CounterPoint

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” ― Isaac Asimov

The Age of Ignorance

The Age of Ignorance

Why We Live in a Time When Ignorance Proudly Parades Itself as Enlightenment

umair haque

Anti-maskers violently yelling at school board meetings to stop their kids…from wearing masks…during a pandemic. Anti-vaxxers refusing to get vaccinated and dying from COVID. People pretending the pandemic is over while Covid goes permanent.

When I look around the world today, I see shattering ignorance at work, like never before in our lifetimes. Shall I name a few kinds? Bigotry, racism, hate, xenophobia, nationalism, greed, spite, cruelty, fascism. Ignorance upon ignorance, of all the devil’s many kinds.

But the really strange, bizarre, and weird thing isn’t all that — ignorance has always been around, hasn’t it? It’s that today, ignorance is willful. Deliberate. Proud. Boastful, cocky, and exultant. Pompous, high-sounding, and aggrandizing. It waves banners and sings chants and discusses philosophies. Ignorance today thinks of itself as Aristotle by way of Descartes and Kant. The really strange thing about now is that ignorance parades itself as enlightenment.

Ignorance — of every kind, day after day. That’s bad enough. But ignorance proudly presenting itself as wisdom, truth, and enlightenment? In bestsellers, through YouTube “personalities”, by college professors? Now that’s tragedy and comedy both. And yet people buy it. Why? I think this weird phenomenon — of flaunting ignorance as grand-sounding enlightenment — is made of a fatal cocktail of cognitive dissonance, infantile regression, and malignant narcissism.

Let’s start with the first one. I tell someone a fact. “Hey, do you know that Americans live five years less than Europeans?” Bang! Along comes a string of justifications, denials, misinformation, Fox News talking points, followed by mistrust, personal attacks, and finally, rage. Here’s another example. “Hey, did you know Brexit is now going to cost you thousands every year, and make you poorer to begin with?” Snap! The very same string, in response. Don’t you think that’s odd? I do.

What happened, really? Instantly, massive cognitive dissonance was triggered. New information, which conflicts sharply with preexisting beliefs. Old myths. In this case, that America’s exceptional, special, the best, a Promised Land. Or British triumphalism, the idea that by carrying on, it will win, it doesn’t need anyone else, and never has. Whatever the myths may be, the point is the same. New information confronts old myths. The old myths triumph — in a frenzy of defensiveness, people end up lashing out, instead of “processing,” that is to say, accepting, understanding, tolerating, the new information.

Now, people can only ever really decide in favour of new information is the cost discarding old myths is reasonably low. If it doesn’t hurt, them, in other words. But it seems to hurt them immensely, almost absurdly, to discard these old myths. It seems to damage their self-coherence at an existential level, and thus, result in activating a traumatized person’s fight-or-flightresponse. Hence, the price of discarding the old myths is impossibly high to meet, which is why you can’t reason with a Trumpist or fascist of any kind, ever with facts, logic, or evidence.

But why would the price of discarding old myths be so impossibly high? After all, we do it every day, in littler ways, perhaps. Well, people must already feel fragile. Uncertain. Unstable, even. These myths must be all that is shoring up their identities, their egos, and their sense of morality, too. And so what people are really protecting, by clinging to these old myths — whether of exceptionalism, specialness, triumphalism, or racism — is themselves. At an existential level. “I still exist!! This is the only way I can belong! This is all that defines me! There’s nothing else in me!” (We’ll come back to that.) So this trend of ignorance masquerading itself as enlightenment, where people lash out the moment they’re presented with truths, is a kind of desperate, last-ditch self-preservation. But which self are they trying to preserve?

Well, what kind of people do we call those who need grandiose fairy tales of their omnipotence to feel secure? Children. And what the phenomenon of ignorance parading itself as enlightenment reveals about those who do it is that they have regressed to a childlike state. The fairy tale allows the child to exist, to belong, to feel safe, to feel unique, the only one, the chosen one — the knight or the damsel, take your pick — and in that way, to feel loved in the way that they need to be loved. When people cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of mundane everyday truths, and cling to grandiose myths instead of being able to process, integrate, and accept new truths, it’s stark evidence that they are regressing into a simpler, safer world — because functioning adults don’t need to feel omnipotent, singular, grandiose.

But why would adults, who’ve regressed to childlike states, need to feel grandiose, all-powerful, the only ones in all the world? Because the world is indeed a hostile, frightening place these days. One can hardly survive these days, by meekly following the rules. One must conform, keep one’s head low, try not to stick out. Survival is an act of obedience in the collapsed world that predatory capitalism has created. What is that world really like, though, to experience? It’s a world which constantly tells you have no intrinsic worth. That you are without inherent value. You are only as good as what you can be used for. If you cannot be used for anything, then your just fate is essentially to be left to die. You’re powerless, aren’t you? Ah, you see? Who else needs absolute power, but those who feel powerless inside?

In other words, predatory capitalism creates a world that constantly tears away at people’s sense of self — which is precisely why people are always seeking to shore those absent selves up with grandiose myths of how special, unique, and wonderful they are. There is nothing left inside a person under predatory capitalism — even their sense of self has been taken away from them. They are constantly trying to earn it back, with consumption, with status, with luxuries, with signals, by being the richest, hungriest, strongest, the perfect one with the perfect life. People under predatory capitalism are always trying to earn their missing selfhood back by preying on others, so that they’re the only ones who are loved, needed, desired, in all the world. (Only then can they feel, for just a fleeting moment, no just like they’re safe, whole, or true — but like they exist at all.)

But what is a person with nothing inside called? A narcissist. The narcissist isn’t what we often think — the one who thinks too much of himself. He is the one who thinks too little. So little, in fact, that he has no inherent sense of worth, meaning, belonging, purpose, or value. He is nothing, to himself. And so he constantly needs reassurance, praise, flattery, admiration. Even in destructive, abusive, and ruinous ways. He calls that “love,” and though it isn’t love, only power — it’s the only kind of relationship he is capable of.

Remember the phenomenon of flouting ignorance as enlightenment? Isn’t that what it’s really about? Power? It’s power over you. Power over the world. Power over society. The power to if not earn your praise, then at least demand your submission, your pain, your helplessness — which is what gives the malignant narcissist the validation they need to fill up that hole where a self should be. The pain of your powerlessness is the only thing that can validate the malignant narcissist’s self-existence.

Yet the malignant narcissist has come to exist because predatory capitalism has made him a mirror image of itself — it has left nothing in him at all, not even a self. There’s just an absence, an emptiness, where a self should be — which is insatiable. And so it must be fed with aggrandizing myths, that the narcissist is the only one who matters, counts, exists. But that means that his existence must come at the price of you, me, facts, reality, and, ultimately, even the whole world burning down. The more you suffer — the more I exist. The only thing that makes you feel powerful is my powerlessness — because capitalism has burned a hole through the place where a self should be.

Hence, ignorance parading itself as enlightenment. It’s the defining mood, phenomenon, way of the times we live in. Perhaps you and I, though, should be wiser than those who proudly, boastfully devote themselves to it.

Umair
August 2021

Dying of Whiteness

While doing fieldwork in Tennessee for his eye-opening and often harrowing new book, Dying of Whiteness, Vanderbilt University Professor Jonathan M. Metzl met Trevor. A 40-something-year-old former cab driver (who used to “party pretty hard”), Trevor needed a walker to get around; his skin was “yellow with jaundice” from hepatitis C and an inflamed liver. Trevor is dying, yet he is opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it would provide him with the medical care he needs and can’t afford. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he explains to Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland

A physician reveals how right-wing backlash policies have mortal consequences — even for the white voters they promise to help Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Esquire and the Boston Globe In the era of Donald Trump, many lower- and middle-class white Americans are drawn to politicians who pledge to make their lives great again.

Teaching Trump: The Rise of the Crowd-Sourced Syllabus

TRUMP SYLLABUS 2.0Leading up to the election, The Chronicle of Higher Education released a Trump 101 syllabus to explore his campaign academically. Following that, N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain released a corrective one called the Trump Syllabus 2.0 that more fully considered Trump’s campaign, focusing on xenophobia, racism, and sexism. Following the release of now-President-Elect Trump’s infamous “locker room talk” footage (wherein he made references to nonconsensual, predatory sexual advances towards women), Laura Ciolowski released the Rape Culture Syllabus in order to situate the culture in which Trump’s comments about sexual assault could be normalized.

Sexism and misogyny: what’s the difference?

Post-election, the Trump-related syllabi and online educational resources continue to appear. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching released a five-step guideline with suggestions for faculty “Teaching in Response to the Election.” The Zinn Education Project released a special lesson and resource page dedicated to “Teaching After the Election of Trump.” And Teaching Tolerance, a Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, also offers Election 2016 Resources, including suggestions for recognizing and countering bias.

The rise of crowd-sourced syllabus is an important leap, in both disseminating and gathering knowledge and in shaping active learners, no matter what their age or location.

Teaching Trump: The Rise of the Crowd-Sourced Syllabus | JSTOR Daily

In 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Dr. Marcia Chatelain started the #FergusonSyllabus movement to help explain the history behind the protests over police misconduct and the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement sweeping the nation.

Welcome to the Post-Truth Era

“..the collective postmortem – on the left and right of politics – has focused on a concern with far greater long-term impact: the accidental or deliberate propagation of misinformation via social media.”

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, having initially denied that fake news was problematic, now wants us to believe that “we’ve been working on this problem for a long time.” Really? So it is a problem after all?Much has been written about the arrival of a “post-truth” era, in which facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection. Nazi Germany shows that this is not new, but the internet-driven efficiency with which it can be manipulated is.

One of the main drivers of this process is a click-based revenue model, in which algorithms prioritise items in news feeds based on how likely individual users are to “engage with” (ie click on) them – and thus be exposed to more ads. Whether these items contain carefully researched or fabricated material is of no concern to the algos: in fact, false, sensationalist stories that bolster existing prejudices are more likely to draw clicks than sober analyses that challenge assumption. With misinformation being incentivised in this way, who could be surprised when Buzzfeed found a group of young Macedonians copying the most outlandish fabrications to more than 140 specially created pro-Trump websites and sexing up the headlines to gain clicks and go viral on Facebook?

Among the most pernicious myths of our time is that the functioning of the web is neutral and immutable; that it has evolved of its own ethereal logic, like a galaxy, and can’t be changed or stopped.

This is important, because a recent study by the Pew Research Centre found a majority of American adults using Facebook as a source of news (which means Britain is sure to follow). Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been resistant to the notion that his company, social media, or the web in general are undermining democracy (“a pretty crazy idea”), even after dozens of his own staff formed a covert taskforce to address the problem post-election. It’s easy to see why he bridles too, because if he accepts the truth that his algorithms function no more objectively than a human editor, then he bears responsibility for their choices. And once he does that, he allows the equally obvious truth that Facebook, whether it wants to be or not, is now a media organisation and must vouch for the information it disseminates.

The pedlars of fake news are corroding democracy | Andrew Smith

The most interesting question about 2016 is not why the Brexit result and Trump happened, but whether historians will regard both as incidental; whether this will go down as the year democracy revealed itself unworkable in the age of the internet – in which reality, already engaged in a life-or-death struggle with inverted commas, finally gave way to “alt-reality”.

The Cult of Ignorance

In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.” That year, the Republican Party stood at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, which initiated a decades-long conservative groundswell that many pundits say may finally come to an end in November. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt (who has been regretful about choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008) recently pointed to what he called “intellectual rot” as a primary culprit, and a cult-like devotion to irrationality among a certain segment of the electorate.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read… but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulation of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent—or less—of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

Nonetheless, the widespread (though hardly universal) availability of free resources on the Internet has made self-education a reality for many people, and certainly for most Americans. But perhaps not even Isaac Asimov could have foreseen the bitter polarization and disinformation campaigns that technology has also enabled. Needless to say, “A Cult of Ignorance” was not one of Asimov’s most popular pieces of writing. First published on January 21, 1980 in Newsweek, the short opinion piece has never been reprinted in any of Asimov’s collections. You can read the essay as a PDF here.

Isaac Asimov Laments the “Cult of Ignorance” in the United States: A Short, Scathing Essay from 1980

Painting of Asimov on his throne by Rowena Morill, via Wikimedia Commons In 1980, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov argued in an essay that “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.”

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