I know I sound like a broken record on the subject of civic knowledge, but I’m not the only person despairing of the consequences of our civic deficit. A recent article in Salon by C.J. Werleman describes the civic landscape and its implications.
A few of the author’s more trenchant observations:
The health of a democracy is dependent on an educated citizenry. Political illiteracy is the manure for the flourishing of political appeals based on sheer ignorance.
So let me introduce you to House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor’s Republican Party vanquisher David Brat (R-VI). First thing you need to know about this far right-wing political upstart is he’s a university professor, which means it’s highly probable he’s not an idiot. He also identifies with the Tea Party strain of conservatism, which, paradoxically, means it’s likely he is, indeed, an idiot. And by idiot, I mean wholly ignorant of U.S. history and constitutionality.
In fact, in his victory speech delivered last week to his supporters, Brat demonstrated that he sits among the majority of Americans when it comes to political and cultural illiteracy.
“I wish to restore America to its Judeo-Christian roots,” declared Brat. “God acted through people on my behalf.”
Ignoring the self-delusion of the latter part of the above text, Brat now joins no less than 200 million Americans, according to a number of polls, who believe the U.S. Constitution and our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values. On any given Sunday you will hear Christian-right politicians claim absurdly that U.S. laws are based on the Bible. Spoiler alert: they’re dead wrong. The Constitution’s secular provisions came into being thanks to the Founding Fathers, who shared a deep suspicion of both organized religion and the supernatural. The Constitution was framed with a conscious omission of any mention of God and a prohibition of all religious tests for public office. Moreover, the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” embodied the founders’ view that religion has no place in the political domain.
That not a single major media outlet bothered to correct Brat’s ignorance represents America’s continual decline in American civic and cultural literacy.
The rest of the article is equally scathing, and well worth reading, but I want to focus on that last quoted paragraph, because I think it points to one of the major reasons Americans are so uninformed, and so easily manipulated.
We have lost journalism.
What used to be called “the journalism of verification” has disappeared into a sea of Kardashian-watching, Faux News “reporting,” hate radio, consumerism and internet conspiracy theories. The few actual reporters who remain–and I mean few (a couple of years ago I used a textbook in my Media and Policy class titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights”)–simply do not know enough to ask what should be obvious follow-up questions, or to provide readers with background and context that would allow them to properly evaluate what political actors are saying or doing.
Werleman is dead-on when he concludes:
In other words, when Republicans say there is no such thing as gravity, and Democrats reply that gravity is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which not only exacerbates the nation’s anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, but also increases the likelihood of extremist views and falsehoods taking hold in the national electorate.
We’ve replaced fact-checkers with “he said/she said” stenographers, and in the process, we’ve created a political world in which there are no facts–only opinions.
It’s a recipe for disaster. Ignorance isn’t a survival strategy.