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Politics in a Culture of Ignorance

By Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology,  West Chester University

Author, The Power of the Between Posted: March 5, 2011 05:40 PM


During the past few weeks, the play of American politics has been particularly disturbing. Consider the willful ignorance of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, trying to convince his supporters that President Obama is “not one of us.” To that end, he suggested that President Obama’s worldview was shaped by his childhood in Kenya — or maybe it was, Indonesia — and by radical movements like the Kenyan Mau-Mau revolt. Huckabee, a potential Republican candidate for president, went on to say that President Obama’s father and grandfather molded his “foreign” ideas about how the world works. It doesn’t matter that President Obama hardly knew his father or his paternal grandfather, or that the Mau-Mau rebellion took place far from the Obama homestead in Kenya, a country President Obama first visited when he was 26 years old. Governor Huckabee also failed to mention the “inconvenient truths” that President Obama was raised by his mother and his maternal grandparents who grew up in Kansas or that President Obama’s maternal grandfather fought with Patton in Europe during World War II.

Think about the countless numbers of elected officials, Republicans all, who say that “we” are “broke,” a rather bombastic overstatement, because of greedy public employees. Due to the “lazy” greed of these middle-income public servants, the argument goes, we need to abolish collective bargaining and eviscerate budgets for education, the arts, the environment and even law-enforcement. What else can you do when it is sin to either raise taxes or scale back corporate tax breaks? What’s more, there is no room for negotiation on these matters, which means that there is no space for conceptual nuance, and little or no willingness for a civil exchange of ideas that might result in compromise — the foundation of the American political system.

Looking at these developments from a more or less rational standpoint, none of it makes much sense. How can any reasonably intelligent person, you might ask yourself, accept the big lie that many conservative Republicans have long touted: that the simple formula of lower taxes and limited government will somehow solve all of the complex economic and social problems in an globally integrated world? And yet that is the pabulum that a whole host of Republican presidential hopefuls offer again and again to their base, and, through media coverage, to the rest of us. If you repeat the big lie often enough, some people — many people, in fact — begin to believe it.

Are contemporary American politics being played out in a culture of ignorance? What does it say about contemporary political culture when there is political support for uncompromising public figures who seem more interested in unrealistic ideological purity than governing their polities? How else can you explain the political support and media attention we give to politicians like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann or Mike Huckabee? Even though they unflaggingly demonstrate an acute intellectual incompetence as well as wholesale ignorance of American history and world affairs, they still manage to maintain or even increase their legions of followers. Is there no political price to pay for incompetence or ignorance?

It is no easy task to try to explain this descent into a culture of ignorance. Some the descent may be rooted in our under-funded and unfairly maligned system of public education. As a professor at a public university I have first hand knowledge of the processes that give rise to a culture of ignorance. Although the intelligence, curiosity and grit of some of my students, many of whom are the first people in their families to attend college, thoroughly inspires me, I am often shocked and disappointed by general student ignorance of culture, geography, history, and politics — at home and abroad. Even more disturbing is what seems to be a lack of student curiosity about a world that has been rendered more complex through globalization. Many of my students are not interested in learning about foreign societies. They take my introductory cultural anthropology course because it is a requirement. In addition, some of my students seek the most expedient path toward graduation — one that involves the least amount of work and difficulty for the greatest return. The upshot is that many students leave the university unprepared to compete in the global economy. Many of them have trouble thinking critically. Others find doing any kind of research to be profoundly challenging. Some write essays that border on the incoherent. More troubling still is that that this downward spiral toward incompetence, according to the findings of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, seems to be widespread among our college and university students.

If this picture reflects the intellectual state of our college students, what can we say about the capacity of the general public to evaluate critically a complex set of information? The only way to reverse this slide into mediocrity, which is reflected in both the intellectual quality of contemporary politics and the distressing climate of our educational institutions, is to make serious investments in education and the public sector in order to give to our underpaid and under-appreciated teachers and civil servants the support and respect they deserve. To do otherwise is to risk sinking even deeper into the swamp.

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