The Price America Pays For Ignorant Americans

Among the reactions to Donald Trump’s conviction in New York last month, I was struck by something Richard Thau said the other day.

Thau conducts focus groups for the public opinion research firm Engagious. He coordinated with NPR to share audio from two very small groups. Just six people per group, and not a sample of the electorate overall, but remarkable in the impression you get from their responses, or at least the impression I got.

As I listened to the group respond to Thau’s questions, I thought, “Do these people follow current events? Do they even understand the issues they’re being asked about?”

You can listen to the report yourself, but two things Thau said about the focus groups stood out. The first came when the host asked if some level of deception played a role in their responses.

“If they’re being deceived,” said Thau, “they don’t seem to realize that they’re being deceived.”

You know the old saying: The first step to solving a problem is to realize you have a problem.

I’m reluctant to say these people are just plain dumb (though I’ve posed that question before). But when the host asked if it was fair to see these people as “low information voters,” Thau said, “I would say that they are generally not paying close attention to what’s going on day-to-day politically.”

That unawareness, either due to incuriousness, obliviousness or laziness, seems a microcosm of who we are today, a society that, as it moved forward, became dumber — OK, less informed.

A scary thought here is that those folks may not even know how unaware they are. Instead of willfully ignorant, a choice, they’re unwittingly ignorant — ignorant of their ignorance. Or, ignorance is bliss. And again, not necessarily because they’re stupid.

Blaring headlines keep them generally aware, but not sufficiently so.

For example, because Trump’s trial was so top of mind, perhaps they heard the first policy issue out of Trump’s mouth following his conviction: immigration and Biden having failed at the border. But he didn’t mention that there was a bipartisan bill to address matters at the border, and he especially didn’t say he was the reason congressional Republicans scuttled that bill because a) he didn’t want Biden to have an election-year legislative win, and b) he needed an issue to campaign on.

Mr. Thau undoubtedly has to maintain neutrality when conducting focus groups, but I sure wish he had pointed that out when the majority of focus group participants said they felt Trump did a better job handling the border than Biden is doing.

You could then picture those focus group participants saying, “He did that to that bill? Wait, we had a border bill?”

Uh, yeah, we did. See? Not dumb. Just not working that hard to be better informed.

Funny, one of my conservative acquaintances couldn’t resist trashing Biden’s executive orders to address the border. He texted, “It’s official, as suspected. Joe’s move on the border crisis = strictly to try and get votes come Nov. If it wasn’t election year he wouldn’t have done anything.”

I asked: How is that any different than Trump getting lawmakers to quash a bipartisan border bill earlier this year to prevent Biden from getting an election-year win so Trump would have a campaign issue?

His response: “Because Joe has to go.”

Classic invincible ignorance fallacy. That’s the fallacy of defending one’s position while refusing to consider immutable contradictory facts to the contrary. “I don’t care what the experts say; no one is going to convince me that I’m wrong.” Sometimes, it’s just, “Fake news!!”

We had a moment some 50 years ago when intellectualism and literacy were prized in American culture, when writers, artists and scientists were also genuine celebrities, fixtures on talk shows and in socialite columns, not only for what they wrote, painted or theorized but because they were thinkers cultivated by a nation that aspired to intelligence.

You could know of Gore Vidal, Andy Warhol or Wernher von Braun without ever having read The New Yorker, visited a museum or studied aerospace engineering.

Today, people are famous just for being famous or, in various stages of devolvement, for being untalented, obnoxious, clueless, naked, or sexually ravaged, with television shows wholly dedicated to promoting it, and social media guaranteeing its permanence. Go to YouTube. Type “Americans are stupid” in the search box, but if you laugh, be advised: Surveys repeatedly show that ignorance, willful or otherwise, is widespread in American history, basic civics and current events.

In a 2009 survey of 1,000 adults by the American Revolution Center, a nonpartisan educational group, 60% knew that reality TV’s Jon and Kate Gosselin had eight kids. But more than one-third didn’t know in which century the American Revolution had occurred, and half believed that either the War of 1812 or the Civil War preceded it.

Ninety percent of those survey participants said knowledge of the American Revolution and its principles is extremely important, yet 83% failed a basic test on knowledge of our founding, with an average score of 44%.

Remember, those were the days of beloved Birther conspiracies.

Things have not improved. A dozen years later, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, also a nonpartisan educational institution, found that while two-thirds of participants could name all three branches of government, nearly one-fifth couldn’t name any.

Only 1 in 20 could name all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment (speech, religion, the right to assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition the government). Over a fifth said the First Amendment protected the right to bear arms. (Nope. Second Amendment.)

How can you cherish or work to protect freedoms if you don’t know them? How does one hold the elected accountable if one does not understand the nature and prerogatives of each branch and how the power of each is kept in check?

Over half said Facebook is required to let all Americans express themselves freely on its platform under the First Amendment. (It is not.)

You want worse? A 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey of 18-to-24-year-olds found that only 14% of participants could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Israel on a map — a map, by the way, that had the countries lettered on it.

The future isn’t promising. In its most recent nationwide testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 13% of eighth-graders had a proficient knowledge of American history; only 22% scored proficient in civics. These kids will soon enter high school where civics and history are under fire in highly politicized debates over content and instruction.

Statistics and companion lamentations about our descent from higher rungs of erudition are nothing new. We are routinely treated to news of indifferent students without a kindling of curiosity annually performing poorly in math and geography.

However, in her 2008 book “The Age of American Unreason,” scholar Susan Jacoby noted a disturbing cultural shift: the belittling of intelligence.

“During the past four decades,” Jacoby writes, “America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.”

In short, stupidity became fashionable, hostility to knowledge acceptable and challenging the ignorant deplorable.

That was 2008. We’re much further along on that path today.

This is far beyond the days of Truman Capote as a celebrity; it’s tragic irony for a nation founded by an exceptional and uncommon cadre of intellectuals intimately familiar with the Greeks and deeply influenced by European thinkers from an era so profound, we called it an age of Enlightenment.

Today, Enlightenment thinkers and the Greeks are more honored by invocation than emulation.

But here is the fine point of it: Our political culture is a reflection of our general culture. If we don’t know what our Constitution says about the separation of powers, if fully half of us mistakenly believe Trump was better at handling immigration without considering how the pandemic slowed border migration to a trickle, or if faithful legions continue to insist that the 2020 election was stolen, it affects how we decide to govern ourselves.

Bad enough we forget the past; worse still is when we refuse to comprehend the present and its consequences for the future.

What matters most is not what we think but how we think. Getting worked up over a Barbie movie doesn’t help us govern the country any better.Will we as a nation learn to dismiss tonsorial talking-point artists and shrill performance politicians and relearn to revere the learned? Will we ever tire of empty sloganeering and yearn for reflective thought and honest, intelligent dialogue?

In 2011, NASA engineers succeeded in landing the largest and most sophisticated mobile laboratory ever launched to another planet, aptly named Curiosity, evoking a seemingly bygone era in which we not only believed there were ideas beyond the first ones that occurred to us, but we actively pursued them. Its two-year mission was extended indefinitely and continues even today. Curiosity is still alive and well, at least on Mars.

Sadly, though, and frighteningly, baby boomers nurtured in that era may well become, as historian Michael Winship put it, “the first generation to teach the next generation less than we know,” which “may turn out to be our final, fatal mistake.”

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