Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Ecology of Ignorance

"If this is the Information Age, "a woman asks the befuddled man in a suit at the usual cocktail party in the 1980s New Yorker cartoon, "why doesn't anybody know anything?"

That's one aspect of the paradox. It isn't just information overload. It's surrender.

Ignorance is fashionable. One of these days somebody at Vanity Fair will start calling it the New Ignorance. It seems to go right along with the New Normal.

We're in the midst of a political campaign where one candidate is pilloried for being too nuanced. He believes complex problems are complex, and the other guy---the guy who appears to be winning the hearts and mindlessness of America---believes complex problems can be made simple if you only pour enough blood and money on them, and hire people who get their kicks from lying viciously and outrageously, and getting away with it. Intelligence is unfashionable, dude.

Historian Richard Hofstader published a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that linked the tradition to what we'd now call fundamentalist religion. Intellectuals are individualistic, and individualism is an invitation to sin. The church and the community keep everyone on the path of truth and virtue. It was an idea suited to the 1960s, in revolt against the conformist, outer-directed fifties.

I found that book in my hometown public library, on the shelf for new books in 1963, when I was in high school. In those days, you signed your name on the library card, and when you took the book back, that card went back in the pocket of the book. So in those innocent, pre-Patriot Act days, you knew who was reading what.

Some 20 years later, when my hometown library had moved to bigger quarters but hadn't updated its system, I chanced on this very same book while visiting the stacks. I looked at the card in the back. My name was there, and there was no name after it.

But small town anti-intellectualism, at least as old as Sinclair Lewis (who in fact seemed mighty contemporary when I read him, also in high school) isn't the whole story. Here we've got the Internet, inter-library systems, an amazing variety of periodicals and books available almost everywhere, and hundreds of channels of what was once sold to the public as the greatest educational device ever (television, which came after the similarly sold radio and before the ditto computer). And we're as dumb as posts and getting dumber. Ignorance this profound takes some effort. This is learned ignorance.

In the nineteenth and early 20th century, aspiration to wealth implied aspiration to knowledge, sophistication and taste. The immigrant Scottish boy Andrew Carnegie writes rapturously of his first raise, his first investment, but also his first reading (and first library), his first taste of Shakespeare and Wagner, and how his outlook changed after seeing the best new paintings in Europe. That’s how we got Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Museum and all those libraries.

Slaves in America worshipped literacy and risked their lives to learn to read; Wynton Marsalis talks about how the cultured, well-spoken and erudite man was the epitome of style in the black culture of New Orleans.

We think of certain immigrant groups as devoted to education, and not always only as a way to get ahead, and other immigrant groups as indifferent. Probably the differences have as much to do with whether the immigrants came from poor and rural areas, or middle class and urban. But ignorance was not a positive value for any immigrant group in the past, at least not completely.

There is the phenomenon of the working class hero to consider---at the same time as working class kids may be encouraged to get an education to get ahead, they are also cautioned not to get too fancy or go too far. It's the separation from the values of the group, the family, the community, and the church again. Who do you think you are? You think you're better than us?

The break point might have been my parents generation, when a solid middle class life became possible without much education, and the culture began to minimize the value of non-ignorance, except as credential or job training. The first baby boomers had clearer access to college than any generation before or since, and we took advantage of it. But what did it really mean? So the paradox begins, as non-ignorance becomes a freakish aspiration.

Lots of books have characterized the phenomenon, from William Whyte's Organization Man to R. S. Scorer's 1977 The Clever Moron to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death. Even more books have seen it as part of society's apocalypse, like John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization, Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture, and Jacques Barzun's elegy for western civilization, From Dawn to Decadence.

Is it decadence? The decay of the wealthy classes is hard to measure, since it's hard to recall when the wealthy weren't decadent. Today a lot of people like to act wealthy and think of themselves as such. But there's nothing inherent in a richer society that says it has to value ignorance. The 1960s began with a different vision of wealth, and a different vision of where our society and democracy were going. John F. Kennedy had money, but also intelligence, knowledge, wit, charm and style. He laced his speeches with quotations, often from distinguished writers he had actually read. Contrary to today's propaganda, the New Frontier wasn't about muscling the Russians. It was about solving problems reasonably, and applying knowledge to problem-solving.

My generation had those models for awhile. Robert Kennedy could recite long passages and poetry from memory. He cherished the company of poets, writers and thinkers. Eugene McCarthy was something of an intellectual. There were others in public life; there were in the 60s even public intellectuals, and we used to actually see them on television, on nationally broadcast talk shows---and not just on Sunday morning. Even Barry Goldwater was pretty well read, and no fan of ignorance.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century America of George W. Bush, and it's pretty frightening. This is the future?

Probably nobody will believe this now, but at that first televised presidential debate in 1960, voters were interested in which of the candidates was smarter. Who knew more. Who had intelligent solutions.

Today of course the Republicans win universal praise from the political experts for a campaign that has exactly one message endlessly repeated. Does it matter that they avoid issues that will decide the future? Does it matter that their message is a lie, and they know it is, and so do the experts? Of course not. The experts deride other campaign for not doing the same thing.

According to the conventional wisdom, ignorance is the new normal. Or the new morality.

Our society could have valued knowledge and intelligence. Our best are getting better; there are amazingly intelligent books out there written for non-specialists, by people who sincerely want to apply intelligence to an understanding of life, as well as to solve problems. But we never made that commitment to intelligence, at least not for very long.

You could call what's happened to our standards for public dialogue a kind of decadence, though it's not the product so much of lassitude as rapacity. Some say there was an American Establishment that kept the public dialogue civilized, but that it fell apart when it was unable to restrain Nixon and what came after. Maybe. But there's no sense of responsibility replacing artificial standards and enforcers, especially since dog eat dog became enshrined as the American Dream in the 1980s. That's the only kind of individualism left.

Ignorance is useful when you're trying to fool people, and with a consumer economy so dependent on advertising, fooling people is a basis for this apparent prosperity. Ignorance is even more useful to gain political power when your policies are actually harming the electorate. You have to fool them then. It's apparently pretty easy. How can an administration that squandered a huge surplus and put the country in ascending debt for generations, while making things economically worse for most voters, partly by engaging in a war it said it had to fight, but every reason it gave has been repeatedly and authoratatively discredited, and that in less than four years made America hated in most of the world and terrorism more of a threat to American security and safety ---how can these folks not be laughed or booed off the stage? Are we living in some dissociated sort of continuous panic? Don't we believe any of this really matters, so we can elect our favorite clown? Whatever happened to won't get fooled again?

G.W. and his crowd speak in the simplistic and inflammatory language that generations and generations have argued and demonstrated is destructive and self-destructive, not to mention inaccurate. Those generations built a level of knowledge we should be standing on, to get to the next level. People bled and died, slaughtered and were slaughtered, suffered outrageous fortune, made horrendous errors and learned from them, and left us knowledge, and works of art and thought so complex and yet so grounded that we can learn from them at every stage of our lives and of our society.

Such knowledge and the desire for it were always minority concerns, for people who could afford such things, the elites. The promise of American democracy and its economic implications, especially in the abundance of our era and with its instant communications, was that everybody could have access to that knowledge. Everybody could be the elite. There are plenty of problems with our democracy and current economy that imperil this promise, but there also seems to be a lack of demand. For the opposites of ignorance.

We're going to need even more sophisticated knowledge and a synthesis of new concepts and old wisdom if the civilization built at such a high price in costly knowledge is to get out of this century intact. H.G. Wells said our civilization was in a race between education and catastrophe. Catastrophe is winning. But never mind: where's my cheese?

Here's a little theory: when a society is building and ascending, it aspires to knowledge. But when it is on the way down, ignorance is bliss.

Our society is racing to the bottom. Economically, that became clear when Wal-Mart became the largest and most powerful corporation in the world. In the 50s and 60s, the talk about factory jobs was that they were dehumanizing, alienating. The assembly line was a living metaphor for tedious semi-slavery and brain-death. Today those factory jobs are held up as a lost paradise, because they disappeared, leaving behind jobs that pay much less and are even more dehumanizing. Instead of being a human robot on the auto assembly line, you get to be a talking robot serving the assembly line of other mindless human robots lined up for tasty mass produced patties of fried fat and rainforest-destroying cow meat. And that's just one of your three jobs, maybe the best one.

In his book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank tried to discover why middle America votes against its own interests, particularly its economic interests. Why do the so-called social issues trump? A species of anti-intellectualism, the Nation reviewer suggested.

Maybe. Dale Maharidge, author of Homeland, makes a telling observation. He writes a lot about race, and he realized that almost everyone he interviewed who was violently racist, had some enormous problem---huge medical bills they couldn't pay for, long-standing unemployment, and so on. They directed their anger at others who they believed---who they were told---were getting a free ride while they suffered. (A white man with $200,000 in hospital bills believed that immigrants automatically get free health care.) But Maharidge's point was this: What if they all had good jobs and health care? "Would they be so enraged? I don't think so."

So people in power keep their power by enforcing the ignorance that lets them lie and hammer away with simpleminded statements and slogans, and people buy it. And the very suffering they cause helps them, which they probably know. So things are never going to get better for the people near the bottom, and they're on their way to the very bottom.

That helps to explain why television and popular culture has become so vile, vulgar, and stupid. It's ignorance that's got production values, plastic surgery, bright empty smiles and brittle irony. If television advertising can successfully weaken the higher brain functions, it can go straight to the glands. And it is apparently important that people be kept down, mired in anxiety and in pain, so they will look for scapegoats and believe the ignorant lies of radio talk shows. Ignorance sells. But eventually no one will be able to afford to buy.

Part of this may be time. The population of the U.S. in 1960 was 180 million. It's about a hundred and ten million more now. After World War II, the lower middle class grew so fast into the middle class that its tastes became the dominant ones in the culture. Funny isn't it, that even the filthy rich are living a tawdry lower middle class cultural life. Thank you, Andy Warhola.

Little girls are growing up, wanting to be just like Paris Hilton.

On the other hand, when I was growing up, English muffins were foreign food.

Problem is, time is one of the many things we're running out of. We do, however, seem to have an endless supply of ignorance. All those cell phones. And not a damn thing worth saying.

So this is our cultural epitaph: we actually were halfway to a better world. We began to understand what we were wrong about, and what we needed to do. We had even reached something of a cultural consensus on some of what is right: things like racial equality, the environment and so on. That's why our leaders have to call their rapacious policies to cut down trees by the name of "Healthy Forests." They can't any longer come out and say what they're doing. They are counting on our ignorance, and our weakness (we'll feel good about the title, and we'll be glad we don't have to change or sacrifice anything, like colorful cardboard boxes around everything we buy.)

But we couldn't quite commit to knowledge and discernment. We couldn't quite take on the discipline of separating our unconscious from our conscious decisions. Jung warned us in the 1950s that our civilization hangs by a slender thread. It's fraying to the breaking point.

Sure, there's elitism, political correctness, class snobbery and a lot of intellectuals and experts so out of touch with themselves that they don't even know how irrational they are. There are schematic thinkers who use big words, charts and graphs to tell well paid lies, and right wing think tanks who can spin out pithy theories and heartless systems in abstract language with the best of them. But those aren't reasons to worship at the catheral of ignorance.

Is there a way out of the ecology of ignorance? You gotta see it to believe it.

And you could go vote against it.

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