Lawrence, KS - Events Local News Groups Contact
The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics
By Indy Media /
By George Monbiot. From

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the United States 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?

Like most people on this side of the Atlantic, I have spent my adult life mystified by American politics. The United States 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." His own health program 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. U.S. education, like the U.S. health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on Earth, 1 adult in 5 believes the sun revolves around the Earth; only 26 percent 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 U.S. voters cannot name the three branches of government; and the math skills of 15-year-olds in the United States are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But this merely extends the mystery: How did so many U.S. citizens become so dumb and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of U.S. politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: Religion -- in particular fundamentalist religion -- makes you stupid. The United States is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication of Origin of Species, for example, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's theory was mixed up in the United States with the brutal philosophy -- now known as Social Darwinism -- of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people from being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation, according to the doctrine; gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable to the public from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian Right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism.

But there were other, more powerful reasons for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The United States is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the Southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. "In the South," Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the United States, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that 1 in 4 of the state's public school biology teachers believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on Earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishization of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary; all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason why intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day, men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.

The specter of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the elections of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite -- like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush -- has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an overeducated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the right-wing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a good deal to offer America, but none of this will come to an end if he wins. Until the great failures of the U.S. education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.
0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 10,366 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 7,308 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) are the latest in a long line...
Inside the Invisible Government: John Pilger on War, Propaganda, Clinton and Trump
John Pilger · 6,823 views today · The American journalist, Edward Bernays, is often described as the man who invented modern propaganda. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psycho-analysis, it was...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 5,342 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 4,930 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Democracy in the Digital Era
Birgitta Jonsdottir · 3,854 views today · Our current democratic models are crumbling and outdated. We need to make something more real and meaningful. Activist and politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir points to how it might...
Open Up - Have the Difficult But Important Conversations With Loved Ones
5 min · 3,403 views today · “The biggest casualty of humanity is the lack of communication, it’s the thing that breaks most relationships. It just feels so much better to talk and get it out.” There is...
Who I'm Voting For...
3 min · 3,282 views today · Prince Ea announces who he's voting for. It's probably not who you think.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,264 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,482 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 1,130 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
3 min · 1,072 views today · In addition to her well-known autobiographies, Maya Angelou has steadily written poetry over the years. In this video Professor Angelou recites her poem, "And Still I Rise,"...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,024 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 851 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
#Hypernormalisation - Why Heathrow Plan Is Proof We Exist in a Catastrophic Fantasyland
Matthew Adams · 791 views today · The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof...
'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean
Deirdre Fulton · 785 views today · "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 721 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 582 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 485 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 420 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics