big ideas

On the Banality of Profound Truths

If there was one obstacle, beyond laziness, that made me hesitate to get back to writing in more than the few-sentence bursts I regularly produce for Link Banana it was my uncertainty about what of value I could say.

It’s not that I don’t think people need to hear things I think that I know–while there may be merit in possessing that type of modesty, I do not–it’s that they’ve already heard those things I think they most need to hear.

Things about how money doesn’t buy happiness. That understanding is rooted in attention. That the greatest obstacle to your happiness is your waiting to be happy. That happiness is not the same as pleasure, or a lack of sadness. That ignoring the present situation is the worst way to change it. That you can always find something to be thankful for. That anger is never the best way to solve a problem. That an act of kindness is never squandered.

These statements–and many others I didn’t list–are all, at least to my ears, the most obvious of truths. There are hundreds of famous quotations that attest to all of them. Anyone unacquainted with those quotations probably wouldn’t be reading anything I said anyway.

These short and obvious cliches are exactly what conventional wisdom says a writer should avoid.  But anything that takes more than a sentence to express seems overstated to me. While a sentence can’t explain the political climate of Somalia, or what spin means with relation to the bonding of atoms, or how the crash of the US stock market in 1929 was influenced by Germany, none of those things hit you where you live. Between your insides and your outsides none of those things matter.

The only things that really affect your quality of life exist within a radius about the length of your arms from your body. Everything outside of that radius is not acting on you in any direct way, and is thus irrelevant to your true quality of life.

I think that if there’s a single reason that the facts I consider most essential are simple, it’s this: not that much exists between your mind and fingertips. And even the most teeming of minds doesn’t contain much more than twenty thoughts at a time. And chatter among twenty idea’s can only get so complex.

People searching the edges of human knowledge are unlikely find anything there that will, or should, fundamentally affect their life as it’s lived daily. The confirmation of string theory says absolutely nothing to that longing you feel lying alone in your bed for the first time in years. A better understanding of the relationship between modern man and neanderthals, or market demand and labor supply, will not correct your dysfunctional relationship with everyone in your family. The existence or nonexistence of God changes nothing about your difficulty controlling your drinking.

But a single new idea, if it’s strong, simple, and powerful enough, added to the constant mental chatter can fundamentally change the timbre of the conversation in your mind. And that constant chattering is the very substance of your disposition, your life, and your reality. It is you, more than anything else anyone thinks they know about you. And you’re the one I’m interested in.

big ideas

Be Here Now

Sometimes you work very hard to reach a moment of clarifying insight. Sometimes they just fall into your lap.

Sometimes that clarifying insight quickly reveals itself to be illusory. To have been too simplistic. Or poorly articulated. Or wrong.

But sometimes you sit with that moment of clarity for a bit–spinning it around, looking at it from as many perspectives as you can–and it seems to be flawless. It seems like all the moments of insight that have come before grasped for this insight you now hold. The others weren’t wrong, but they weren’t quite what you’d been going for. But this one, this is the real deal.

Obviously such certainty can be revealed weeks, months, or years later to have been wrong. But in that flash, and the afterglow that follows, you’re sure it could never be different.

And so I feel about these three words: Be. Here. Now. Be here, now.

Be where you are, when you are. Be at the table having breakfast with your family. Be in your bed, reading the lastest Clancy novel. Be entering data into a spreadsheet. Be reading this entry on this blog.

Presence in any situation is no mere thing. Full presence in every situation is a very hard one.

It’s so easy to focus, instead, on what dread awaits you in the next day to focus on the serenity of this moment, sitting here, writing this. Reading this. To find, after snapping back to attention, that your mind had drifted off to the hubbub of yesterday or the joy that awaits that night.

But if you’re able, being here now is the most amazing thing you can experience. “Everything that exists,” when you’re able to focus on it,  “is beautiful.” “What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such. ”

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year in worry. Primarily about the material circumstances of my life. How I could pay for the things I needed, and especially those I wanted. How I could get from where I am to all the places I’d rather be.

And I can’t even put into worlds how freeing it feels to rediscover what I think I once knew: all that matters is the sequences of nows I’m currently experiencing. That I am doing my best within those is the best I can hope for.

big ideas, politics

By the People, For the People

No Known RestrictionsMartin Luther King Jr.

Recently, I noticed–during a television commercial in which an S. C. Johnson representative was telling us that their products are both environmentally friendly and effective–that by consumer demand “green” in becoming essential for business. Not because laws were passed that mandated that S. C. Johnson make less harmful cleaning products, but because the public wanted–or was perceived to have wanted–this.

One thing that has come up a lot in the Democratic race for president, though usually obliquely, is the difference between bottom up and top down change. Hillary Clinton has sold herself as the woman to face down the special interests and get things done in Washington. Barack Obama has sold himself as a man who can bring the American people to his side and get change by the sheer force of popular demand.

When it is discussed, it’s usually mentioned that Mr. Obama was once a community organizer in Chicago. And that community organizing works by convincing lay people to get involved or change their position, not by playing games in the center of power.

There is also mention of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously fought with President Johnson over civil rights legislation. And when told that he didn’t have the votes to get his legislation passed headed back out to the street, proclaiming that all he needed was more action, more organizing, more public attention and hence, public outcry.

And indeed, it’s hard to deny that without such action popular support would not have been behind the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The point that people, having seen the injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the outright racism of many whites would not and could not tolerate the injustice was made, as The Race Beat pointed out, long before the movement, by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.

Now, the movement could not have changed everything on its own. Bottom up organizing has hundreds of inherent problems. Surely some businesses may have given in to popular demand and ended segregation if they’d not been legally mandated to do so, but it’s highly unlikely that it could have been eliminated so radically and swiftly without action from the powerful. And the powerful are, far too often, insulated and safe from the will of people.

It’s also important to remember that S. C. Johnson ad. And though it’s very possible that the company is truly committed to environmental preservation and the citizen’s safety, without external verification such ads could be simple greenwashing. The people must depend on the powerful for such verification.

The two method of change, by the people and for the people, are not mutually exclusive. The will of the people, in legitimate honest and open democracies changes who is powerful. And who is powerful influences strongly what is done for the people.

Surely something is to be said for Senator Clinton’s insistence that Barack Obama’s vision of change may be empty. But if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that when given truly open and democratic control of their leaders, the majority of the people get who they want and the changes they seek. It simply does not work the opposite way.

american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.

american society, big ideas, ruminations

Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

Jarrod Trainque (flickr)CNN “News”

Signal to noise ratios are something most people are at least mildly familiar with. They’re the reason that you either turn off the radio or change the station as you drive out of the range of the station you were listening to.

But where radio on road trips is the obvious place to begin this analogy, it’s certainly not the end. Signal to noise ratios come in to play everywhere. Maybe you’ve picked up a magazine and had to put it down because the make-up or computer parts ads easily outnumbered the interesting content of the magazine. Maybe you’ve made the same decision about a website. Too many pop-ups, pop-unders, or just plain old ads. Maybe you “detest” “corporate” radio because of “all the ads”–my apologies for three uses of ironic quotation marks in the same sentence.

But advertisements aren’t all this is about. Certainly advertisements are an easy example. When you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading magazines, or surfing the internet, advertisements are easily recognizable. Because ads are easy to recognize it’s easy for us, as consumers, to decide that they clearly constitute “noise” against the “signal” of the show or article we are seeking.

But advertisements aren’t the only type of noise out there, and I would hardly allow that they are the most pernicious. We know them and clearly recognize them as noise (perhaps excepting those during the Superbowl) advertisements are easy for us to filter out. Product placement, when done well, can be much harder to filter out than traditional advertising–hence it’s premium position in the minds of advertisers.

And that’s to say nothing of the hard-to-find signal in other places. For example, a few years ago I gave up on cable “news.” The signal to noise ratio was creating something far worse than mere advertising or even an out-of-range radio signal. The signal itself was corrupted. Not only were the commercials “noise,” but the content itself was essentially valueless. Were CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News the only ways to get the news I may have tolerated their pettiness, but in a world with so many options in so many mediums sitting through the noise of commercials and the noise of the channels’ shrill commentators seemed a fool’s choice.

Now what I consider “noise”–the churlish pettiness of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann–may be considered by others to be the signal. Surely both men produce shows far more interesting than they would by blindly reading wire stories, and for some that’s enough. And indeed it’s roughly the same calculus–“It’s news and entertainment”–that I use to excuse the regularly petty antics of Jon Stewart’s The A Daily Show.

There are multiple points that one could unravel from all of this, but the most important is this: you’ve always got to consider what you want, and if what you’re looking at is giving it to you. It’s very easy to say “I want to be informed about the news. CNN is about the news. I’ll watch CNN to be informed.” The logic is faultless, but the results are ugly. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs and thinks they’re being meaningfully informed about the world is severely misguided.

If there’s one societal trend I’m allowed to blindly lament without any evidence it exists, I’ll choose this: People seem less skilled about distinguishing between what’s valuable or not and using those judgments to determine their habits. They seem to flock to people and ideas and then abandon them without ever considering if they’re personally getting anything from either act.

Now I have no basis for that lament, so I must retract it. But I think this advice remains salient: Think before you watch, or listen, or read. Please.

big ideas, religion, retroview

Retroview: Happiness: A Guide

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is probably the most important book in my life. No work has ever influenced so many aspects of my life or caused me to see the world so differently. Were there only one book that I could take with my to a desert island, I think this would very likely be it.

All of this is not to say that the book is flawless. On the second reading, some parts of the book seemed superfluous. Most memorably, the results of scientific studies which Ricard dutifully reports are interesting, but not as good as much of the rest of the book.

All of this may lead to the most important question: what is this book about? And were I a more careful writer I would edit this to answer that question at the start. Alas, I am not.

The book is, as you can probably infer from the title, a how-to to happiness. As such, the label “self-help” could be applied to it, but that conjures up images of hundreds of unsavory hucksters and swindlers who claim that they’ll make your life better in a snap. This book does no such thing.

Ricard, as the spelling of his name signals, is French by birth. He’s also a Buddhist monk who spends his time between Nepal and Tibet, serving as a translator for the Dalai Lama. And though it would be reasonable to say that Ricard’s answer to happiness grows out of Buddhism, one needn’t understand the first thing about the practice to get something from Ricard’s book.

Many, upon first introduction to Buddhism, see it not as a religion, but as a philosophy or even a type of positive psychology. The fact that Buddhism takes no explicit stance on the existence of deities (or a deity) makes this interpretation easier. And though Buddhism can be endowed with as many dogmatic traditions as any Western religion, the parts which Ricard discusses are not.

For those doubters of Buddhism (and religions in general), Mr. Ricard does conveniently provides scientific evidence–that stuff I said was dull–that Buddhist practice can and does make people happier, more controlled, and peaceful.

All of this is not to say that Happiness is some extended argument for Buddhism as the happiest religion in the world. It is, at the most basic level, an introduction to what thoughts and practices have made Mr. Ricard “the happiest man in the world.” (It was, if you’re wondering, that article that led me to the book in the first place.)

This book didn’t by itself transform my thinking, but it clarified and made much more salient some arguments that I’d been hearing for sometime and not fully understanding. The triviality of difference. The merits of optimism. The way to value all time. The wastefulness of envy.

It’s very likely that you could read this book and recieve from it much less than I have. It’s even possible that I received from this book more than it endeavored to give. But I can say with firm conviction that this book could teach everyone something, and many a great deal. After two readings, I still look forward to returning to it again and again, getting as much as I possibly can.

big ideas, OPW, world

OPW: Finding Commonality Inside Iraq

Earlier this week I encountered a pretty interesting piece in the New York Review of Books. Entitled “As Iraqis See It,” the piece gives an inside look into the lives of Iraqis working for the McClatchy news organization, one of America’s biggest. McClatchy provides these reporters with a blog, called Inside Iraq, which is where most of the stories in the piece originate. One of the most striking passages was this:

While courteous, the men look right through her. One of the Americans begins searching the living room. In it is a large bookcase filled with books in English. “You read a lot Ma’am?” he asks. “Yes, in fact I do,” she replies, using English for the first time. “What’s this?” he says. “Heinlein? Asimov? Grisham?”

He turns to look at me again, this time with a different expression in his eyes. “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes, of course. It’s in that cabinet.”

He opens the cabinet and looks closely inside.

“You play Diablo?! And what’s this?! Grand Theft Auto??” He forgets all about the weapon and turns to us with a wide grin on his face, and astonishment in his eyes. My son asks him, “Is ours the first house you search?”, “No, why?”, “Because all my friends have these games, why are you so surprised?” The serviceman looks embarrassed, and turns to inspect the weapon.

They went through every room, every cabinet, closet and drawer silently. After they accomplished their mission, in about thirty minutes, they walked out, gray shadows in the twilight.

With its quiet exploration of the subtle interplay between occupier and occupied, the vignette reminded me of Orwell’s writings about his imperial service in Burma. Interested in learning more, I reached Sahar via phone at McClatchy’s Baghdad office. She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, “He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn’t see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can’t imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else.”

The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. “People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same,” she said. “They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep.” Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, “don’t know this. And when you don’t know a person, you can’t feel for them, can you?”

She continued: “How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It’s our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog.”

big ideas

The Triviality of Difference

Everywhere you look, especially as a teenager, the world is full of others. Of people “not like me.” And though teenagers feel this most intensely, few do not feel it regularly.

Just look at the latent antipathy that exists in this country toward Iranians. Or Arabs. Or Mexicans. Or even the French.

Surely these people are different from us. They live in different parts of the world. They look different. They sound different. Put face to face, we’d probably struggle to understand each other fully. And that’s ignoring language.

For all my years, I still don’t understand fully the people I’ve known since I was young. I don’t know my friends. I don’t know my family. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.

There’s a real and meaningful distance that seems to exist between “me” and “you.” And that’s assuming you’re someone I’ve met in some capacity. If we float in the same circles but don’t know each other by name that distance seems bigger still. If we’ve never seen each other, it seems impossible that there’s anything between us. And if we’ll never see each other we may as well give up entirely.

But before we lapse into nihlistic despair at the fact that we’re too different, I’d hope we could consider this. In his wonderful 1989 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama said:

No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples.

I, at least, find this point indisputable. Surely there are people in the world who think that they want to suffer, but it’s usually in some search for a separate and durable happiness. Religious self-flagellation is the imposition of temporary pain in exchange for long term happiness when God is satisfied with one’s commitment. And though I find the practice unfathomably odd and barbaric, even its practitioners seek long-term happiness.

From the time we first recognize differences amongst people, they become an easy way to understand the world. To see that we exist, as people and persons, because of our differences. That they define us.

And though I’m not foolish enough to ignore all differences, I think it’s terribly important that we see the commonality that exists underneath all the superficial difference. It’s sometimes trendy in the West to evangelize against superficiality. But beyond popular culture and children’s feelings, this evangelization rapidly dies.

And that’s certainly unfortunate. I feel rather certain that if the anti-superficiality crusade went all the way to the fundamental commonality that the Dalai Lamas and others point out to us, we’d live in a much better world.

big ideas, fiction, personal, world

The Myth of the Magic Bullet

I’ve long been seeking one thing–a song, a poem, a quotation, even a book–that once found will magically save all people–save them from their greed, their fear, and their unnecessary antipathy for one another.

One day I met my anti-prophet, who told me this:

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and most certainly won’t. It hasn’t been made, it won’t be made, it can’t be made. Perhaps, having made these proclamations, it is incumbent upon me, the prophet, to provide good reason that such a claim is true.

Don’t forget that people still hate, kill, steal, and rape–literally and figuratively–other people. If a peaceful and harmonious world hasn’t arisen in the 5000 years of Abrahamic religion, in the 5000 years of Buddhist tradition, in the 2000 years of Christian practice, and the 1300 year since the death of Muhammad, religion certainly is not the magic bullet. Pogroms, crusades, jihads, and all stripes of fundamentalism show viscerally that religions are both the cause of and reason for a great deal of strife.

The secular heritage of science and the academy have always offered some refuge for those distrustful of religious strife. But it’s also hard to deny that some of the most intelligent people in this world are also the most driven to do things that are, at best, morally abhorrent. Hitler was no academic slouch–even if he was a poor writer–nor were the scores of scientist, Nazi and otherwise, who advocated for the eugenics-based policies of population control that only Hitler was ever powerful and audacious enough to carry to its deeply unsettling climax.

The public sphere–typified by democratic politics in most countries of the world–is hardly much in the way of grace giving. Surely democracy is a good form of government and when exercised in open societies it’s the very articulation of the desires of a society’s public sphere. But you don’t have to look far to see that politics, even the most open and democratic, leads to no small measure of strife and systematic unrest, both in its home and elsewhere.

But surely, you’re saying, the most grievous failures of monolithic institutions aren’t sufficient to mean that there can be no magic bullet. After all, most of the best ideas come from hermits, writers, and philosophers divorced from religion, the academy, and the public sphere. You are not wrong in think that, but your missing a crucial point. Those divorced from religion, the academy, or politics lack a crucial element in the magic bullet equation–a gun. Without a pulpit, conference stage, or spaker’s podium from which to spread their transformative message, they’re effectively impotent. Were they to ever create a bullet, or even some insight into how to make it, they would lack a mouthpiece through which to tell the good word.

There can be no change, for the world is lead by dreadfully dull paper-pushers whose very survival depends on sustaining the status quo. They’re both powerful and unwilling to accept even the smallest change. Their power disempowers the rest of us, who can aspire to no better than a peaceful life for ourselves. We can’t give others such a life, we just have to do our best to wrest one for ourselves.

Having listened to the anti-prophet, I wasn’t sure what to think. Part of me wanted to surrender immediately. To give in, say he was right all along and that I was a fool to hope for something different.

Part of me wanted to condemn him as a hopeless cynic. A man sure of nothing but the impossibility of anything worth doing. He was, after all, oversimplifying. Certainly the world hadn’t changed as much as I’d like over my lifetime, but some steps had been made. Poverty and hunger are less rampant than they were 20, 200, or 2000 years ago, and that’s certainly a change.

He did make me realize that I would probably never find a magic bullet. That no single thing is likely to suddenly make all citizens of the world come to their senses and stop hurting one another. He strengthened in my mind the resolve that change is always and necessarily gradual, but it’s absolutely not impossible.

The anti-prophet wasn’t completely wrong, but for now my optimism has won out. I hope it’ll manage to holdout for 5, 15, or 50 more years. But in my weaker moments I can’t help feeling that it’s easier to give in and give up than to hold out hope.

american society, big ideas, politics

Ignorance is Dangerous

I’m tired of it. Just plain tired. Ignorance is not now, nor has it ever been, bliss. Bliss–extreme happiness, perhaps spiritual in nature–is not caused by ignorance of the world around you.

If discovering the message of Jesus is bliss, than ignorance clearly is not. For it is only through knowledge–becoming aware that Jesus died for your sins–that one can enter into a state of joyfully heightened awareness.

Lest this get too biblical, we should be clear that this is true of many things other than religion. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a person say, “I wish I knew less about that.” But though no one will overtly say this, they often tacitly imply it. I can’t even count the number of people I’ve met who say they dislike politics and so let someone else tell them how to vote. Some just don’t vote. I understand why people can be turned off by politics–it frequently looks like a playground game that’s neither fun nor useful–but I’m not sure that’s an excuse for willful ignorance.

And this isn’t just about politics. Ignorance of other peoples and countries can lead people to believe that Islam is a violent and repressive religion, that the Iranian people hate Americans and “freedom,” that the Israelis are the only good people in the Middle East, that the Burmese people are completely happy with their government, and that Russia is no longer run by autocrats.

Ignorance of Roman technology after 500 C.E. was the primary reason that Europe spent nearly a millennium in what a colloquially called the “Dark Ages.” Years in which the status quo persisted because no one had enough knowledge or understanding to recognize that a different way was possible.

Closer to home, ignorance allows people to believe that all black teenage boys want to grow up to be pot-smoking, crack-peddling “G”s. That Asian children like to study all the time, and have an innate talent that makes them exceptionally good at math. Ignorance teaches that all American Hispanics are Mexican, in the United States illegally, and working as janitors and field hands.

Ignorance allows people to condemn homosexuals as terrible and hedonic people who do nothing but sin their whole lives. To believe that allowing “these people” to get married would somehow be dangerous not only to church-sanctioned marriages, but also to American society as a whole. Ignorance allows people to believe that transsexuals are just over-the-top gay men or lesbian women who are mentally disturbed.

Worse still, politicians frequently foster ignorance. Ignorance of safe-sex practices is something many Republicans seem to believe is a good thing. This is due, in no small part, to their ignorant belief that if teenagers don’t know how to have sex safely, they won’t have it. So too does the party seem to support ignorance of non-Christian peoples and ideas. And they seem to desire that most Americans remain so ignorant of economic reality that they’ll believe Mr. Giuliani’s claim that lowering taxes will bring in greater tax revenue, something no serious analysis supports.

But we can’t leave the blame of ignorance solely to one side of the political spectrum. Most Democratic presidential candidates allow–sometimes encourage–voters to believe that free trade is the reason the American middle class is shrinking. Though this isn’t strictly untrue, no serious analyst believes that the Democrat’s solution–larger barriers to trade–is a good or productive solution to the problem.

Perhaps most troubling is George W. Bush’s abuse of the ignorance of the American people to promulgate whole books of rules that are, at best, dangerous and unconstitutional. Beyond signing statements, he and Dick Cheney have strengthened the executive branch to unprecedented levels, with little attention aroused by the changes. Most troublingly, he was able to start a war with Iraq by claiming that our ignorance of their possible nuclear weapons program merited grounds to strike as if they had one.

Better than any politician before him, Bush has shown the danger of embracing ignorance. He essentially won two elections by highlighting his ignorance, condemning his opponents as too uppity and egg-headed. And though I don’t think that all the failings of the Bush presidency have been a result of ignorance within the White House, the cumulative ignorance within the White House and without is almost certainly the reason this country is still involved in Iraq.

American’s ignorance quickly turned to fear after September 11, 2001 because a man they trusted, their president, told them that that was the right way forward. In their ignorance, they believed him. Ignorance allows people be manipulated in a way that knowledge can easily forestall against. If Bush does little else in his last year in office, I hope he convinces people to become more interested in their country and the world.

Ending ignorance seems a difficult, nigh impossible, task. The world still has many places without libraries, internet access, or good television broadcasts. But in a country where access to all three of these is the norm, we should be embarrassed when we willfully embrace ignorance.