The Triumph Of Ignorance
By George Monbiot
29 October, 2008
How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the
Like most people on this side of the
There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived; but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan’s response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter - stumbling a little, using long words - carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said “there you go again”(2). His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.
It wasn’t always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?
On one level this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians
are elected by ignorant people.
But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many
One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in
particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The
Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its
anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication of The
Origin of Species, for example, Americans had good reason to reject the theory
of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the
Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable to the public from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism.
But there were other, more powerful, reasons for the
intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The
The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant
denomination in the
This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishisation of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln’s career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary: all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment it is a recipe for confusion.
Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent
reason why intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been
equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a
long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all
intellectuals are communists. Almost every day men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill
O’Reilly rage against the “liberal elites” destroying
The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.
Obama has a good deal to offer
1. For a staggering display of ignorance and bigotry, see: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=lPg0VCg4AEQ
2. You can see this exchange at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=
3. All these facts are contained in Susan Jacoby, 2008. The
Age of American Unreason: dumbing down and the future of democracy. Old Street
4. Susan Jacoby, ibid. Chapter 3.
5. Susan Jacoby, ibid. Page 57.
6. Susan Jacoby, ibid. Page 25.
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