Monday, September 5, 2016

It’s In to Be Ignorant

I’ve spend most of my life striving to learn, enjoying most of my formal education and very much committed to a lifetime of learning, reading and understanding as much about my world as I can. To a rather significant coterie of American voters, I am everything that is wrong with this country. Panty-waist intellectuals are ruining good old American values, people like me.
We have a presidential candidate who openly admits he questions the value of “experts” who write long, well-researched reports on vital national issues. Trump doesn’t like these folks and will not read their documents; he prefers to learn what’s going on by watching online and broadcast news reports. Books? Forgetaboutit! Once, a while ago, something. He hasn’t even read a single biography of any American president, by his own admission.
“Donald Trump is not much of a reader, despite having written The Art of the Deal‘the number 1 selling business book of all time.’ Asked by Megyn Kelly what his favorite book is besides The Art of the Deal, Trump chose All Quiet on the Western Front. (Not sure what happened to the Bible!) Kelly, perhaps sensing that Trump may not have read a book since sixth grade, asked him to name the last book he read. ‘I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,’ Trump said. ‘When was the last time I watched a baseball game? I’m watching you all the time.’” Alex Shephard in the New Republic. All this in a world where complexity governs policy decisions at every level.
We all know that austerity-driven state legislatures, joined by the Congress, have seen local public education, from primary school to state colleges and universities, as suitable targets for severe budget cuts. The wealthiest of us could not care less; they can afford the expensive private schools – some well-above $35-40,000/year for upscale primary and secondary institutions in large cities (and chi chi suburbs). The resulting plunging test scores, in basics like math, reading comprehension and science, show the United States losing ground every year to nations in Asia and Europe who still believe that supporting public education is a necessity in this intensely globally competitive world. There is a steep cost to this new American de-prioritization of education.
Exactly how ignorant are we? We have an upcoming election, pitting two of the most opposite, polarizing candidates we have ever had with deeply conflicting visions of what America is and what it should be. The issues are complex, the stakes might actually determine whether the United States actually survives, not just whose version of American values will prevail. You’d think voters (Trump himself?) would prioritize knowing not just the current hot-button issues, but how the underlying governmental structure actually functions and who the players really are. I know it comes as no surprise to my readers that the statistics tell us that we have a very large, abysmally under-informed, segment of voting Americans.
Writing an op-ed for the New York Times (August 26th), Timothy Egan peels back the onion skin and looks at that harsh reality: “Most Americans, those born here, those about to make the most momentous decision in civic life this November, cannot [pass a basic citizenship test]. And most cannot pass the simple test aced by 90 percent of new citizens.
“Well, then: Who controlled the Senate during the 2014 election, when control of the upper chamber was at stake? If you answered Dunno at the time, you were with a majority of Americans in the clueless category.
“But surely now, when election news saturation is thicker than the humidity around Lady Liberty’s lip, we’ve become a bit more clue-full. I give you Texas. A recent survey of Donald Trump supporters there found that 40 percent of them believe that Acorn will steal the upcoming election.
“Acorn? News flash: That community-organizing group has been out of existence for six years. Acorn is gone, disbanded, dead. It can no more steal an election than Donald Trump can pole vault over his Mexican wall.
“We know that at least 30 million American adults cannot read. But the current presidential election may yet prove that an even bigger part of the citizenry is politically illiterate — and functional. Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.
“‘There’s got to be a reckoning on all this,’ said Charlie Sykes, the influential conservative radio host, in a soul-searching interview with Business Insider. ‘We’ve created this monster.’
“Trump, who says he doesn’t read much at all, is both a product of the epidemic of ignorance and a main producer of it. He can litter the campaign trail with hundreds of easily debunked falsehoods because conservative media has spent more than two decades tearing down the idea of objective fact.
“If Trump supporters knew that illegal immigration peaked in 2007, or that violent crime has been on a steady downward spiral nationwide for more than 20 years, they would scoff when Trump says Mexican rapists are surging across the border and crime is out of control.
“If more than 16 percent of Americans could locate Ukraine on a map, it would have been a Really Big Deal when Trump said that Russia was not going to invade it — two years after they had, in fact, invaded it… If basic civics was still taught, and required, for high school graduation, Trump could not claim that judges ‘sign bills.’
“The dumbing down of this democracy has been gradual, and then — this year — all at once. The Princeton Review found that the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were engaged at roughly a high school senior level. A century later, the presidential debate of 1960 was a notch below, at a 10th grade level. By the year 2000, the two contenders were speaking like sixth graders. And in the upcoming debates — ‘Crooked Hillary’ against ‘Don the Con’ — we’ll be lucky to get beyond preschool potty talk.”
It also seems that with the flood of “news” and information, from telecasters to purveyors of online information, the body American would have been exposed to greater diversity in opinions and perspectives. Exactly the opposite, it seems. With so much information, viewers have learned to filter out information that conflicts with what they want to believe. In the old days, you’d cover your ears and scream, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Today you either click away or change the channel. You never have to see or listen to a single contradiction of your mindset.
The mere notion of a 24/7 news channel is a case in point. First, it’s always about the ratings – whether for subscriber or ad revenues. Second, there really isn’t enough national and international news of significant interest to fill 24/7; so the relevant telecasters have found that adding biased opinions deals significantly with both of the above issues: people with myopic views of the world are attracted to content that caters to their myopia. Providers of that 24/7 flow can now fill the void, left and right, with endless opinion-based tripe and assist in that “filtration” process that attracts those myopic viewers.
OK, people who have filtered into my blog, how did this happen? Aside from my theories above, Egan adds this perspective: “You can look at one calculated loop of misinformation over the last [several] weeks to find some of the answers.
“A big political lie often starts on the Drudge Report, home of Obama-as-Muslim stories. He jump-started a recent smear with pictures of Hillary Clinton losing her balance — proof that something was very wrong with her. Fox News then went big with it, using the Trump adviser and free-media enabler Sean Hannity as the village gossip. Then Rudy Giuliani, the internet diagnostician, urged people to Google ‘Hillary Clinton illness’ for evidence of her malady. This forced Clinton to prove her stamina, in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, by opening a jar of pickles.
“The only good thing to come out of this is that now, when you Google ‘Hillary Clinton illness’ what pops up are scathing stories about a skeletal-faced rumormonger named Rudy Giuliani, and a terrific Stephen Colbert takedown of this awful man.
“But what you don’t know really can hurt you. Last year was the hottest on record. And the July just passed was earth’s warmest month in the modern era. Still, Gallup found that 45 percent of Republicans don’t believe the temperature. We’re not talking about doubt over whether the latest spike was human-caused — they don’t accept the numbers, from all those lying meteorologists.
“Of late, almost half of Floridians have done something to protect themselves from the Zika virus, heeding government warnings. But the other half cannot wish it away, as the anti-vaccine crowd on the far left does for serious and preventable illnesses.” Just think how many of these “voters” will be able to determine the fate of our nation in November!
I’m Peter Dekom, just longing for the days when Americans once wanted the “best and the brightest” to serve their country and lead us into the future.

No comments: