Tag Archives: ignorance

Mencken Didn’t Go Far Enough

A quotation by H.L. Mencken has been a recurring favorite on my Facebook feed since 2016. Famously curmudgeonly (is that a word?), Mencken wrote that

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

The Trump Administration has fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy, but his prediction arguably didn’t go far enough. Those “plain folks” who elevated the “downright moron” have also saddled the other branches of government with a wide assortment of defective/dishonest incompetents.

There’s a tried-and-true assortment of ignorant racists in Congress. There’s Louie Gohmert, perfectly described by Charles Pierce as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse.” Steve King finally lost his seat, but Jim Jordan is still there. And of course, there’s Devin Nunes, who memorably sued a cow...There’s no dearth of candidates for the dubious honor of “dimmest lawmaker.”

The Washington Post recently ran a column by Dana Milbank that should have embarrassed newly elected Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville. However, Tuberville and those who voted for him appear immune to embarrassment, since the emotion requires recognition of what constitutes an embarrassing defect.

Tuberville — or “Tubs,” from his college football coaching days — is the Republican senator-elect from Alabama, and he’s proposing to object to the election results in the Senate on Jan. 6. Trump exulted: “Great senator.

Problem is, Tubs, if he were a Democrat, is what Trump might call a “low-IQ individual.” In their wisdom, the voters of Alabama chose to replace Democrat Doug Jones, who prosecuted the Birmingham church bombing, with a man who recently announced his discovery that there are “three branches of government,” namely, “the House, the Senate and the executive.”
  
He further informed the newspaper that “in 2000 Al Gore was president, United States, president-elect, for 30 days.” (Actual number of days Gore spent as president-elect: zero.)

Evidently, “Tubs” was able to avoid debates and interviews during the campaign. He did, however, issue a few statements transmitting a variety of his less-than-well-founded beliefs. When asked about his denial of climate change, he explained that “only God can change climate.” In response to a question about the opiod epidemic, he responded that “it isn’t just opioids, it’s also heroin.”

There’s more:

On health care: “We don’t have the answer until we go back to open up being a capitalistic health-care system where we have more than one insurance company.” (There are 952 health insurers in the United States.)

On education: “We’ve taken God out of the schools and we’ve replaced the schools with metal detectors.”

 Tubs has declared his desire to serve on the Senate “banking finance” committee, apparently unaware that banking and finance are separate committees — and that he is ineligible to serve on banking because Alabama’s senior Republican senator already does.

Milbank characterized Tuberville’s Senate campaign as “a magical voyage of discovery.” Tuberville had been unaware of a little Senate prerogative called “advice and consent,” or the existence and purpose of the Voting Rights Act–despite its centrality to years of public debate. 

As Milbank notes, as long as there are mental giants like Tuberville, “Trumpism will remain.” Trumpism, in this iteration, contains equal amounts of ignorance and venality; 
 when his business partner in a hedge fund pled guilty to fraud, Tuberville claimed he didn’t know anything. (Given his general performance, the assertion was convincing.) He also set up a foundation purportedly to help veterans, but veterans got only a third of the money raised.

As a candidate, Tubs offered exotic views on why rural hospitals closed (“because we don’t have Internet”), on impeachment (“I’ve been trying to keep up with it but it’s so hard”) and on constitutional democracy (“We’d probably get more done with just the president running this country. So let the Democrats go home”).

Alabama voters–who twice made Roy Moore the Chief Justice of their state Supreme Court– evidently epitomize the “plain folks” of Mencken’s observation.

Actually, it may be time to amend that Mencken prediction. It should read “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and they will be governed  almost entirely by morons.”

 

 

 

What Trump Doesn’t Know Can Hurt You

One of the many things about support for Donald Trump that has bemused me is the seeming belief among those supporters–and for that matter, among many Americans who don’t support him–that experience in governing, or at least expertise about governance, is irrelevant to the Presidency.

These are people who would be very unlikely to trust a doctor who had neither gone to medical school or practiced medicine. They wouldn’t call a plumber who had never “plumbed.” Yet they confidently assert that anyone who’s run a successful business of any kind can run the country. (Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Trump quite obviously didn’t run a successful business–sound businesses don’t repeatedly refuse to pay their vendors or go bankrupt with some regularity.)

In the past two years, people who do know something about governing, about the Constitutional framework constraining executive action,  and about various aspects of policy have been appalled by Trump’s very evident ignorance of all such things.

His ignorance isn’t the biggest problem: no one who assumes the Presidency knows–or can know–the details involved in every policy decision a chief executive must make. We expect a President to surround himself (or herself) with expert advisers, to consult those experts, and learn from them.

We expect a President to know what he or she doesn’t know. The buffoon currently shaming the Oval Office not only doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, he very clearly has no interest in finding out.

Trump’s ignorance is dangerous in ways both more and less obvious.

Just one example:

I’ve recently come across several news reports about America’s dependence on elements that are collectively called “rare earth.” Rare earth metals and the alloys that contain them are critical for the manufacture of everything from fighter jets to numerous devices that people use every day– everything from computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and many more. The use of rare earth elements in computers and cell phones has grown exponentially, as has their use in rechargeable batteries that power portable electronic devices such as cell phones, readers, portable computers, and cameras.

And most rare earth comes from China.

It is highly unlikely that our bull-in-a-China-shop (pun intended) knows anything about rare earth, America’s dependence on it, or China’s virtual monopoly on it. Not only does  Mr. Tariff Man not understand how tariffs work or who pays them, he just as obviously has no idea how dependent the U.S. might be on goods we import from any country.  (He has displayed abysmal ignorance of the complex interrelationship of American manufacturers and Mexico, or the existence of less dangerous tools for negotiating trade disputes.)

The U.S. has exactly one mine– Mountain Pass– that harvests rare-earth elements.

China dominates the global market for these materials and has been threatening to take them hostage in the deepening trade conflict. Just the suggestion that Beijing could starve American factories of essential materials has sent rare-earth prices soaring over the past month, with dysprosium oxide, used in lasers and nuclear-reactor control rods, up by one-third.

The linked article notes that China would have some problems implementing a ban on rare earth,  “including the prospect of widespread smuggling and the likelihood of hurting countries that Chinese authorities may prefer not to alienate.” But the threat is still powerful.

Officials have begun contingency planning to accelerate production in the event of a Chinese cutoff, Rosenthal said. Though Mountain Pass could not fill all domestic needs, it could boost output of substances needed for oil refining and some specialized magnets.

Yet the mine’s role at the center of the U.S.-China faceoff over 17 elements with names such as neodymium, terbium and europium is not without irony.

Mountain Pass ships its main product — a powdery substance that looks like crushed cocoa — to China for processing before it is sold to Chinese customers. A Chinese rare-earths producer, Leshan Shenghe, holds a nonvoting 10 percent stake in the U.S. mine.

The people in the U.S. and Great Britain who want to defy globalization–  who are screaming “stop the world I want to get off”–are too late. The world’s economies are interrelated and interdependent in millions of complex ways.

When policy is directed by an ignoramus who has absolutely no understanding of those complexities and dependencies, the consequences can be dire.

I don’t want my cavities filled by a plumber, and I don’t want a phony “businessman” created for reality television running my country.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall

Robert Frost said it best.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.

Good fences might make good neighbors, but walls signify more impenetrable barriers–barriers to understanding, to friendship, to growth.

Which brings me, of course, to Trump’s threat Tuesday to shut down parts of the government if he doesn’t get the money he’s demanding to build his “big, beautiful wall.”

Forget, for the moment, that Trump repeatedly promised he would make Mexico pay for his wall. (I don’t know who was dumber–Trump for promising something that any sentient being would know wasn’t going to happen, or the presumably non-sentient voters who believed him.)

Forget, too, the inescapable consequences of Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and the urgent need to wall the dark-skinned ones out–the damage to America’s standing in the world community, and the even graver damage to the stories we tell ourselves about the promise of America and the American Dream.

And be sure to ignore the extent of environmental damage that would be caused if a wall were actually  to be constructed along America’s southern border.

Instead, put yourself in the shoes of those who agree with our delusional President. Tell yourself that you accept the importance of a wall to the achievement of what he calls “border security.”

Then ask yourself how a twenty- five-billion-dollar wall would contribute to “border security.”

It isn’t just that tall ladders are widely available, or that enterprising refugees might dig tunnels. It’s that a majority of the people who are in the United States illegally flew in and overstayed an initially proper visa. That method of entry is unlikely to be affected by a wall, to put it mildly.

(There is, to be fair, the possibility that construction of Trump’s wall  would dampen enthusiasm for migrating here, by acting as a signal that this is no longer a country worth coming to. But the number that would be so deterred is highly speculative…)

That’s not to say that construction of a border wall wouldn’t have an effect. It might not keep determined immigrants out, but it would be a powerful symbol of America’s retreat–not just from much of the rest of the world, but from who we are. It would symbolize rejection of values we may not always have lived up to, but have persistently worked toward. It would be a lasting symbol of small-mindedness, of fearfulness.

It would send the world a signal that the high-minded experiment that was the United States had ignominiously failed.

 

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.

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?