August 24, 2008

Ending the Use of Ignorance As a Weapon

GOP presidential candidate John McCain's most recent gaffe, in which he admitted being unable to answer a question about the number of homes he owns, has done much to diminish the effectiveness of his claims about his opponent's alleged "elitism." Still, only those for whom 2008 is their first presidential election are likely to believe that this particular charge is gone from the landscape of either the current campaign or future ones. But while elitism has been a favorite characterization of both progressives and Democrats by Republicans for years, the nature of the term - what it actually means - is rarely explored.

Senator McCain, who married into a family worth in excess of $100 million, is - even in comparison to Barack Obama, who made $4 million last year - clearly operating in a financial realm far beyond what the vast majority of Americans will ever even hope to attain. By any objective definition, while both men are unquestionably members of the financial elite, it is Mr. McCain who has been there longer, and who has climbed far further up that particular ladder than Mr. Obama. The charges of "elitism" then, must stem from something else, and they do: the candidate's intellectualism.

Senator Obama hit the nail on the head, when, in response to Republican ridicule of his completely realistic statement that maintaining proper tire pressure improves gas mileage, he noted, "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant." This is not an earth-shattering revelation, but it is a truism often left unsaid. For while political populism has always contained some degree - often significant - of willful intellectual blindness, the increasingly central role of that ignorance in advancing a particular agenda has rarely been questioned. Susan Jacoby, in a recent interview about her new book The Age of American Unreason, contends that we are plumbing new depths in America, and recounts the following telling example:
Contempt for fact is very important.

I'll give you a great example that's already obsolete. 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.

Although the subject of this example, Mrs. Clinton, is a Democrat, it is the Republican Party that has consistently made the persecution of objective knowledge central to its message and its methodology. Throughout the reign of George W. Bush, there have been countless examples of not just contempt for science and reason and data, but an active effort to crush, suppress and twist reality to conform it to preconceived notions. It is a strategy that has been key to maintaining the GOP's grip on power, and it has often been aided by a spineless press corps more enamored of access to that power than the more punishing pursuit of the truth.

All of that said, however, none of this is solely the fault of either politicians or the news media; ultimate responsibility lies with each of us individually, and anyone who takes either a political leader or a corporate journalist at face value is, to be blunt, a fool. Far too many people receive news uncritically, from a single source, or from a single viewpoint, something which has made FOX News what it is today and given it the influence it continues to enjoy. Simply put, the damage wrought by President Bush and the GOP over the past eight years would not have been possible without a compliant and lazy public.

Recently, a friend of mine expressed the sentiment that modern politics was nothing more than a breeding ground for false hope and repeated disappointment, and for that reason he was disinclined to become re-engaged. (A lifelong Republican, he voted for President Bush twice, but has since become disillusioned.) When I pointed out that, as a father, it would probably be a good idea for him to add his voice to the national conversation, he replied that he believed a higher power would ensure that things work out in the end.

I could not disagree more. Change will only come from the efforts of those who take the time to work for it, and it is the passive acceptance - not of some supreme being's will - but the very earthly machinations of human beings, that has gotten us into our current mess. It is up to us to take the mantle of citizenship far more seriously than we have in recent years, and higher power or no, as they say, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Senator Obama's calling out of Republican pride in ignorance may be a turning point, but only if every one of us endeavors to make it so.

Below are two videos that are important in a number of ways. The first is from Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, and it documents some of the repeated falsehoods from FOX News with regard to Barack Obama's campaign platform. It represents exactly the type of grassroots effort to hold corporate media accountable that is so necessary in today's United States.

The second video is from Real Time with Bill Maher, and features some very wise words from actor - and research adviser at Oxford University - Richard Dreyfus on the very fragile nature of the American experiment.

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