The Triumph of Ignorance

– George Monbiot is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.  

– I agree with him.   Fundamentalism does make and keep people stupid.  And it is one of the great shames of America that is has evolved into a powerful force here.

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By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 28th October 2008

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind’s closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist?(1)

Like most people on this side of the Atlantic I have spent my adult life mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived; but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan’s response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter – stumbling a little, using long words – carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said “there you go again”(2). His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn’t always like this. The founding fathers of the republic – men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton – were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves around the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15 year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD(3).


– research thanks to Van

One Response to “The Triumph of Ignorance”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Very in-depth topic; many fronts of analysis. I offer thoughts from Mortimer Adler:

    “The two-universal suffrage and universal schooling-are inextricably bound together. The one without the other is a perilous delusion. Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy-not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.”

    “Hobbes was suspicious of democracy because he feared its tendency to degenerate into an oligarchy of orators… we must admit that recent history supports his point. We have seen abroad how the leading orator in the land can become its tyrant. We must save democracy from these inherent weaknesses by closing such roads to despotism. If we are being oppressed by organizations of force, we fight to disarm them. So we must disarm the orators, and we must do so in advance of the day when their spell begins to bind. There is only one way of doing that in a land where free speech is everybody’s privilege. The citizens must become critical of what they read and what they hear. They must be liberally educated. If the schools fail to give them such education, they must get it for themselves by learning to read and by reading” [intelligently].-

    “Education is a lifelong process of which schooling is only a small but necessary part. The various stages of education reach terminal points. Each can be completed in a definite term of years. But learning never reaches a terminal point. As long as one remains alive and healthy, learning can go on-and should.”