politics

I used to frequent a deli located near a roadside, commuter bus stop. Once, while idly waiting for my order, I thumbed an accordion bus schedule taken from a holder by the register. The cashier looked over at me and said she hoped I wouldn’t ask her when the next bus was, as she had never been able to understand those darn things. I was surprised she didn’t know how to read a schedule. Disappointed that she didn’t seem interested in learning. And gobsmacked that she seemed proud of the fact.

Her lack of knowledge and enterprise will do little damage to the Republic. Unfortunately, when you combine her ignorance with that of so many others, we end up with people in charge who know little. And worse, who don’t know that they don’t know much. We elect politicians who debate and vote on health care economics, job creation, climate science, educational philosophy and even who to bomb and when – with nothing in their education or experience to suggest they are more qualified to do so than your hairdresser.

Voters celebrate and reward the ‘common sense’ and ‘fresh thinking’ of political neophytes – although these newbies give little evidence of either sense or thinking. I do not know why we reward ignorance in politics. How many people value those qualities in their doctor or mechanic?

Let’s realize this though. Polls show that the less educated tend to vote conservative. And these folk embrace their ignorance by coloring knowledge as somehow ‘elitist’. However, liberals are equally capable of intellectual folly. How else to explain homeopathy and a slavish addiction to nutritional supplements? And worst of all, the appalling anti-vaxxers. It is one thing to damage your own kids, but putting other kids at risk – that’s criminally selfish.

But back to politics. One mistake the voter makes is to assume expertise based on a seeming link between a person’s work and the larger subject. Let me give you an example. In 201o, an ophthalmologist, Nan Hayworth, won a congressional seat in New York. Her campaign stressed that her medical background gave her an expertise in delivering health care. A red-hot subject at the time because, while the ACA had been enacted, the provisions had yet to take effect.

Superficially, her claim made sense. But there is no particular reason why a doctor should be an expert on healthcare delivery and economics. Any more than an actor would necessarily be a good theater manager. And a lot of restaurants fail because they are opened by people who know how to cook, but not much else.

Many congressional hopefuls boast of the smarts they picked up running and owning businesses. But business is not economics. Seducing people into putting his name on their hotel – or running golf courses – has not given Donald Trump the expertise to run an economy. Much less direct America in a complex world.

But the voters keep returning to that poisoned well because they don’t know what to look for in a candidate. They are comforted by confidence – can you imagine a candidate admitting he wasn’t an expert on something? And reward those who tell them what they want to hear more than they those who say what they need to know.

That’s how people end up thinking that undocumented aliens are criminals, stealing jobs from Americans, and living on welfare. That the solution to crime and unemployment is an expensive and pointless border wall. That tax cuts for the rich gives the not-rich more money. That guns make homes safer. That science is a matter of opinion. And that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

Which brings us to religion – the great promoter of ignorance in American life.

There are plenty of smart people who believe in God. The founders generally did. But they don’t let their faith stand in the way of the facts. Despite some difficulties with Galileo over the arrangement of the heavens, the Catholic Church has signed off on science. A Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, proposed the ‘Big Bang’ hypothesis. And the Church even accepts the Theory of Evolution.

This is incomprehensible to the American evangelical who thinks that a scientific theory is something you thought up down the pub, over beers.

Fundamentalist religion is popular with those who have no wish to toil in the vineyards of thinking. They can get all they need to know – for a modest donation. With the added benefit that it is certified authentic by the divine authority, as the man passing the plate assures them.

If blind ignorance ended at evolution-denial I suppose we could muddle through. But once you deny one science you seem to get in the habit. And that is where the thoughtful suffer at the hands of the thoughtless.

Take global warming. It is a lung-cancer diagnosis. There may be some debate about the course of the disease and when you will die. But there is no doubt it is real and that smoking caused it. And, to beat the analogy to death, the first thing you do when diagnosed is QUIT SMOKING.

But what is our President doing? Declaring an end to the ‘war on coal’. And his zealots in the cheap seats go crazy. But how will they feel when, as the coal barons pollute for profit, the jobless coal miners remain jobless. No doubt they will blame Mexicans and Democrats.

And the cynics will smile as the plutocrats will go on to the next thing – and the men of God will weigh their gold.

 

 

 

 

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