“What the American public doesn’t know is what makes them the American Public.”
– Zalinksy (Dan Aykroyd) in Tommy Boy
“Ha-ha-ha! You said ‘nuclear.’ It’s ‘nucular,’ dummy. The ‘s’ is silent.” – Peter Griffin in Family Guy
“The information of the people at large can alone make them the safe as they are the sole depositary of our political and religious freedom.”
Those are the words of Thomas Jefferson. He knew a thing or two about what makes this country work, and he repeated one of those things over and over and over. He says it again here:
“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”
And again here:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would quickly come to one unavoidable conclusion: We have a problem. A big problem.
The word “elite” is thrown around a lot these days. It is used sneeringly, with disdain. A significant portion of the American population uses the word “elite” to indicate that a person or group is pompous, arrogant, overeducated, and most importantly, wrong. It is a derogatory term meant to disparage its target.
Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “elite”: “The choice part; cream; the best of a class.”
Here is Sarah Palin talking with Brian Williams on NBC News and giving her definition of “elite”: “Oh, I guess just people who think they’re better than anyone else.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “elite” describes someone who excels, someone who is the best at what they do. According to Sarah Palin, “elite” describes … what? People who disagree with her? People who criticize her? From the sound of it, Palin wants you to think that the elite – the people who have worked hard to excel in their field – think they’re better than you. In other words, people who are smarter than you should not be trusted because you have all you need to know as long as you … I don’t know, watch Fox News and read your bible? Actually, it doesn’t matter what Palin’s definition means – what matters is that it resonates with her target audience, with her base. Who are they? Well, they’re people who like the sound of Sarah Palin’s definition of “elite.” It rings true to them – He’s really good at something? Really smart? Then he thinks he’s better than me!
Never mind that her definition has absolutely nothing to do with the word’s actual meaning. Her definition – which she is far from alone in applying to the word – transforms “elite” into a label for people who are … well, knowledgeable; people who tend to point out inconsistencies of logic; people who are prone to be articulate and well-spoken. Palin herself is none of those things. Neither are most of the people who make up her base. Those who are those things are considered suspect by Palin and her many admirers. They are not to be trusted. Their knowledge and abilities are really nothing more than arrogance. They are rejected, mocked and smeared. And keep in mind that Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential candidate in the election of 2008. Keep in mind that she fills auditoriums when she speaks. Keep in mind that Palin’s book Going Rogue sold 300,000 copies it’s first day. None of those things would be true if Sarah Palin were alone in the opinions she holds.
George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States of America, said, “Well, the jury is still out on evolution, you know.” He also said, “The bird flu virus could evolve to a form that can be spread easily from human to human.”
In a 2007 debate of Republican presidential candidates, the following question was asked: “Do you believe in evolution?” Three candidates – Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee and Representative Tom Tancredo – said they did not. Those three men were not elected to their offices in a vacuum. They have a lot of like-minded supporters.
According to a Gallup Poll, fully one third of all Americans believe that every word of the bible is literally true and accurate. That means they believe, among other things, that animals may talk, that a bush can burn without being consumed by the flames, that the sun can be stopped in the sky during its rotation of the earth, that eight people repopulated the entire planet after a global flood, that it’s sometimes okay for a man to have sex with and impregnate his own daughters, that a woman can get pregnant and have a child while still remaining a virgin, and that people sometimes come back from the dead and live and function as they did before dying. This requires them to reject science whenever it contradicts these beliefs. It also requires them to reject anyone who does not share these beliefs. Don’t believe me? Watch this political campaign advertisement.
That campaign ad pointed out that Bradley Byrne does not hold the beliefs listed above, but does accept the scientific theory of evolution and does not think that every word of the bible is literally true and accurate – and it pointed all of that out in an effort to discredit him.
America’s founding fathers repeatedly made clear their conviction that America was a secular nation that neither endorses nor enforces any religion, but allows all religions, or no religion. The evidence of this is abundant. There’s George Washington’s letter to Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in which he wrote, “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” There’s the Treaty of Tripoli, endorsed by Washington and ratified by John Adams, which states without ambiguity, “The United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian religion.” There’s the Constitution of the United States, in which the only time religion of any kind is mentioned is to prohibit it from government. There is more, too, plenty more.
Despite the abundant evidence that they are flat wrong, a hefty segment of the American population shares Sarah Palin’s opinion in the video linked above that America is “a Christian nation” that merely “tolerates” other faiths out of the goodness of its heart and views these other faiths as inferior. These people will passionately argue that America was founded on Christian principles by Christian people so Christians can live here in a nation of Jesus-loving Christianity, that the United States is the nation that Jesus built. I was recently in an argument about this with just such a Christian, and when I pointed out that nowhere does the Constitution mention god or Jesus Christ, he said, “Yes it does! The Constitution is dated this way: ‘In the Year of Our Lord!’ And our lord is Jesus Christ, the son of god!”
Are you beginning to see why “elite” has become such a dirty word in America? It has replaced the once popularly maligned word “intellectual” – because, one might presume, it is shorter and easier to spell. Intellectuals are usually the early targets of any dictatorship as it comes into power (it seems dictators don’t like the “elite” any more than Sarah Palin and her fans). Why kill them? Noam Chomsky answers that question: “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”
Those damned pesky elite intellectuals – always asking questions, and worse yet, often answering them! They’re so troublesome and annoying to corrupt leaders who don’t like it when their actions are criticized or their motives questioned.
In an interview with Cincinnati Magazine, musician, writer, poet, actor, talk show host and punk rock legend Henry Rollins put it well:
How can you argue with someone who applauds when Sarah Palin says we need a real commander-in-chief, not some scholar? Oh, I see, we don’t like intellectuals. We don’t want a smart guy as president because he won’t start a war with Iran. We like the dumb guy better, who couldn’t pronounce any leader’s name and couldn’t find a country on a map; who struggled with the English language like a guy trying to hold on to a live eel. Yeah, that’s, you know, the coarsening of the intellect. Who feared smart people? Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Putin … interesting. And Palin. And her flock. “I like Sarah because she’s like me and she’s a good person.” Well, what about her policies? “Oh, I don’t know about them, but she’s a good person and that’s why she should be president.”
Of course, here in America, we can’t go around killing intellectuals the way Hitler, Mao and Stalin did … can we? No, not really. It wouldn’t look good. It would be all over the news, Oprah would disapprove, and the media might even make a “reality” TV show about it.
Of course, just because we can’t kill them doesn’t mean we can’t assassinate them in the arena of public opinion. Listen to right-wing radio talk show host Michael Savage on any day of the week and you will hear him venomously refer to President Obama as, “That university professor!” As if it’s an epithet on a par with calling him the N-word. Listen to any of the right-wing radio talkers and you will see how contemptuous they are of well-educated people who’ve devoted their lives to a particular field. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Dennis Miller, once one of America’s wittiest, most intelligent and acerbic comedians, whose material was peppered with a wide variety of intellectually challenging references that ran the gamut of art, science, pop culture, and history, now hosts a right-wing radio talk show on which he says, multiple times every day, “I’m not much for no fancy book-learnin’.”
But if you think this rejection of intelligence, knowledge and excellence happens only on the right, you’re mistaken. This past week, movie actor and vocal leftist John Cusack (whom I follow on Twitter) posted this message (I am reproducing it here exactly as he wrote it):
hope we can believe in– ban the ivy league! i kid but not really… lets see what happens when the” best and brightest” dont rule–
Let me repeat that last part again: “Let’s see what happens when the ‘best and brightest’ don’t rule.” Yes, let’s shove the best and brightest aside and go down the ladder a ways to find our leaders. Maybe this country would be better off if we put it in the hands of people with no historical frame of reference, people who don’t reach decisions through critical thought and reasoning but rather according to their religious beliefs and ancient religious texts written thousands of years ago by ignorant, superstitious men. How would that be, huh? Can you imagine a time when that’s the kind of thinking we use to choose our leaders?
Oh, wait … we’re already there. Are you scared yet?
In 2008, Susan Jacoby was interviewed by Truthout.org. Jacoby was a reporter for the Washington Post and the program director of the Center for Inquiry in New York City. She is now the author of several books, including The Age of American Unreason. She discussed the common attitude toward knowledge, intelligence and excellence in America and gave the following example of this phenomenon on the left side of the aisle:
At the end of the primaries, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain endorsed a gas tax holiday for Americans this summer. Every economist, both liberal and conservative, said this would do nothing to help matters. And when Hillary Clinton was asked by the late Tim Russert, “Can you produce one economist to support the gas tax holiday?” she said, “Oh that’s elite thinking.”
Now to say that economists have nothing intelligent to say about whether a gas tax will give people economic relief is like saying that you don’t ask musicians about music; you don’t ask scientists about science. It’s not just an attack on a political idea; it’s an attack on knowledge itself. … Of course, she doesn’t believe it for a minute. It shows that a lot of politicians think they have to play to ignorance and label anything that goes against received opinion as elitism.
We live in a country in which many brilliant, well-educated people feel they have to play dumb in order to get elected. They feel the need to pander to the most ignorant among us to get votes, to throw their own knowledge and intelligence out the window and say things they don’t really mean or believe in order to get votes. And do you know why they do it? Because it works.
In the same interview, Jacoby gives another example of the frightening way knowledge has been rejected and ignorance embraced:
I’ll give you an example of how stupid this country has become. I’m one of the village atheists on Faith, a panel sponsored by the Washington Post and Newsweek. In a recent post I wrote that when I was 7 years old, I was taken by my mom to visit a friend who had been stricken by polio and was in an iron lung. Polio has basically been eradicated, but I grew up when polio was still a real threat to children, before the Salk vaccine. This childhood friend had been playing and running only three weeks before, and now he was in an iron lung. And I asked my mom, “Why would God let something like that happen?” And to her credit, instead of giving me some moronic answer, my mother said, “I don’t know.”
After posting this on Faith, I received an e-mail saying, “All childhood memories are unreliable. We construct narratives to justify what we now think.”
Of course it would be stupid if I’d said I became an atheist at the age of 7. But I hadn’t said that, only that I remembered this childhood experience as making me begin to question what I’d been taught. The whole tone of the e-mail was that nobody’s memory about anything could possibly be accurate – no fact could possibly be true.
… One of the points I make in my book is that unreason pervades our culture. It’s not just a matter of right-wing religious fundamentalism. There are all kinds of unreason and suspicion of evidence on both the Right and the Left.
We often hear about the vast promise of technology to educate and enlighten us, to put oceans of information at our very fingertips. But how can all that information be useful … if we have no frame of reference to apply to it? Susan Jacoby again:
In my talks to people, I often mention a statistic from the National Constitution Center that almost half of Americans can’t name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. A student stood up at a university in California and said, “That doesn’t matter because you can just look it up on the Internet.” But if you don’t know what the First Amendment is in the first place, you don’t know what question to ask the Web. Garbage in, garbage out. The Web’s only as good as our ability to ask questions of it. The ability to access information means nothing if you don’t have an educated framework of knowledge to fit it into.
But aren’t we at least smart enough to know that we don’t know a lot? How could we possibly get ourselves into this situation? Susan Jacoby says:
A fundamentalist is one who believes in a literal interpretation of sacred books, and a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. That’s about 10 times more than any other developed country in the world. It’s entirely possible to be a religious believer and to accept science, but not if you’re a literal religious believer. You can’t believe that the world was literally created in six days, and be open to modern knowledge.
There’s also something else: We’ve always had more faith in technology than other countries. One of our problems with computers is that we believe in technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems. Not knowing is a non-technological problem. The idea that the Web is an answer to knowing nothing is wrong, but it’s something that Americans – with our history of believing in technology as the solution to everything – are particularly susceptible to.
Why is it that such a large percentage of the Americans read every word of the bible literally? Jacoby again.
That’s in my previous book, Freethinkers. One reason, oddly enough, is our absolute separation of church and state. In secular Europe – as it’s often called sneeringly by people like Justice Antonin Scalia – religious belief and belief in political systems were united. So if you opposed the government, you also had to oppose religion. That wasn’t true in America because we had separation of church and state. Many forms of religious belief survived in America, because you could believe anything you wanted and still not be opposed to your government.
The freedom of religion in America gives us more freedom, it’s true – but it also gives us more religion, and that freedom provides no balance whatsoever. People are free to believe whatever idiotic nonsense happens to appeal to them – and they do. But shouldn’t education provide a balance for this? Sure, our educational system is a bit problematic these days, but it’s still the best in the world, because America is number one – right? Jacoby says:
… Americans are unwilling to look at how really bad our educational system is because we’ve all been propagandized with the idea that we’re number one. That may have been true after World War II, but not anymore. The idea that we’re number one and special and better than everybody else is a very powerful factor in American life, and it prevents us from examining certain respects in which we’re not number one.
Is Jacoby exaggerating? Is the educational system really that bad? After all, America is number one … right? Well, let’s see. According to the December 12, 2004 issue of the New York Times, the United States ranks 49th in the world in literacy, 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy and American workers are so ignorant and lack so many basic skills that businesses in the U.S. spend $30 billion a year on remedial training. According to the January 7, 2005 issue of The Week, 20% of all Americans think the sun orbits the earth, and 17% believe the earth orbits the sun once every day. On page 78 of Jeremy Rifkin’s book The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, he notes that the International Adult Literacy Survey found “that Americans with less than nine years of education ’score worse than virtually all of the other countries.’”
If you don’t believe any of this and think I’m exaggerated or my information is incorrect, please watch this video, which is a few years old, but still quite relevant. And be afraid. Be very afraid.
From the time that I was a boy, I watched my father retreat from the world because the world refused to conform to his opinions and beliefs. When he was in the sixth grade, his teacher wanted him to give an oral book report in front of the class. He didn’t want to. The teacher insisted. So Dad threw a tantrum, walked away from school halfway through the sixth grade with his signature I’ll show them attitude and never looked back. He went through life with that same attitude, and the older he got, the angrier he got, because he found that his attitude was not well received. When I was a child, he used to come home from work angry every day – everyone else was stupid, everyone was out to get him, everyone else was to blame for all of his problems. After having back surgery, he applied for disability and got it. He wasn’t disabled – he did plenty of hard work around the house – but he no longer had to face a world of people who knew more than he, who thought more clearly than he, who refused to tell him he was right about everything when he was right about virtually nothing, and who refused to tolerate his tantrums when this fact became clear. He continued to retreat from the world until he almost never left the house, even to go to church (he was quite religious and was fond of wildly misquoting the bible he never read). The excuse he invented was, “I don’t like being around crowds. It’s my nerves.” My mother played along. The little house in which they lived became his entire world, and in that world, he knew everything, he was always right, and everyone else was crazy and ignorant and full of crap on every conceivable topic. And if you didn’t believe him, just ask Mom. She would nod and smile and say, “That’s what Dad has always said.” As if always saying it makes it right.
If you had a discussion with him about anything and you happened to disagree with him, you didn’t simply hold a differing opinion – you were saying that he was wrong. Opinions weren’t just opinions to him because in any conversation, someone had to be right and someone had to be wrong – and he had to be right. As a result, he walked away from every conversation by angrily snarling his favorite words: “I know what I know!”
Dad used to pronounce the word “realty” as “reality.” This drove me crazy. Finally, I pointed out to him that he was mispronouncing the word. “Realty refers to the sale of real estate,” I said. “Reality is a different word and has an entirely different meaning.”
“But I’ve always pronounced it ‘reality,’” he said. My family was big on the idea that repeating something a lot made it true.
“I know you have, but it’s always been wrong.”
“Well, I prefer to say it my way,” he said.
“Then no one will know what you’re talking about, Dad.”
“That’s their problem.”
I wanted to say, No, Dad, that’s your problem, but I said nothing, and if you’d known my dad, you would know why.
Life in America is starting to bear a terrifying resemblance to life with my parents. I’m 47 years old, have been married to my wife for 20 years, and yet it seems that, with increasing frequency, when I engage others in conversation on topical subjects, I feel like a little boy again trying to have a conversation with my father. This is due, I think, to a combination of phenomena that have created a perfect storm of willful ignorance in America.
Fully one third of the population believes in the infallible accuracy of a book that claims it’s okay to abuse or even kill your children, that seas part so people can walk across them, that women are unclean during their menstrual cycle and everything they touch during that time must be burned, that virgins have babies and people rise from the dead. These people in turn reject any scientific information – sometimes even evidence that is right in front of them – that contradicts this book. And let’s face it, folks – if you believe all that not only without a speck of evidence to support it but in the face of hard, cold proof to the contrary, then there is no limit on what you will believe.
We live in an era that is bloated with information. Once upon a time, there were only three, four, maybe five television channels available to most people. Now there are hundreds. News channels now have 24 hours to fill every day, which has made everything “news” – the latest celebutard drug overdose, political sex scandals, missing puppies and updates on American Idol contestants are now given the attention and significance once reserved for national policy decisions, wars and natural disasters. “Reality” TV has invaded every area of television – the major networks, MTV, cooking channels, it’s everywhere – presenting as “reality” the very worst elements of humanity. Selfish, arrogant, angry, deceptive, promiscuous, ignorant, small-minded people get their own TV shows today and are held up as celebrities, and people tune in to follow their exploits. They’re soon popping up on shows other than their own – talk shows, panel shows, “news” shows, and in magazines where they pose for glossy, glamorous photo shoots. They become the topic of watercooler coversations in workplaces around the country. These people – the stars of “reality” TV shows who have, as a result, become TV stars, celebrities, and the subject of stories that pass for “news” these days – have rapidly become cultural touchstones for us.
On top of that, our culture has become dominated by things like Twitter, Facebook and cell phone texting, all of which have positive aspects. But a significant portion of our population has come to believe that it’s very important that everyone know exactly what we’re doing at every moment and that we share every little thought that pops into our heads. It has given us a sense of self-importance we did not have before, the feeling that the minutiae of our lives is somehow special and of great interest to others. Hey, if those unpleasant, obnoxious, proudly stupid people on The Jersey Shore can have their own TV show, then I can be a celebrity, too, right? We have become celebrities in our own minds, filled with a false sense of our own importance.
Add to all of the above another factor, one that perhaps does the most damage. Just as wealthy, pampered celebrities tend to surround themselves with “yes men” who tell those celebrities only what they want to hear, it is now possible for us to structure our own personal lives to confirm only those things we believe about ourselves and our world. You’re a Christian conservative who believes that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles to be ruled by Christians? Then watch Fox News and CBN and listen to Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham and go online and read Newsmax and WorldNetDaily (both of which have a long history of outright lies). You believe that the scientific theory of evolution is a lie and the world was created in six days by a silent, invisible god? Well, there are plenty of well-funded organizations that agree with you and are working hard to spread the word that your belief has scientific support and is being unfairly rejected by the American educational system in favor of its wicked, godless teachings. In no time at all, you will be absolutely convinced that you are right about everything! You don’t even have to listen to anything that disagrees with you! After all, you have TV shows and reporters and news websites and celebrities and shiny organizations to back up everything you believe. Suddenly, all those who disagree with you become the “elite” – people who think they’re better than you, people who think they know more than you. What more do you need to know other than the fact that you’re right!
Now, ignorance and stupidity are not only allowed, they are actively encouraged and nurtured!
During the eight years that George W. Bush was president, I nearly pulled my hair out every time I heard him speak. Whenever he opened his mouth and words came out, he butchered the language, said appallingly ignorant things, and made it very clear that he just wasn’t thinking clearly, as if all the wrong synapses were firing at all the wrong times (“Is our children learning?” … “You need to put food on your family.” … “The jury is still out on evolution.”) Whenever I openly complained about this, it seemed there was always someone who spoke up and said some variation of the following: “Leave him alone! At least he’s not one of those people who says everything exactly right all the time, like he’s better than everybody else, like knows more than everybody else! He talks like a normal person! He talks like me!”
Every time they said that, what I heard them saying inside my head was, I like him because he’s dumb like me! I heard my father saying, I know what I know! I heard him saying, That’s their problem.
No. It’s our problem. It’s the entire country’s problem. And it’s a problem that is rapidly getting worse, metastasizing like a cancer. Thomas Jefferson was right – the functional operation of this country as it was conceived by the founders is absolutely dependent on an informed electorate, on reasoning and informed intelligence. All of that is disintegrating right before our very eyes.
Don’t wait for the educational system to fix this. Don’t wait for the government to correct it. It will only get worse unless we start doing something about it ourselves, individually, one at a time. Educate yourself and stay informed. Think – and think critically. Turn off the television and radio and stop listening to the many talking heads who want to do your thinking for you. Go to the library or a book store, do some reading. Seek out information and opinions that challenge you and will keep you from saying, I know what I know. Examine each issue thoughtfully, using reason as your guide, not devotion to a religious belief or allegiance to a political party or the popular opinions of our time. Keep in mind that the majority opinion is seldom the right one – that the majority once wanted black people and women to remain second class citizens without voices or rights. Arm yourself with the facts, then speak up when you hear those facts being trampled or twisted. Don’t remain silent in the face of willful ignorance and disinformation. Point it out, correct it, and then denounce it. If we don’t do that with frequency and conviction, we will find ourselves traveling backward in time with terrifying speed, and we will land in a place ruled by ignorance, superstition and anger. We’re halfway there right now. In that place, there will be no freedom, no individuality, no thinking. There will only be the constant repetition of the words, I know what I know … even if what is known is nothing at all.