Aggressive ignorance

Swapping civic understanding for slogans threatens U.S. politics

By Marshall Knudson

If you keep up with the pontifications of American pundits and the boardroom agendas of mass media organizations, you’ll have caught wind in recent weeks of an increasingly petulant brew of news clippings and, point-for-point, news commentary. It seems the thick “consensus” shine buffed over the cracking ship of state has finally worn off, leaving stark naked the very sutures of the American polity. No longer can we pretend that the American Left has any truck with the main column of the Republican Party or any of its degenerate spinoffs. The marriage of compromise Obama tried to forge in Washington never reached its one-year anniversary. So now it’s time to make a virtue of necessity, to stop cozying up to a gang of fools and thieves who clamber up the Temple mount, changing money and sticking to a few dumb principles.

If ever there was a time when the patriotic spirit of Jeffersonian democracy fell squarely on the shoulders of the Left, surely this is such a time, when even Jefferson is being erased from our history books. And while it’s no secret that our education system has been for years a key battleground in the so-called “Culture Wars,” few seem to recognize that culture itself is now under assault and insult. Our society is ailing, and while its up-and-coming bloodletters forecast that “the future is in good hands,” it takes no great acuity to see a much less hopeful picture.

With liberal education reaching the heights of obsolescence, now is precisely the time for its defense­—not on the standard of the privileged few, but on the principles of a country that takes seriously its citizens’ education as members of a nation of democratic ideals and aspirations. “Civic” education, like “liberal” education, is a dead letter these days, reserved for the privileged few who draw the spotlight of business-savvy, bonus-busting employers, who realize that corporate image is tied with corporate earnings. Whether “image” hinges on environmental policy, community service, and corporate charity, or general ethos, caring about other people and the world looks great on résumés.

But while civic education is absent at worst and disfigured at best, these are halcyon days for modular education, the call-and-response model of learning. When else could a President infamous for his own intellectual poverty succeed in carving an Ark of a pedagogic vision—named No Child Left Behind—that guarantees a spot to everyone provided, of course, that they follow just one commandment: learn how to provide the correct answers to the correct questions.

Education is tanking, and yet our politicians seem bent on emulating China, on boosting math and science scores to “make America competitive,” when so many Americans lack even basic reading comprehension. Students compete for schools, and schools compete for students—and funding. How can citizens make informed decisions when they are under-equipped to evaluate the arguments of political demogagues, when Tocquevillian democracy appears a mere mirage?

Long past is the time when Left and Right agreed on core values for democratic discourse and practice, kept sacrosanct against the whims of popular fashions and the threats of political sloganeering. Today the slogans are pretty much all that remain. The bleating chorus of Bill O’Reilly–styled vituperation, full of “Liberty,” “Freedom,” “America,” “Terror,” “Socialism,” “Barack Hussein Obama,” etc.—betrays a politics suited for the kind of people only dreamed up on the chalkboards of ad agencies. And as much as words like “Liberty” have lost their sense, ripped out of the history of our people and their social struggles, they have gained new meanings as ready-made labels for a people that has lost its sense of humor, adrift on a sea of literality. In their over-literalism, critics of climate change cheer when the mercury drops, so crude is their notion of “global warming” and the signs they take for wonders to confirm it.

Or to cite another example, I recently came upon an review of a book that taught philosophical concepts using jokes. The reviewer claimed, “I could never give communist propaganda any more than one star. I wouldn’t want someone who values freedom to fund communism in any way. That’s why I’m glad I didn’t buy this book, but rather checked it out from the library.” The reviewer proceeded to cite a “blatantly communist passage,” which read: “Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man. Under communism, the opposite is true.” Not only had the reviewer badly missed the joke, but he also made a joke of himself, citing neo-liberal writers for heroes and cheering himself for obtaining a public library–issued copy, rather than promoting communism by participating in capitalist commodity exchange.

Small-mindedness is on the rise. Old guardians like moderate Republican Justice John Paul Stevens (a graduate of this institution and former editor of the Maroon) are on the way out, replaced by folks like John Roberts and Samuel Alito who have no scruples trampling over the constitution and strangling the country with simple ideological directives. It is not that there is suddenly contention today; there always has been. But today the very forum of contention is dissolving as the Right commits either with John McCain to “no further cooperation this year,” or with Sarah Palin to a politics of warfare.

The ideology of the Right today does violence to the possibility of democracy and the values of a healthier, more just society. They display a remarkable consistency of principle from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street America: miserliness. But it isn’t just Scroogism. Unlike the good liberal gentlemen of whom Dickens wrote in the throes of the industrial revolution, today the Right in general has managed to copy the surliness and angst of adolescence—egoism—and mold it into a moral compass. It seems its ranks now include not only runt-of-the-mill racists and bigots coughed up by the FOX News era, but also the crudest effluent left oozing from the MTV generation.

Take Keli Carender, unofficial founder of the Tea Party movement according to the New York Times, who exemplifies this movement with picturesque flourishes of theatricality.

In a video viewed 68,000 times on YouTube, she confronted Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) at a town-hall-style meeting on health care. “If you believe that it is absolutely moral to take my money and give it to someone else based on their supposed needs,” she said, waving a $20 bill to boos and cheers, “then you come and take this $20 and use it as a down payment on this health care plan.”

According to the Times, Carender never engaged in politics before participating in the 2008 presidential campaign. Confident in her sophomoric understandings, Carender fits with the superlative she bears in the movement. Although a good model for its thought, she is not its first militant. That honor goes to Sarah Palin, with her injunction, “Don’t retreat, reload” and for the not-so-subtle images on her Facebook page of rifle crosshairs aimed at the heads of prominent Democratic politicians. Death threats and other almost-forgotten modes of political expression are starting to surface, making us wonder what kind of rebarbative measures will come next.

A year ago it was fashionable to talk about anti-Intellectualism in American culture; now we must size up its more troubling bedfellow, pro-Ignorance. And it is a mighty foe. What’s more, it’s dangerous.

— Marshall Knudson is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Anthropology