Tag Archives: ignorance

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?

 

Why Knowledge Actually Matters….

I’m constantly amazed by the number of Americans who look askance at candidates for public office if they have government experience and/or training– the voters who express their preference for electing “outsiders” who will not be “disadvantaged” by actually knowing how government works.

I’m pretty sure those same voters wouldn’t choose a doctor who had never been to medical school, or a mechanic who didn’t know where their car’s engine was located.

Doctrinaire libertarians and “small government” conservatives may be nostalgic for the days of the Vermont Town Hall meetings, but this country is not going to get rid of the agencies that inspect our food and drugs, ensure that airplanes don’t crash into each other, keep businesses from colluding to fix prices, corporations from lying to prospective shareholders, and more. (Nor–despite the fantasies of this Administration and the real harm it can do–are we going to get rid of environmental rules and regulations, enforcement of civil rights laws, or public schools.)

Voting in a “management team” that doesn’t understand what government agencies do or how they do it, a team that is unfamiliar with constitutional checks and balances, and ignorant of settled U.S. foreign policy, diplomatic norms, and the definition of the national interest is like asking the company janitor to assume control of a multi-national corporation.

Even if he was a really good janitor, it isn’t going to go well. If he was an unstable and intellectually limited janitor with very spotty cleaning skills , he’s going to do a lot of damage to the company.

A couple of examples may illustrate the problem.

During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump confidently asserted that he would bring back jobs in the coal industry. He argued that “burdensome” regulatory activity–like keeping miners safe and coal ash out of Americans’ drinking water–had caused the industry’s declining employment.

But as this article and several others explain, what’s killing coal is the market, not regulation.

The U.S. coal industry basically imploded as Chinese demand slipped. Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal and Walter Energy have all filed for bankruptcy over the past two years. (Peabody Coal is nearing a plan to pull itself out of bankruptcy.) The number of people who work in coal has tanked, too. In 1985, the industry employed 177,000 people. At the end of 2008, that number fell to 86,000. It was at 56,000 by last year.

“The market is telling coal that it’s a dying fuel source because we have abundant supplies of natural gas that are indigenous to the country,” Pete Fontaine, a veteran environmental lawyer who works for fossil fuel companies, told HuffPost. “You can scrap rules that make coal mining more expensive, you can scrap the Clean Power Plan, but ultimately coal is on the way out.”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton points to another example:

Like virtually every other environmental measure, Trump is trying to roll back the CAFE standards for efficient engines in cars and trucks, on the premise that such regulations increase the price of cars. But in reality, doing so would actually cost consumers more money.

Trump’s misguided move to appease the ever-myopic U.S. auto industry would undo efficiency gains that will provide consumers $98 billion in total net benefits, primarily from reduced fuel use. Individual car buyers would lose “a net savings of $1,650” (even after accounting for the higher vehicle cost) as the EPA concluded in its final January “Determination on the Appropriateness” of the standards.

The savings from the new standards are so significant that the EPA calculates “consumers who finance their vehicle with a 5-year loan would see payback within the first year.”

Rolling back the standards would also boost U.S. oil consumption by 1.2 billion gallons and increase U.S. carbon pollution by 540 billion tons over the lifetime of the model-year 2022–2025 cars.

When managers–private or public–don’t know what they don’t know, and are unwilling to educate themselves or consult people who do understand the way things work, they advocate “solutions” that make matters worse.

When experts are scorned as “elitists” and scores of knowledgable agency employees are told to pack their bags, what comes next won’t be pretty.

Isaac Asimov, the brilliant scientist and science-fiction author, said it best:

“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.”

That cult of ignorance has given us an Administration that rejects science and subject-matter expertise in favor of conspiracy theories and authoritarian ideologies.

I wonder–if America survives this, what lessons–if any–will we learn?