The Serene Peaceful State of Being a Fool Among Knaves

People believe all sorts of things. It’s kind of fun, or it keeps the panic at bay – there are some things you really want to believe, or know that you must believe. There’s a reason for everything, you know. People say that and give you a knowing nod. We all know things can’t be random, and just… happen. We really want to believe that it all fits together in some way – so most everyone nods back. Things have to make sense. The alternative – an empty random universe without meaning – is unacceptable. That would mean life is, in essence, absurd, and that the only real philosophic question is suicide. And then that would mean that you’re really on your own – you have to create your own sense of what life is all about moment to moment, day to day, building a whole structure of meaning from scratch. And who wants to do that? That’s hard work. And we’re not French after all. What Sartre and Camus and that crowd were purposing – that very thing – might well be true. But we’d rather not think about it.

And that has consequences. Most people at one time or another do entertain a conspiracy theory or two – some awful thing happened, like a plane crash or a hurricane wiping out New Orleans, or a series of assassinations in the sixties, because some agency must be at work. Maybe God is angry with us, or with some of us (it’s usually the gays) – or a group of people is working in the background to ruin everything and mess up the world for fun and profit. Somehow the Rothschild family is always involved in the latter, or these days it must be a bunch of Islamic radicals in a cave in Afghanistan, or the vast right-wing conspiracy once bankrolled by Richard Mellon Scaife but now by the Koch brothers, or it’s the liberal media controlled by George Soros and all the liberal Jews in Manhattan, or it’s hedge fund managers and the Wall Street crowd, or the National Academy of Sciences plotting to end capitalism by making up stuff about climate change, or your seventh-grade gym teacher is still out to get you. The variations are endless.

But a little quiet digging can take care of most of that. That’s one of the purposes of education. Here’s reality, as far as mankind has been able to determine it so far, arranged in categories with documentation – so check your assumptions against all that and see what’s what. That might keep you from being a total jerk.

Or it might not – what is arranged in categories with documentation doesn’t cover everything. We’re still working on it. And there are big questions – why good people die, why God allowed the Holocaust, why tens of thousands are killed in earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes, why God created Hitler, or Peewee Herman. That’s not the province of education. That’s where religion must provide answers, like the classic from Alexander Pope did in his Essay on Man – all chance is “direction which thou canst not see” – you’re blind – and all discord is “harmony not understood” – you’re deaf – and all “partial evil” is actually “universal good” – you’re dumb. Reason is of no use– and Pope says you really ought to give in and just accept that “whatever is” is right. That’s either a noble statement of faith or Pope telling those at the beginning of the Enlightenment to sit down and shut up.

Of course Pope was concerned with man’s happiness here on earth – as he said in his Essay on Criticism (1709) – “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” But don’t take that too seriously. Pope was being sarcastic, calling his literary critics ignorant twits who ran in packs. He did think people should know a thing or two. The whole business gets complicated.

And there was that business the next year with one of Pope’s contemporaries. See Jonathan Swift, the 1710 Edition of “A Tale of a Tub” – and specifically Section IX: A Digression Concerning the Original, The Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth:

For, if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived.

Section IX is known at the Digression on Madness:

This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called, the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.

Swift could be nasty, and those words still resonate. Yeah, the power structure is set up, for the good of the commonwealth, to make you foolish, so the clever knaves can have their way and get all the goodies. As it was then, so it is now – watch enough Glenn Beck, or Keith Olbermann, and you might feel as if someone is trying to get you to that serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves – and Beck and Olbermann are there to warn you that you’re being had, being made dumb, by the deceitful and dishonest knaves of the moment. They just approach it from opposite sides – each names different knaves.

But that’s something a little education might help. You might want to consult what is arranged in categories with documentation, the facts of the matter.

But that’s not easy. On Saturday, October 9, in his weekly address, Obama talked about education policy and its role in keeping Americans competitive globally, and its importance in job creation, the hot topic of the moment. We don’t need any more fools among knaves. You can watch it here – and after talking about what his administration has done and still intends to do, he went on to mention that congressional Republicans have a plan to “cut education by 20 percent – cuts that would reduce financial aid for eight million students; cuts that would leave our great and undervalued community colleges without the resources they need to prepare our graduates for the jobs of the future.”

Someone wants to keep you in that serene and peaceful state of being a fool – and it ain’t him. He said he would fight any effort to “shortchange our children’s education.” And he was pretty firm – “Instead of being shortsighted and shortchanging our kids, we should be doubling down on them.”

Steve Benen comments:

That’s fine rhetoric, but is it true? Republicans haven’t exactly been forthcoming with details about their policy agenda in the next Congress; do we know that they really have steep education cuts in mind?

Actually, yes, we do. House Republicans have pledged to trim $100 billion from discretionary spending next year, and in practical terms, that necessarily means the GOP intends to “slash spending for education, cancer research and aid to local police and firefighters.”

Specifically, the Republican plan “would take about $15 billion from education. A 21 percent cut in Pell Grants would take almost $5 billion from student tuition.”

That money, based on the GOP plan, wouldn’t necessarily go towards deficit reduction, but rather, would help finance tax cuts that primarily benefit millionaires and billionaires.

Yep, the power structure is set up, for the good of the nation, as the Republicans conceive of the good of the nation, to make you serenely foolish, so the clever knaves can have their way and get all the goodies. Somewhere Jonathan Swift is sighing. Some things never change.

But what about the facts of the matter, on any matter you choose? Are we allowed to know those?

That gets tricky. The same morning as Obama comments on education, the LA Times reprinted a column from Ronald Brownstein that had originally appeared in the National Journal Online, GOP Gives Climate Science a Cold Shoulder:

Just for the record, when the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences last reviewed the data this spring, it concluded: “A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” Not only William Hague but such other prominent European conservatives as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have embraced that widespread scientific conviction and supported vigorous action.

Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says that although other parties may contain pockets of climate skepticism, there is “no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of.”

It will be difficult for the world to move meaningfully against climate disruption if the United States does not. And it will be almost impossible for the U.S. to act if one party not only rejects the most common solution proposed for the problem (cap-and-trade) but repudiates even the idea that there is a problem to be solved. The GOP’s stiffening rejection of climate science sets the stage for much heated argument but little action as the world inexorably warms – and the dangers that Hague identified creep closer.

The business and economics editor for the site Balloon Juice comments:

Personally, I don’t think it’s because Americans are dumber than other western people, I think it’s because we allow corporations to control our political system. If there was some massive corporate lobby, bigger than big oil, that wanted Republicans to say global warming was a terrible threat that needed to be taken on now, this would all change in a heartbeat.

The most pathetic thing is reading Bobo and Chunky Bobo and the rest pretend that there is some thoughtful, principled Burkean for doing whatever the oil lobby wants you to do.

Who Bobo and Chunky Bobo are is anyone’s guess, but you do get the idea. True Edmund Burke conservatives say the scientists are wrong, and say that on conservative principles. People believe all sorts of things.

David Roberts at Grist is a little more thorough:

The GOP’s near-unanimous climate denialism has no analogue in the democratic world. There are scattered cranks everywhere, of course, but there’s no other developed democracy in which a major political party is dominated by people who explicitly reject mainstream science.

Even conservative parties in most developed nations accept climate change as a crucial challenge. British Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Party leader William Hague last week declared climate change “perhaps the 21st century’s biggest foreign-policy challenge.” The U.K.’s new government, led by conservative David Cameron, has a green agenda that would make Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blush. And as Brownstein notes, “French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have embraced that widespread scientific conviction and supported vigorous action.”

Yes, there is a conservative green agenda – in the UK. Their conservatives are not like ours:

U.S. conservatives are headed the other direction. Now that Delaware’s Mike Castle has been drummed out by Christine “Not a Witch” O’Donnell, not a single Republican Senate candidate accepts the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences. There are also a good half-dozen Republican candidates for governor who are somewhere between “the earth is flat” and “I’m not convinced the earth is round.”

David Roberts points to the evidence – not a single Republican Senate candidate accepts what the scientists say, and neither do those half-dozen Republican candidates for governor – you can look it up.

And the press is no better:

You’d think widespread anti-scientific sentiment would be an embarrassment to the right, or at least something they’d have to answer for, but the Beltway press doesn’t treat it as radicalism, like it would if Republicans denied, say, the cosmic significance of the long-term budget deficit. In the political tabloids, climate change is treated as a kind of game, a contest between conservatives and environmentalists to move the needle on public opinion polls. (Environmentalists are down this month!)

And this leads to a nation of serene fools:

Most Americans have no idea how distorted and backwards the U.S. climate change conversation is relative to what happens in other wealthy democracies. It’s to the point now that even mentioning climate change is considered a political loser for a U.S. politician. They’ve all been instructed to talk about green jobs and scary Arab oil. Obama hasn’t uttered the word “climate” more than a handful of times since taking office.

But then David Roberts suggests a novel way out of this foolishness:

Not only is being honest about climate change in the public interest, it’s a political winner. The party that is forthright about the climate challenge – early, often, and unapologetically – will prosper in the mid- to long-term, though it may face short-term struggles.

Why? To derive this conclusion, I’ve employed a method of reasoning that is highly unorthodox in political punditry: I consulted the real world. See that window over there? No, no, not the browser window, the glass one, on the wall of your office. Take a peek through it. See all that stuff out there? Trees and clouds and whatnot? That’s what I’m talking about. Out there in the non-virtual world, outside the self-contained, win-the-morning circle jerk that is American politics, climate change is happening. It is an actual, physical phenomenon. It cannot be banished by a refusal to acknowledge it.

No matter what derangements currently hold sway over American politics, eventually reality will out. The crazy weather will get worse, ice fields will melt, agriculture will suffer, food shortages will get more severe. Sooner or later, American politics will have to deal with climate change. That is a certainty.

When that day comes, the party that has spoken honestly about climate change – sticking to its convictions, regardless of what the polls say – will a) look prescient and morally courageous, and b) be trusted by the American people to develop solutions. Alternatively, if both parties have been dodging the subject, equivocating, and making squishy noises about energy independence and Chinese clean energy and “all of the above” energy plans, neither will benefit.

Be he admits that won’t happen:

This is a lesson Democrats seem incapable of learning: Voters respond to strength and conviction. Even if they don’t agree with you or share your priorities at the moment, they respect people who stick to their guns. Constantly chasing polls and changing messages sends a meta-message to voters: We don’t have any convictions. We’ll say whatever we think you want to hear. This – not a lack of macho warmongering – is why voters view Dems as weak and trust Republicans on national security. Republicans seem tough because they believe what they believe and don’t go running for the hills every time a news cycle doesn’t go their way.

Dems could use climate change to change that impression. They know it’s real. They know it’s a huge problem. And they know eventually voters will come to see it that way.

So why not tell the truth, without equivocation or apology, right now? Aside from being the right thing to do, there’s every reason to think that it will eventually pay electoral dividends as well. It’s hard to see in these fevered political times, but in the long run, truth is good politics.

But maybe we like our serene foolishness. That may not work. Yes, the American conservative movement’s denialism may be a view that’s completely different than that of mainstream conservative parties in the rest of the world, but Matthew Yglesias here argues that “the main takeaway is that everyone needs to ease up on the idea that the failure of climate change legislation primarily represents a tactical failure of the Obama administration or US legislative leaders.”

If you had a dynamic where the reality of greenhouse gas emissions causing warming causing substantial ecological problems was broadly accepted, you would still have a substantial political challenge in terms of doing something about it. There are a lot of relevant interest group stakeholders, a lot of room for disagreement about the details of economic and ecological ramifications around the margin, etc. And the role of skilled politicians in such a world would be brokering an acceptable deal.

But it really does all start with an act of volition on the part of political leaders across the board. You have to admit there’s a problem.

It’s not possible to bargain with people who reject the premises underlying any possible diagnosis, and it’s not possible to force members of the opposition political coalition to accept the diagnosis. A posture of willful ignorance simply leaves the United States – and by extension the world – with an unsolvable problem.

Ah, that’s what Swift was getting at in his Digression Concerning the Original, The Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth. Serene Foolishness is a useful form of madness, and it’s kind of fun, or it keeps the panic at bay – there are some things we really want to believe, or know that we must believe. And the knaves love to keep us foolish.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to The Serene Peaceful State of Being a Fool Among Knaves

  1. Leonard says:

    Don’t you think there’s is something hypocritical about a presidne who make such a plea not to cut funding to education when one of his first moves in this arena was to end the voucher program in DC? He had the opportunity to assist in the progress of a few DC children out of the quagmire know as the DC Public School System. But, he and the Democrats , beholden to the NEA, decided that these few didn’t deserve a chance at a quality education (there’s that word again). Rather, “we should spread the wealth of illiteracy around”!

  2. Peter Brodie says:

    How could Alexander Pope possibly have written “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise” (vide supra)? The Essay on Criticism is in Heroic Couplets (iambic pentameter)—except for the jokey “needless Alexandrine”—and this line is a hexameter.

    Except, of course, it is two lines: the first half is three-quarters of an iambic tetrameter, the second is an iambic trimeter. And it all comes from a poem by Thomas Gray about Eton College.

    But perhaps Alan Pavlik was being ironic on the subject of ignorance.

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