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When knowledge is an opinion, ignorance is king

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
October 22, 2012

No matter how this election turns out, the fact remains that the United States is a desperately sick society. You have nearly half the population apparently reduced to the status of religious cult members, and it's only getting worse.

There's even a tacit admission among the enablers of this cult that such a situation exists, in that they claim that everyone who doesn't think like them is also a cult. It's a false equivalency, of course. It's possible for liberals, labor unionists and other groups to disagree with the Democrats and with each other without being dismissed and even excluded as heretics. In the great American cult, grown adults are expected to reject evolution and climatology, and pretend that the idea behind America was that authorities would tell the people what to do and how much they could make doing it, and not the other way around.

The greatest vulnerability in the American national character is the distaste for education. Day in and day out, it's inculcated in movies, TV shows and the newspaper comics and nearly all other forms of entertainment that school is boring, tedious, an unwelcome intrusion in an otherwise idyllic existence.

It isn't the entertainment industry that is to blame, and it isn't the schools themselves, even though between zero-tolerance authoritarianism and the inflexible, grinding stupidity of “teaching to the test,” schools are rapidly going downhill.

Kids in America are taught to hate school, and this becomes, in far too many, contempt for education as they grow older.

There's a British television show called “Skins” that I like to watch. The acting is good, and the writing is sometimes stellar. It's probably no more representative of typical teen life than any other show about teens, but it has considerable depth and a sense of honesty about it missing from a lot of TV series. Now, with a few exceptions, these aren't model kids. They drink, they do drugs, they have sex, they get into brawls, they fight with their parents. Where the show is strikingly different from American counterparts—and it's a theme I see with other British and Canadian series—is that the kids don't hate school, don't consider it uncool to be intelligent. They want desperately to do well on their “A” Levels, school tests that sort of combine American SATs with Hogwarts’ Sorting Cap. The kids help one another academically, even the ones who aren't so bright and face a life on the assembly line. If they are found ignorant, they are actually embarrassed.

Ignorance is considered a personal flaw.

It used to be the same way in America. Call someone ignorant, and they would be angry. And the more ignorant they actually were, the more angry they would get. If someone didn't know the Earth revolved around the sun (and 30% of Americans don't know that) if you asked him how he failed to learn it in school, he would glower and call you a know-it-all or worse. It was perplexing, this mixture of embarrassment and pride. In the next breath, he might grin and say, “Science was never my strong suit; I was more into chugging parties and babes.” Well, that might explain why he doesn't know the Earth goes around the sun. But it's not really something anyone would want to brag about.

You can very nearly tell if someone is British or American by how they react to the song “We Don't Need No Education” by Pink Floyd. A Brit will tell you the song condemned the system for its uniformity and forced conformity; an America is likely to tell you that the kids are rebelling against school, period.

In recent years this American character flew has taken an ominous and perhaps deadly turn. Not only is ignorance socially acceptable (provided you don't CALL it ignorance), but now it's just a matter of opinion. If you call someone ignorant for not knowing the Earth revolves around the sun, you are likely to just get a condescending smile and be dismissed as one of those Copernican crackpots. Forty percent of Americans “don't believe in” evolution. They regard it, at best, as “just a theory” and at worst as a kind of competing heretical religion. A majority now accept that the climate is changing, but it took a long series of horrific weather events over the past year to convince some of them. Until then, the scientific evidence was “just a theory.” You know. An opinion.

Evolution isn't an opinion. It's a theory, just as gravity is. But it's pretty hard to get around the fact that gravity exists, so people accept it as “real,” although any scientist will tell you we know a hell of a lot more about evolution than we do about gravity. The evidence for evolution is so pervasive and wide-ranging that it simply cannot be dismissed as “just a theory.”

Nonetheless, it's not evident on a daily basis, so it gets dismissed by the pridefully ignorant and regarded as an opinion by this cult, along with climate change, Republican economics, or the notion that the US is in imminent danger of falling to Sharia Law. (That last one is actually somewhat true; the laws religious fundamentalists want to impose come from the Old Testament rather than the Koran, but they are the same laws, written by the same people thousands of years ago.)

When reality is reduced to the level of opinion, there is no longer any such thing as ignorance. Any opinion constitutes knowledge. There is no baseline for reality, and it makes it possible for people to reject any argument, no matter how compelling.

It's a social mindset that one associates with societies that are in extremis; on the verge of utter collapse, without hope, scared to death and looking for any way out. That the things that frighten Americans so much are largely imaginary (Iran is not a significant threat, Islam isn't out to destroy the US, Obama isn't a Moslem communist, and Darwin wasn't a sociopath bent on killing Jesus) doesn't make the fear any less real, or any less deadly.

Societies at that stage usually implode, often with utterly horrific results. Germany in the 1930s. France in the 1780s. China in the 1940s. And now, America.

I doubt the election will change that in any significant way. For sane people the choice in this election, as in most of recent vintage, is a choice between being hanged quickly or being hanged slowly. Obama might try to slow the process, but by doing so, exacerbate it. Nothing frightens and angers a cultist more than questioning the Truths the cult has vouchsafed him, and the only recourse sane people have is to question those Truths.

It's a dangerous situation for the country to be in.

Ignorance, when it becomes king, rapidly becomes a terrifying tyranny, and blood flows freely.

Posted: October 26, 2012

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