George Eliot somewhere or other put it nicely – “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to stay, abstains from giving us worthy evidence of the fact.”
Perhaps thoughts like that led her publish her works under that male pseudonym, rather than using her own name, Mary Ann Evans. The male hack novelists of the nineteenth century all got their stuff published, no matter how shallow or silly, and she had to create this fictitious male author to get her foot in the door, much less be taken seriously – you see, women wrote fluff. She didn’t, and although some find her work dense, complex and dismal – Silas Marner isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs – it was always devastatingly insightful. She had something to say – many things, actually – and no one ever called her ignorant. She was deep, as they say. She completed her own translation of Spinoza’s Ethics in 1856, perhaps just for the fun of it, but more likely because she liked to know and understand as much as she could about everything, in depth. And we have Paris Hilton.
Things have changed, and this is the new world, not Victorian England. And to put it bluntly, we have embraced ignorance. Sure, sure – you say that’s over the top. Be we did embrace George Bush, a man proud of what he didn’t know and found too tiresome to look into. Yes, he called it unwavering moral conviction in a few simple, eternal truths – and he was always pointing to his faith that God wanted him to keep it simple and not think too much, asking us to agree that things were as he saw them. That’s why he won enough votes, one way or another, to serve two terms as our president. Enough of us, for a time, found life far too dense, complex and dismal, and his simple-mindedness was rather appealing. Yes, we have always made fun of smiling people who just don’t get it with that sarcastic comment that ignorance is bliss, but for almost a decade we did find bliss comforting.
Yes, bliss and comfort are two different things. Bliss is almost always the result of willfully abandoning all thought – that is how you get there. You can find comfort and not shit down all your thinking. You don’t have to feel quite as guilty about comfort.
Well, maybe you do. Something in our culture may be amiss. It’s how we feel about ignorance, still, even after Bush is gone and we’ve elected the ever-curious Barack Obama in his stead. And we’ll always have Paris.
The writer Mark Slouka (yes, that’s a Czech name, and feel free to think about Kafka) has been considering all this. Via the site Simplistic Art there is the new Mark Slouka rant about ignorance in America in the latest issue of Harpers. This rant is not online, so you have to rely on the long excerpt from it at Simplistic Art, which skirts the edge of Fair Use and copyright law – but then, the edge is where all the fun is.
Here’s taste of Slouka:
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.
Now, any proof of such a contention would necessarily be anecdotal and impressionistic – he’s reporting how things feel to him. But to many of us this sense that we’re in the midst of a national celebration of ignorance also feels right. And course, those of us who feel this way do know that things may not all that bad:
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-but-authentic, naive-yet-sincere, roughhewn spirit.
But Slouka says don’t get all de Tocqueville about it:
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….
He goes on, but you get the idea. It gets better when he gets anatomically metaphoric:
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.
Yes, this is a rant. And those of us who were also raised in Czech-American homes do understand what Slouka says next, as may a few others:
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.
Yes, this keeps you silent in casual conversation with family and friends about what’s going on the world these days. Say you don’t know, that you’re still reading about the issue at hand, and thinking about it, and you’ll be attacked – no one else seems to need to know much of anything. Whatever it is, they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it, and so on. They say they have the right to their opinion, and of course they do.
But in the back of your mind, you do, really, wonder about that. Do they?
Slouka offers this observation:
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.”
Actually, that line about Jesus is usually attributed to Ma Ferguson from sometime around 1920 – and of course she’s one of the most famous Texans, ever. And she wasn’t kidding at all. That may be all you need to know. Slouka is not covering new ground, except that we seem more proud than ever about our ignorance. Somehow it became a badge of honor, not just something quaint. Yes, Ma Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas, died in 1927. Sarah Palin, now the governor of Alaska, was born in 1964. Someone had to carry on the tradition.
But it’s not just the new Ma Ferguson, Sarah Palin. Having startling ignorant opinions seems be the province of the Senate Republicans, and of Glenn Thrush at Politico, who, covering the debate on the stimulus bill, says this:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has the intellectual honesty to come right out and say that he’s opposed to the concept that massive public expenditure will save a tailspinning economy. …
And this is what passes for intellectual honesty:
But one of the good things about reading history is you learn a good deal. And, we know for sure that the big spending programs of the New Deal did not work. In 1940, unemployment was still 15%. And, it’s widely agreed among economists, that what got us out of the doldrums that we were in during the Depression was the beginning of World War II.
No, that’s the line at Fox News, as history and economists say quite the opposite. See Dean Baker setting the record straight last week on FDR and the stats, or earlier, that economist who won the Nobel Prize, Paul Krugman. The short version comes from Matthew Yglesias:
To be precise, the historical record shows that throughout FDR’s first term, the country was on a path to recovery -albeit from a very low point. Then there was a recession-within-a-depression associated with efforts to return to McConnell-style policies of fiscal restraint. By 1940, things were much better than they had been in 1932. But still, as he says, not very good. Thus far we don’t have a very solid case against stimulus spending. And now things get worse.
The conclusion McConnell wants is that “big spending programs” couldn’t help fight the Depression. But World War II was, among other things, a huge spending program. At the moment, however, we’re fortunate not to be in a position where there’s a powerful wehrmacht that needs fighting. So we can try to direct our recovery-oriented spending at useful civilian projects that will improve the country’s infrastructure or health or education rather than on tanks and bombs
Steve Benen adds this:
Perhaps some enterprising Capitol Hill reporter can ask the Minority Leader about this at the next briefing. If McConnell believes WWII gave the economy a boost, why did WWII give the economy a boost?
Perhaps McConnell will say that spending just cannot possibly work to fix things, except when it works to fix things, when it’s big enough spending, massive spending, like with a world war.
Yes, he has the history wrong, and by his own logic he proves what he is saying is wrong – but he has a right to his opinion. Everyone does, no matter how ignorant and self-contradictory. But you don’t have to take such people seriously.
And as for the compromise on the final form of the bill, Paul Krugman says this:
Now the centrists have shaved off $86 billion in spending – much of it among the most effective and most needed parts of the plan. In particular, aid to state governments, which are in desperate straits, is both fast – because it prevents spending cuts rather than having to start up new projects – and effective, because it would in fact be spent; plus state and local governments are cutting back on essentials, so the social value of this spending would be high. But in the name of mighty centrism, $40 billion of that aid has been cut out.
My first cut says that the changes to the Senate bill will ensure that we have at least 600,000 fewer Americans employed over the next two years.
So to create jobs you make sure you create 600,000 additional layoffs. Cool. Ignorance is fun.
The fiscally conservative Andrew Sullivan, who admits he is no expert, goes the other way:
The stimulus package that may well end up getting passed with a handful of Republican votes may shortly be eclipsed in the public debate by the looming bank reform package due out on Monday. But it seems to me that in the context of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, it’s worthy of conditional support. It isn’t perfect and the debate at times seemed surreally disconnected with the global crunch, but its fundamental goal, it seems to me, is to lessen the chances of a deflationary spiral that truly should scare the shit out of people. Perhaps it’s too crude; or not big enough. But the following facts seem to me the most pertinent:
a) no one knows quite what will work for sure;
b) Obama was elected in part to tackle this crisis and the election was obviously not a vote to continue the approach favored by the GOP;
c) Obama will be held responsible for the effects of the package, as he should be;
d) in the context of the current collapse in demand, the distinction between a “stimulus” package and a “spending” bill seems increasingly esoteric;
e) Obama did a great deal to try and bring Republicans on board and to allow for a to-and-fro; the GOP, for good or ill, had no interest in cooperating with the in-coming president. They too should be held accountable for this. If the bill fails to make a dent on the collapse of demand, and if it does end up hurting the US through even more debt, then the GOP will be able to make that point in the next election. But if it works, their opposition should be recalled.
f) none of this makes sense if looked at entirely alone. The looming financial reform package must be seen as part of the rescue. If Obama can find a center for serious long-term entitlement reform, then the long-term consequences of more debt in the stimulus bill will be drastically mitigated. Again, true fiscal conservatives will focus on entitlement reform as the balance to this bill – not stupid posturing over trivial issues like pork.
There he goes, being all complex and logical again.
The odd thing is Obama in the midst of all this saying something like he himself is not entirely sure, that he’s still gathering all the information about the issue he can, and thinking about it, and that’s fine:
Now, I just want to say this – I value the constructive criticism and the healthy debate that’s taking place around this package, because that’s the essence, the foundation of American democracy. That’s how the founders set it up. They set it up to make big change hard. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. That’s part of the reason why we’ve got such a stable government, is because no one party, no one individual can simply dictate the terms of the debate. I don’t think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that do I believe that good ideas are the province of any party.
If this were casual conversation out here with friends and family, he’d be attacked, viscously. They’re doing a bit of that back east, of course, to which he offers this push-back:
But we’re going to have to do it by not thinking about ourselves, not thinking about how does this position me, how am I looking. We’re going to have to just think about how are we delivering for them.
The “them” seems to be the tens of millions of newly unemployed folks all over, and all the folks losing their homes, and everyone else who fears they might be next, which for many may be likely. Being proud of not knowing the details, and particularly proud of the firmness of you convictions, which don’t seem to be connected to any verifiable reality, and expecting admiration for both, just won’t do. And the new president has said – short video, long video, short AP story, full transcript – “This isn’t some abstract debate.”
He’s no fun at all. Ignorance may be bliss, or if not bliss, comfort, or if not comfort, fun – it’s just not all that useful right now. And the biggest cultural shift, the one that is most radical, that is being proposed is that we stop deeply admiring and carefully emulating ignorance. That could put Fox News out of business, and confusing almost every Republicans politician in office, and doom any further fame and fortune for Sarah Palin and Paris Hilton – but it may be necessary.
It’s just unlikely to happen.