A Lesson On Know-Nothingness

Paul Krugman recently delivered a lesson on “Know Nothingness”--both as historical reference and descriptive term:

If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.

The sad thing is that America is currently ruled by people who fit both definitions.

The parallels between anti-immigrant hysteria in the mid-19th century and today are too obvious to require enumeration. Krugman does, however, enumerate several, pointing out that the countries considered “shitholes” in the 19th Century –especially Germany and Ireland–differ from those in Trump’s dark-skinned category today.

It isn’t just bigotry, of course. It’s profound ignorance.

But today’s Republicans — for this isn’t just about Donald Trump, it’s about a whole party — aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.

One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.

Those of us who work in the academy know firsthand that this accusation of discrimination is utter bullshit.

Case in point: my office in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs is on the same floor as that of professors in the Kelley School of Business. When I first joined the faculty, twenty years ago, a majority of those professors self-identified as fiscally-conservative Republicans. They continue to be conservative, but very few of them are still Republicans. When the party rejected science, evidence and scholarly research, they left.  As Krugman says of the science professorate, “When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.”

But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

Krugman then points to research showing the growing importance of “clusters of highly skilled workers” who create what he calls “virtuous circles of growth and innovation.” Those clusters disproportionately emerge around universities.  In 2016, voters largely divided along educational lines, with the better-educated, rising regions carried by Hillary Clinton, and more rural, under-educated and less skilled regions going for Trump.

The anti-education, anti-evidence, anti-science voters who remain in the GOP are also disproportionately likely to express tribal, White Christian beliefs: creationism, rather than evolution, America as (their version of) a Christian Nation.

Newsweek recently reported

Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support President Donald Trump because they believe he’ll cause the world to end.

Many have questioned why devout evangelicals support Trump, a man who has bragged about sexual assault, lies perpetually and once admitted he never asks God for forgiveness. Trump’s lack of knowledge of the Bible is also well-known.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christians believe that Trump was chosen by God to usher in a new era, a part of history called the “end times”….  the time when Jesus returns to Earth and judges all people.

Are people who hold these beliefs representative of Christianity? No. Are they rare on most university faculties ? Yes, and for obvious reasons.

When knowledge and expertise are devalued, when empirical evidence is scorned, when the weighty and complex search for meaning that characterizes serious religiosity is replaced with superstition, rejection of reason and fear of the Other, the know-nothings have won.


  1. education,is a must,but i see a lack of what i learned as.civics. somewhere we lost a class in school to help the kids understand,and practice governing,and keeping Americas honor system alive. its been undermined by social media,where we never,looked to educate in this field,the mass indluence. did we just think,of this as a new way to,keep in touch,obviously many kods,young adults,adults,just shun you,or a event,as they mindlessly gaze into the crystal screen,and the effect,is affect.. seriouly,cant we see where as the teachers,we just jumped a fence,and ran with it..we dont even see right and wrong,or,thought beyond our own little world., first idea,shutntrump,off,at least,get the news to take that sorry ass voice bits and can em.. render him impotent,unseen,unheard,and start focusing on his gang.. maybe its time to get the signatures of his screwed up world,,and vote em all out,with knowlege,not sound bites.

  2. And on Valentines day…. We had yet another triumph for the Republicans and the NRA
    Congrats NRA – Bang Bang Bang

  3. “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always 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.” ~ Isaac Asimov

    What’s truly fascinating is the persistent narrative that Russia is interfering with our elections despite the fact we are an Oligarchy. For instance, the Koch brothers announced they’d be spending close to $1 billion in 2016’s presidential election. They held out on Trump, focusing mainly on Congress.

    However, they own Mike Pence and the anti-science crowd is killing off the EPA which will make the Koch’s hundreds of billions alone. Not a bad return on investment.

    But don’t make the mistake of thinking that only the GOP preys on the ignorant. 😉

    Ignorance keeps the whole propaganda system surrounding “USA’s Exceptionalism” campaign going forward despite all the evidence to the contrary.

  4. During all of my school years, elementary and high school, I had classmates who were first-generation Americans. Some were my neighbors and my friends; we knew their families and a little of their histories but it was simple knowledge such as where they lived and how many brothers and sisters they had and were they fun to be with. Here is something I saw all those years ago but only recently considered the fact that they were without fail, the best students in class. Was it because they saw and appreciated America more while we took it for granted?

    I have 2 family members in hiding; one brought here at age 14 who was too young to attempt any action to become legal. Married to an American man and with an almost 5 year old child, both are now in hiding. This is after working and her husband working sometimes 60-hour weeks, spending over six years dealing with an attorney and paying over $10,000 to legalize her status but those years, the over $10,000 and the legalized process to change her status are useless at this time. Fear of being rounded up by Trump’s people if attempting to return to country of origin and knowledge that due to Trump and his hatred of all immigrants, they would never be allowed to return to their home and family here.

    “When knowledge and expertise are devalued, when empirical evidence is scorned, when the weighty and complex search for meaning that characterizes serious religiosity is replaced with superstition, rejection of reason and fear of the Other, the know-nothings have won.”

    The “know-nothings” are also the cause of the latest mass shooting at another school and what is the murder count in Indianapolis for this year?

    “The anti-education, anti-evidence, anti-science voters who remain in the GOP are also disproportionately likely to express tribal, White Christian beliefs: creationism, rather than evolution, America as (their version of) a Christian Nation.”

    How many of you are aware that WE are imprisoned in our homes and in our country by this faction who have not evolved and refuse to see the truth because they are too busy counting the money being made by maintaining the anti based control by the GOP, moving us back in time to those “good old days” when “good old boys” ruled and their rule was not questioned.

  5. I remember when the value of a college education was in the fact that you learned how to find out what you need to know. Turns out, 45 has proven that you don’t really need to know anything to achieve the hightest office in the land.

  6. Peggy,

    “Turns out, 45 has proven that you don’t really need to know anything to achieve the highest office in the land”

    That’s for sure.

    However, in order to unseat him, you better know pretty much everything: As the ancient Greeks would say, ” you need both MIND and BODY to win.” We need much more than just the input from the intelligentsia, as best represented by Paul Krugman, if democracy is to overcome the MACHINATIONS of Trump and the Republican Party.

  7. While I appreciate the historical parallels and believe much can be learned from them, I don’t believe that modern know-nothingness is at all limited to the weird union of Trumpists and white evangelical (and fundamentalist) Christians. To cite a passage from above:

    “The anti-education, anti-evidence, anti-science voters who remain in the GOP are also disproportionately likely to express tribal, White Christian beliefs: creationism, rather than evolution, America as (their version of) a Christian Nation”

    How does that statement NOT also apply to young males of color in our large urban centers? As well as many young white kids from the suburbs and rural areas who have fully embraced gangsta values and lifestyle??? Their rejection of learning and education has little to do with politics and nothing to do with religion – it is all about values and lifestyle formed by family and peer influences.

    Please don’t think of this as “white-mansplanation” of the rampant ongoing poverty and depravity of this segment of society. I’m just asserting that anti-intellectualism runs deeper and wider than the bifurcation described by the author.

    The fact is, people in this segment were and continue to be vastly over-represented among the 90+ million Americans who didn’t bother to vote in our last election. And those 90+ million are responsible for Trump’s election, not white suburban women, nor evangelical Christians, nor angry old white guys.

  8. And, sorry, a clarification is in order:

    I meant to ask: “How does A VARIATION OF that statement NOT also apply to young males of color? Obviously I don’t think urban black makes embrace white Christian nationalist values. Just that their anti-intellectual orientation is also rooted in a tribalist and very different system of values.

  9. In Lewis Powell’s 1971 “memo” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he called on corporate/banking America to fund chairs at universities that promoted “conservative” values and methods in economics and social issues. The Koch brothers, ever obedient to subverting our way of life, funded several of these “think” tanks at universities around the country. Add to that, other “think” tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Public Policy Foundations around the country, and you have the engine that drives the backward ignorance now being enjoyed by lip-strumming, intellectually lazy people who want to be fed pap instead of fact.

  10. if teaching creationism from the Bible (which Bible hasn’t been identified yet); it should follow that Sunday School classes should teach geography and social studies to identify where the miracles (and required sacrifices) happened and how people lived, by what laws and rules, at that time. All part of History lessons of creationism and Christianity, right?

  11. Here’s what Abraham Lincoln said about Know-Nothings:

    “I am not a Know-Nothing  [nativist].”  That is certain.  How could I be?  How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.”  We now practically read it as “all men are created equal, except Negroes.”  When the Know-Nothings get control it will read “all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.”  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

  12. I’m very pleased to have a number of Republican friends who wouldn’t think of saying anything nasty about members of their party. However, a number of them are feeling stressed. A few days ago, a half dozen of them surrounded me and declared they had decided on a course of action that will improve the situation dramatically. “Don’t let Trump talk.” I feel better already.

  13. The celebration of ignorance as well as the celebration of the intellect should be muted, though for different reasons. We seem to be in an era where the former is celebrated, much to the chagrin of the rest of us, but both ignorance and brilliance have been with us for a long time. Einstein, when asked the most important attribute one could have as a measure of success, did not name IQ as expected but rather curiosity. I think he was right, though I think the two are intertwined, unlike, for instance, Trump’s lack of desire to read intelligence reports, budget summaries etc., while telling us he is brilliant. I think one’s brilliance in performance should be shown rather than discussed and my only foray into this hidden topic is to observe that I know I am not brilliant because of so many things I know I don’t know.

    As to some of the Christians alluded to by Sheila today who voted for Trump because his term in office represents a last days theology, for instance, it might help them to know the Mayans were also transfixed by an end of the world vision and sacrificed humans to the gods to keep it from happening. I think it is safer to say that the world will not end in some mystical whirl but rather in atomic blasts and radiation.

  14. The very idea that people would claim to support Christian Ethics and support HIM expecting the ‘world to end’ is a fairly clear outline of a world (society) gone all-out insane. omg…

  15. Political propaganda spread on mass non-print media didn’t pick ignorant authoritarian people as audience. It was visa versa. The he originators trolled to see who was interested in that bait.

    The people who are following responded readily.

    They are easy to lo lead with the spoken word and only have alligiance to the truth that benefits them.

    They can only be disempowered by voting all Ds in ‘18 and ‘20.

  16. I seriously wish that those who lump “Mostly rural uneducated people”……would actually go into rural areas and find us…..the educated people who are Dems…most of my neighbors are……we may not have college degrees, but we were raised to think for ourselves with morals and most of us have had to actually earn a living instead of being “college life long learners” living off of stipends……Those of us who have had to sacrifice our bodies….I am now and have been disabled because of the jobs I had to take to feed my family, for 15 years…….There are a lot of us out here…but you “Educates” wouldn’t know that because you never venture out of your bubble….how nice to be able to stay inside of your warm little bubble and to judge the rest of us “rural” folk for being Rethuglican…..which we never would be…or aspire to be…..we do have brains….we just left the snobbery behind when we left the city!!!!!!

  17. Yesterday we received just one more message of Know Nothing, another mass shooting, this time at a school.

    The politicians will as usual offer thoughts and prayers, churches will offer hugs, thoughts and prayers, and then nothing will change. Some people will buy teddy bears and leave them by the school, with flowers, etc. This is now a ritual.

    The presenters on cable news along with their “expert” talking heads rattle on about gun laws, mental health, back ground checks, etc. In AmeriKa you can consult with a mental health expert – only if you can afford it. If a medication might help – you can have the medication only if you can afford it.

    The bottom line after all the blabber, is nothing.

    We can compare AmeriKa to other countries that do not suffer from mass shootings or a high homicide rate. These other countries also have citizens with mental health problems and play violent video games. What these other countries do have is strict gun control.

    The resistance to firearms control centers on the Second Amendment. You can parse the words the way you want. Fact is when the Second Amendment was written firearms consisted of single shot muskets and single shot pistols, not semi-automatic weapons. When the Constitution was written slavery was legal.

    The Republicans will bitterly resist any efforts at firearms control, the Democrats have shown very little leadership on firearms control. Where is Nancy Pelosi on this or Chuck Schumer on firearms control???

    As a Vietnam War Combat Infantry Veteran (Draftee Type), I can tell you no civilian should be able to buy or own an AR-15 or any variant of it. No one should be able to sell a device that converts an AR-15 from a semi-automatic to an automatic.

    What I would like to see is students, teachers and administrators to have sit ins and demonstrations at schools demanding gun control, especially a ban on AR-15’s or any variant of it.

  18. I think there is a shift happening. These know nothings are not going to rule the future. Our democratic nation is going to rise up and make sure to shut these people down. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been educated, you just know that the current environment of cruelty is about to take a turn. Hopefully, for the better. Some of the staunchest Liberals are in the farms around the country but their voice has been drowned out from gerrymandering and money in politics.

    I’ll never forget that driver I had from Chicago to Indiana that told me (as an immigrant) that his children were in colleges and universities and he couldn’t wait for them to get home so that he could re-program them from their liberal education beliefs. He told me how much he loved 45 and was going to vote for him. I tried in the 2 hrs I was in his vehicle that living abroad taught me so much about life in America. I didn’t live in a bubble even though I had a degree and I didn’t think 45 was intellectually capable of being POTUS. He’s proven me right.

  19. Trump is striving to know less and less about more and more until finally he knows nothing about anything. He’s dangerously close to succeeding.

    The aggressive Republican program called “The Dumbing Down of America”, begun by a decrepit refrigerator salesman cum president, is running devoid of new ideas to create more ignorant followers, so they are now attempting to discredit the value of a college education. The rumor that they favor more primary and secondary school shootings to discourage students from getting an education has yet to be proven, but the evidence is mounting. And of course now is not the time to talk bout gun control.

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