Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Mark Slouka's rant about ignorance in America in the latest issue of Harpers. Long, but provokes thought.
What we need to talk about, what someone needs to talk about, particularly now, is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it. A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame—no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We’re deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath.
Seen from a sufficient distance (a decade abroad, for example), or viewed through a protective filter, like film, or alcohol, there can be something almost endearing about it. It can appear quaint, part of our foolish-butauthentic, naive-yet-sincere, roughhewn spirit. Up close and personal, unromanticized and unfiltered, it’s another thing entirely. In the flesh, barking from the electronic pulpit or braying back from the audience, our ignorance can be sobering. We don’t know. Or much care. Or care to know. What do we care about? We care about auto racing and Jessica. We care about food, oh yes, please, very much. And money. (Did you catch the last episode of I Love Money?) We care about Jesus, though we’re a bit vague on his teachings. And America. We care about America. And the flag. And the troops, though we’re untroubled by the fact that the Bush Administration lied us into the conflict, then spent years figuring out that armor in war might be bookstores to lay our money down.
Wherever it may have resided before, the brain in America has migrated to the region of the belt—not below it, which might at least be diverting, but only as far as the gut—where it has come to a stop. The gut tells us things. It tells us what’s right and what’s wrong, who to hate and what to believe and who to vote for. Increasingly, it’s where American politics is done. All we have to do is listen to it and the answer appears in the little window of the eight ball: “Don’t trust him. Don’t know. Undecided. Just because, that’s why.” We know because we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart, like love. I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance, and to try to do something about it if at all possible. I carry that burden to this day, and have successfully passed it on to my children. I don’t believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about—constitutional law, for example, or sailing — a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it. Worse still (or more amusing, depending on the day) are those who can tell you, and then offer up a stew of New Age blather, right-wing rant, and bloggers’ speculation that’s so divorced from actual, demonstrable fact, that’s so not true, as the kids would say, that the mind goes numb with wonder. “Way I see it is,” a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”


Secular Humanist said...

“if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”

Ain't it so? Ain't it so?

Anonymous said...

That quote about Jesus Christ and English is highly suspect. See details here.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I have been saying this for years just a lot less effectively than you did here.

gnomestrath said...

Thanks you for the brilliant insight. I have taken the liberty of quoting you with link to my feeble blog on wordpress. If thats OK.

Tom B. said...

David J.,

I have no comment on the specific claim in this story. But I do know that my grandmother said almost exactly that to me in her kitchen over 20 years ago. But she was more specific. She said if the KJV was good enough for Jesus, she didn't see why we needed the new-fangled stuff like the NIV Bible.

She wasn't joking, she sincerely thought that the KJV of the Bible was how they talked during the time of Christ. And Noah.

Russ Manley said...

Ditto. I heard the same thing from a church lady 30 years ago: the Bible was written in King James English, so why change it?

I'm afraid there are still a lot of folks here in rural Texas who would give the same opinion today. But town or country, the main article here makes a very good point about ignorance in America: people are just so damn proud of it.

Ask Gov. Palin or Joe the Plumber. Not to mention all the millions who think they are just so wonderful.

Anonymous said...

A month or so ago, at a meeting a very nice man was ranting about foreign competition. I asked him if he knew who Ricardo [ie, famous economist, first developed models of the value of international trade, etc] was. He didn't. I tried to then explain that he simply wasn't entitled to an opinion, any more than he was entitled to an opinion about dark matter. You know, there's no way to say that politely. "Against ignorance, the gods themselves labor in vain."