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.

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6 thoughts on “Ignorance is Dangerous

  1. Excellent post my friend!
    There was only one line that caught me off guard…
    “If Bush does little else…I hope he convinces people to become more interested in their country and the world.”
    When I first read that line, I thought, “No way is this person going to inspire people to elevated interest in their country or the world.”
    Then I thought, “Maybe in self defense…”

  2. Amazing stuff.

    It is inspiring to hear this opinion expressed by an American, as the collective ignorance of US citizens is lamented the world over. What we foreigners understand, however (especially us Canadians, we have a front row seat), is that many Americans are engaged, concerned and aware. I can only imagine the frustration you and yours must feel when the ignorance and fear take over. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a very similar problem here and around the world, just that perhaps it’s not on the same scale (and without the same global clout).

    At any rate, do you have any ideas on raising the level of engagement? I am concerned about a point you mentioned off the top – that ignorance has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s almost like it’s “cool to be stupid.” Perhaps we need to follow Puff Daddy’s well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous campaign and try to make it fashionable to be aware… Other than that, the only thing I can think of is a public education overhaul…

  3. you know what, though? i know a few people who actively wish they knew less. they’re the ones who look at monthly payments instead of interest, etc.

    they frustrate me to no end, because it translates into some of the most serious issues, as well.

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