Friday, August 27, 2010

The Promotion of Ignorance

Timothy Egan's commentary in the New York Times,"Building a Nation of Know-Nothings," describes how, in America, an "astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design."

Not to single out the GOP—for ignorance knows no party—but 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that President Obama is a Muslim. Twenty-seven percent stupidly doubt that he is a United States citizen. Half erroneously believe the TARP "bailouts" were enacted by Obama, not Bush.

A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that of all Americans, nearly one-in-five say Obama is a Muslim, while only 11 percent thought so just a year ago. In 2009, 48 percent rightly believed him a Christian, while just over a third think so now.

The public's increasing ignorance is doubtless the product of an incessant disinformation campaign by conservative media and the right-wing leadership, and the inability of liberals—or knowledgeable people, for that matter—to articulate the truth effectively. It's also an indication of the public's gullibility and its growing disregard of "inconvenient truths."

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, John Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, Laura Schlessinger and Ann Coulter plant and cultivate outrageous lies in the media, while John Boehner, Kim Lehman, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders cynically encourage falsehoods and slander in the political sphere.

The promotion of ignorance, hatred, suspicion, and hostility-as-entertainment is purposeful. It serves the commercial interests of the cable networks and builds the brands of their yack-show bloviators. It sells books and syndicated columns and draws eyeballs to blogs and websites. It distracts public attention from the real, hard issues of the day and, in complicated times, it appeals to the fears and uncertainties of voters.

It is a sad commentary on human nature that so many find hostility both entertaining and perversely empowering—and fail to recognize pettiness, dogmatism, spite, hate and self-promotion for what they are. But that is where we are today.

Egan's commentary reminded me of something John Kennedy said about lies and myths in a commencement address at Yale University in 1962. "...the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie...but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." In myths, he noted, "We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

I most remember that speech for Kennedy's witty introduction to his remarks. At the ceremonies, Yale awarded the famously proud Harvard graduate an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and Kennedy remarked, "It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree."

This morning I looked up that address and was delighted to find that, apart from some then-topical particulars, Kennedy's words are as useful and instructive today as then. The President spoke eloquently about issues of his day, and they are the same flashpoints that occupy political discussion today: the size of government, public fiscal policy, and our confidence in government and in the nation.

Not much has changed, it seems, about what rattles our cages; we still struggle with the same divisive issues. Not much has changed about our use of stereotypes, myths, and misdirection in political rhetoric; we still suffer from the same strategy of divisiveness. What has changed is that lies and hypocrisy, antagonism and prejudice have become acceptable—even sought-after—forms of entertainment. Personal invective has always been more entertaining than rational conversation about political philosophy. But entertainment value now seems more important than truth.

You can read the full text of John Kennedy's commencement address at Yale University here, but below are some excerpts that I found particular relevant to current events.

Commencement Address at Yale University
President John F. Kennedy, June 11, 1962

"As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

"For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

"Mythology distracts us everywhere—in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic affairs.... In recent months many have come to feel, as I do, that the dialog between the parties—between business and government, between the government and the public—is clogged by illusion and platitude and fails to reflect the true realities of contemporary American society.

"There are three great areas of our domestic affairs in which, today, there is a danger that illusion may prevent effective action. They are, first, the question of the size and the shape of the government's responsibilities; second, the question of public fiscal policy; and third, the matter of confidence, business confidence or public confidence, or simply confidence in America. ...

"... in the wider national interest, we need not partisan wrangling but common concentration on common problems....

"The truth about big government is the truth about any other great activity--it is complex. Certainly it is true that size brings dangers—but it is also true that size can bring benefits. ...

"... Generalities in regard to Federal expenditures, therefore, can be misleading ... each case must be determined on its merits if we are to profit from our unrivaled ability to combine the strength of public and private purpose.

"...Finally, I come to the matter of confidence. Confidence is a matter of myth and also a matter of truth—and this time let me make the truth of the matter first.

"...The solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.

"The stereotypes I have been discussing distract our attention and divide our effort. These stereotypes do our Nation a disservice, not just because they are exhausted and irrelevant, but above all because they are misleading—because they stand in the way of the solution of hard and complicated facts.

"...But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that our rhetoric has not kept pace with the speed of social and economic change. Our political debates, our public discourse—on current domestic and economic issues— too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces.

"What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

"... If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it—before it lands us all in a bog of sterile acrimony."