “voter suppression”?

    How about if we at least require all candidates for Federal office take and pass one? Oh, and all attempts would be published. Obviously the questions wouldn’t be identical each time, but I’m guessing that even if they were, we’d be surprised at how many couldn’t pass.

  4. The value of a traditional Liberal Arts education are denigrated widely especially by undergrads who complain “we aren’t learning anything we can get a job with or why do we have to know about all this history- literature -language!” I told my children undergrad is being thrown into the big sea of life and culture so you know how much you don’t know. Ultimately you are gaining even that small understanding of other cultures, those gems of learning can be drawn on later. When you go for your Masters and focus on one area with a broad understanding of how unrelated things may just be important to what you Master in. American’s have a deep-seated insecurity complex related to Europe which was/is a more established culture. How often are we sold a product with the come on ‘as used in Europe’ as though their using the thing confers any value? Mark Twain did much to examine our reaction to European intellectualism and in some ways it has made us more open intellectually, and also reacting against it since their (Europe’s) tyrannies are well understood. WW I and WW II were in most ways calamities as was the 19th centuries unification of Germany and Hundred Year’s war. USA strove to do better. But now are we just loosing our idealism and becoming what we left? Cynical and jaded?

  5. As with so many of us writers and authors, there are times when we feel like Cassandra warning the gods that their demise was imminent. Nobody listened.

    As a former science educator, it was equally stunning to see how many people are fearful of knowledge – especially in subjects for which they have little or no knowledge. They feel safe in their ignorance. I also think there is much intellectual sloth among the majority of the population. Clearly, the 62 million people who voted for Trump were/are flat on their butts. I don’t know what to say about the 92 million voters who stayed home.

  6. VT:”I don’t know what to say about the 92 million voters who stayed home.”

    Those eligible voters stayed home because neither candidate was worth their vote. After what the Democrat Party did to Bernie Sanders and treated his supporters with contempt,the Democrat Party of Debbie Wasserman Schultz can go to hell and kiss my a**.

    Things would not be much different if Clinton had won. Although she might have escalated a war against Russia by now if she had won. A war against Russia is/would be insane. Moreover,we can only go to war against small countries-not against formidable foes. Plus, the U.S. has not won a military intervention since the nineteen-forties. The majority of people now rightfully realise they have no influence upon their government. Hillary is/was beholden to the lobbyists of BIG Pharma,Insurance, et al. She,just as Trump, would not be a traitor to her class. The truth is,Clinton was a do nothing senator,and a lousy Secretary of State.

    The hand wringing and clutching of pearls must stop. At the moment,it’s embarrassing being a Democrat. The Democrats have no solutions. Blaming everything on Putin is silly. And,if the Democrats are going to act and govern like Republicans and dismiss genuine liberal ideals in order to court the suburban Republican voter…..There is no reason for me to continue supporting the party.

  7. One more thing.

    Until the election,the Clinton$ and the Trump$ were extremely close personal friend$.

  8. I have never claimed to be above the fray. I certainly am not above goading these seemingly illiterate gomers. My only claom to decency is I would never stick a knife in anyone’s back. However, I am not above twisting it around some while it is in there. And wingnuts have it coming.

  9. “Are you able to support the Republican Congress voting on draconian health care while we have a good system working for millions of Americans?”

    No. It’s up to the Democrats to counter the Republicans by going further than Romney/HeritageFoundation/ObamaCare. Good? Not good enough. Obama capitulated to the lobbyists. That’s why he receives millions in speaking fees today,he sold out. You may think this type of behavior from Democrats is laudable,I think it’s deplorable. That’s why they were elected….Unfortunately,many Democrat politicians believe they’re entitled to the dividends offered by lobbyists and act as if the corporate suites are where their only constituents reside….i.e. Donnelly is a courtesan of Big Pharma.

    It’s time to do away with lobbyist supported systems and join the industrialized world with real HEALTHCARE……Not gifts to to the insurance and pharma lobby.

    What is the current strategy of the Democratic Party to counter the Repubs?

    There is none.

    It’s much better to act bitter over the election than to question the party and face some genuine realities. Life ended for the Democrats back in November….So they don’t have to do anything!! The media attention to Trump is at Kardashian levels. Anyway,what is the Democrat strategy to counter the Repubs? Well,perhaps there are three…

    # 1- Blame it on voters.

    #2- OMG RUSSIA.

    #3- It’s Putin’s fault.

    Real healthcare in the US will be sabotaged by Democrats. The Democrats and the Republicans don’t want nice things for the populace. They–just as the majority of the readers of this blog–have nothing but contempt for the populace. America is a cauldron of self loathing. It’s no wonder our biggest export is death and destruction. Just ask Libya,Afghanistan,Iraq,Honduras,Haiti,et al.

  10. Elitism is not the exclusive province of the educated; ignorance carries it own elitism as some sort of badge of honor for “the common man.” I have advocated education in the humanities for a long time in a sort of common man resistance to STEM, though there is no good reason why education in both areas should not be advocated by all. We need not only algorithms but their use in fashioning our society, a problem I just happen to be blogging about today.

  11. Culture develops through many forces some of which are identifiable but many others seem random. All of a sudden something is fashionable or seems to appear everywhere all of a sudden and becomes ” all the rage”. Mostly harmless stuff.

    The emergence though of the fashion of anti-intellectualism is quite readily diagnosed as a real live and unfortunately successful conspiracy. William is right that while the pursuit of foreign based election interference encouraged by a Presidential candidate is certainly worth getting to the bottom of, compared to internal conspiracies it’s far from our biggest threat.

    While obviously only one bit of evidence, I maintain that an idea was (probably innocently) implanted by pure entertainment like Archie Bunker. But then those desperate for power but stuck in a democracy noticed an emerging trend and funded the rise of a real Archie, Rush Limbaugh. Hmm, that worked. Let’s up the ante with Brietbart, Duck Dynasty, the NRA, the Apprentice, reality TV in general, and build us an easy to control but powerful army against the democracy that was thwarting our ambition of a return to aristocracy.

    Pretty soon such was their success the army was pliable enough that they could be convinced that there was no difference between the least and most qualified Presidential candidates ever.

    Now what democracy?

  12. I posted a meme on facebook the other day probably from Albert Einstein that says,
    “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

    I did some searching but I didn’t spend much time to make sure he said it but I believe this quote with the core of my being. I learn something new every day. I learn something new from people I meet everyday and those that have been friends and family for years. I haven’t read a book lately but I read every single day to expand my thoughts, my experiences and my knowledge of everything around me including politics. I’m trying to learn the local politics around Tucson since I live here again. I need a local to help me. I truly believed for decades that all of the politicians were crooks (Thanks Nixon). Bernie, Obama, Al Franken and Sen Warren are the only politicians that I believe are not crooks and are trying to do good for our country. 92 million didn’t vote at all. We need to fix that.

    JoAnn, I think it’s best to turn off the news and babble of the cable 24 hrs channels and watch a comedy. Or spend time with your family. It hurts me to read that you’re so upset with this #45 antics…I agree too. I just had to shut off those stations that blare #45’s daily tweets for 24 hrs a day. And today’s are whoppers! Hugs.

  13. William your comments on the Democratic Party are on track. The Democrats have a golden opportunity to turn the heath care discussion to Single Payer, but they will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by trying to preserve ACA, then it’s Russia, Russia, Russia.

  14. Louie,exactly.

    Now is the time to be grownups and fight for the healthcare that is need in the US….Instead…..The Democrats are stuck in November and it’s Putin,Putin,Putin!

    For a group of people that enjoy patting themselves on the back for being the beautiful people as the majority of those posting to this very forum are wont to do….They throw knowledge and facts out of the door when it comes to the healthcare issue. For a group of people posting incessantly about the lack of logical judgement of others wrt facts and science…..the truth about the ACA is totally thrown out of the door because of partisanship. The ACA is unsustainable. So,what are the elected Democrats doing about it? After 8 years, nothing.

    Why does the Democratic Party want the US to stay in the dark ages wrt healthcare in the US? The answer is $$$$$$. They can pretend to be the good guys whilst defending RomneyCare and doing nothing to counteract the Republicans. And the party wonders why 92 million of us cannot get excited to vote for their well monied candidates.

  15. Edits:

    It should have read…

    Now is the time to be grownups and fight for the healthcare that is *needed* in the US..

    This line should’ve read as…

    They***WILLFULLY*** throw knowledge and facts out of the door when it comes to the healthcare issue.

  16. By preserving the ACA (which is Romney/HeritageFoundationCare) the Democrats can continue to cash the checks sent to them by the Insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

    It’s about priorities. Healthcare for citizens or profits for corporations?

    And healthcare IS a bipartisanship issue. Even wingnuts agree…..Americans agree!

    Yet….we get….Putin….Putin ….Putin…And I’m expected to applaud the new Mccarthyism and to applaud the lack of effort by the Democrats to do something grownup and logical? Fuck that! I’m not a lapdog.

  17. When I first heard of this via Facebook I thought it was a joke, perhaps emanating from “The Onion” until I saw multiple posts from mainstream media sources on it. To think that anyone would actually be convinced that NPR, of all things, would be instigating Americans to overthrow their own existing “government”, in particular “The Donald”, is just incomprehensible. That those following this thought what they were posting was some coded language for revolution against our modern day emperor when it was excerpts from their own Declaration of Independence and its writer’s distain for King George III is just stupefying. They are a sensitive lot aren’t they perceived that their latter day monarch was being insulted.

    Maybe, “Weird Al” Yankovic really does need to create a “Dare to Be Stupid” Award after all, perhaps one national in its scope.

  18. William:

    There are many things I agree with you on. And others that I don’t.

    For example, the Democrats definitively not only should, but must start striving for single payer healthcare, and not apologize about it either.

    Nonetheless, Obama was barely able to get the (admittedly) flawed ACA (Yep, despite Romney’s denials, the ACA is essentially Romneycare which was originally the idea of conservative think tank types) enacted. And as flawed as it is, the ACA has helped millions of people obtain somewhat affordable health insurance, who otherwise would still be uninsured. And many states have extended Medicaid benefits to poor people through the ACA provisions, who would otherwise have no way to pay for health care, except to go to emergency rooms.

    So should the current strategy of the Democrats be to abandon the ACA, join the Republicans in repealing it, and hope that someday enough Democrats, who support single payer, can be elected to push that through? All the while millions of people will be again unable to buy affordable health insurance and other millions will lose their Medicaid until that happens? Even though Trump didn’t know it (What a surprise!), governing is complicated, and people stand to gain or be hurt by the choices made.

    I also agree the Democrats need to move on and beyond Hillary, and also need to offer true progressive alternative policies and candidates. Yes, Yes, Yes! Hillary was likely never the best candidate in the world. She had/has many flaws and carries much baggage.

    But if your argument is that nothing would be different if Hillary had been elected instead of Trump, I want some of whatever you’re smoking. For one major thing, we wouldn’t be in this constant state of chaos and turmoil, and clearly headed, like a run away steam locomotive running downhill, for an imminent Constitutional crisis that could change this Country forever, and perhaps not in good ways. Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not exceptional. It could happen here. History demonstrates that good doesn’t always prevail over evil; at least not without major struggles and often the loss of life and major destruction of societies.

    I also agree the Democrats must stop putting all their hopes on that Mueller’s Russian probe will save them and rid of us Trump — and his kiddies, Pence, and Bannon. But again, it’s overridingly important for our Country, our system of government, and our Republic (not democracy) to expose what the Russians did to try to influence or actually did influence the outcome of our elections, so we can try to prevent it from ever happening again. That won’t happen if you say, as Trump apparently has and wants to, “just forget about it.”

  19. I agree 100 percent with David F that Democrats should unapoligetically pursue single payer healthcare. Why should anyone apologize for supporting a proven and cheaper and better healthcare program than what we have now or what we will have with some of the changes being recommended? I’m sorry I agitated for a demonstrably proven winner? I should rather agitate in the public arena for a loser? Where’s the logic? Let’s end this corporate welfare we have the chutzpa to call a healthcare “system” and follow the lead of other civilized country in adoption of single payer. It makes sense – and cents.

  20. Actually this goes way, way back. There are hints & references in Toqueville & Dickens, but it’s explicitly addressed in Frances Trollope’s ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans,’ 1832; http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10345

    In multiple situations she’s stunned to find people insisting “I’m just as good as you” while they sit in their own filth, unable to read & write. I’m all for equality of opportunity & equality under the law, but in other respects I’m a full-blown elitist. Forgive me for saying so, but some people really are “better” than others.

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