Tag Archives: civic illiteracy

Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself…

Yesterday brought news of a recent poll in which a majority of Republicans blamed universities for taking the  nation in the “wrong direction.”

Think about that.

I don’t know Henry Giroux, but his recent article in Salon was what we used to call a barn-burner, and it provides a context for that sorry and depressing poll result. It began:

Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship.

After cataloging the serious social schisms manifested in Trump’s campaign and victory, Giroux gets down to the question most rational Americans have been asking since November 9th: how did we get here?

What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility….

In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.

Giroux reports that two-thirds of Americans believe that creationism should be taught in schools and that a majority of Congressional Republicans believe either that climate change is not caused by human activity or that it is non-existent.

The article goes on to detail the assault on education and educational institutions, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. His analysis of Betsy DeVos particularly resonated with me.

On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good.

Giroux insists that the rampant illiteracy of our politics has been intentionally fostered, that the “dumbing down” of America prevents us from acting from what he calls a “position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.” Even a cursory survey of the political landscape lends credibility to his argument.

Here are my own questions: when and how did this happen? when did scholarship and expertise become signs of a despised elitism? When did America’s longstanding admiration for “the best and the brightest” turn to scorn?

And what are we going to do about it?

 

Lying With Impunity

Okay, so here’s what worries me. A lot.

In the most recent GOP debate, we were treated to outright prevarication. Lies. Blatant untruths. The fact that politicians of both parties will lie (this certainly isn’t the first time!) is not what concerns me; what scares the bejeezus out of me is the fact that they can do so secure in the knowledge that very few members of their target audience will know enough to know that they are lying.

Let’s take a few examples.

Take Carly Fiorina (please!). She said she wants to “bring back the warrior class — Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn. Every single one of these generals I know. Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear.”

In the real world, Petraeus left to head up the CIA, and subsequently resigned after a sex scandal. Keane served under George W. Bush, and resigned in 2003. McChrystal was ousted after Rolling Stone reported comments amounting to insubordination.

Chris Christie boasted about his relationship with Jordan’s King Hussein–“When I stand across from King Hussein of Jordan and I say to him, ‘You have a friend again sir, who will stand with you to fight this fight,’ he’ll change his mind.” Small problem: Hussein’s been dead for 16 years.

Christie also criticized Obama’s “reckless incompetence” for allowing Russia’s “recent partnership” with Syria. That “recent” partnership goes back to 1971, when the USSR established a huge warm-water navy port in Syria. It’s been there ever since.

Several debate participants criticized the Obama administration’s “political correctness,” asserting that such “political correctness” prevented monitoring of social media and was the reason authorities missed “jihadist” postings by the female San Bernadino shooter. Except, as the head of the FBI has patiently explained, there were no such postings.

Factcheck has posted a lengthy list of GOP “misstatements,” ranging from relatively minor errors (as when Rick Santorum–who isn’t going anywhere anyway– said “10 years ago I put the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program,” when he really sponsored a bill that largely codified existing sanctions) to more consequential assertions (for example, Lindsey Graham repeated the claim that the U.S. spends $350 billion “to buy oil from people who hate our guts,” although over a third of America’s oil imports in 2014 came from Canada, and another 9 percent from Mexico.)

A disquieting number of the misstatements made during the debate cannot fairly be labeled “lies” because those uttering them so clearly had no idea what they were talking about. (“Targeted” carpet-bombing? really?)

And therein lies the real problem. We have these embarrassingly unqualified candidates because we have large numbers of civically-illiterate citizens. People supporting Trump, Cruz, Carson, et al, apparently don’t know when they misstate facts, don’t know when proposals they are applauding (deporting 11 million Mexicans, only allowing Christian Syrians to enter the country, etc.) are impossible or unconstitutional or both.

I am convinced that the voters responding to the ignorance, nationalism and racism being delivered by the “clown car” candidates are a minority. Most Americans are better–and smarter– than that.

The question, however, is: who is more likely to vote?

Historic Dyslexia

Republicans these days seem to be having an awful lot of trouble with timelines.

Example #1: David Barton–Michele Bachmann’s very favorite constitutional “expert,” recently argued that the nation’s Founders “had already had the creationism-evolution debate.” Now I knew the Founders were brilliant men; what I didn’t know is that they had debated the theory of evolution a full century before Darwin published “Origin of Species” in 1859. Imagine that!

Example #2: Presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty recently delivered a speech advocating huge tax cuts, insisting that “we know” tax cuts lead to economic growth. Unfortunately, in one of those danged timeframe inversions, the periods of economic growth he cited came after tax increases. The weakest economic performance followed Bush’s tax cuts. (Well, that was inconvenient…)

Example #3: In yet another display of her “intellectual” skills, Sarah Palin–speaking after visiting Boston’s historic sites–insisted that Paul Revere rode to warn the British, and to uphold Americans’ right to bear arms. (She also said he rang bells and fired shots….news to numerous American historians.) It is difficult to understand how Revere’s ride could have been to protect the right to gun ownership, since  that right was secured by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1791. Revere’s ride–and the date it occurred–was immortalized by Longfellow. .

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Sarah obviouly doesn’t remember that “famous” day and year, either.

Civic literacy, anyone?