Saturday, July 24, 2010

ARE WE DUMB ENOUGH TO DIMINISH DEMOCRACY?

Yes. Mid-term election campaigns confront America with threats of serious, perhaps permanent, damage to its democracy because of cultural biases, educational deficiencies, and political demagoguery.

Too many Americans have not figured out how they can be both equal and excellent. They have morphed a doctrine of political equality into a doctrine of personal equality, which encourages the average and discourages the aspiring. They insist on mediocrity and insinuate that those having learned manners and morals, and earned an education are elitists. They celebrate sincere expression more than sensible communication, avoid judgment rather than avail themselves of it, and prefer know-nothings with simple messages to know-it-alls with complex ones.

This triumph of mediocrity over merit results from the dumbing-down of American education since the Vietnam War. Since then, America’s schools—public, private, parochial—have successfully produced two consecutive generations knowing less than the previous one. We are working on the third one. The result is a new record; in the history of humankind, America is the only society not devastated by war, famine, or disease to have achieved this distinction.

The evidence that many adult Americans cannot read with comprehension, write or speak with cogency or correctness, compute with accuracy, or think carefully and clearly is everywhere. Commonly indicated by a “whatever” and a shrug are an indifference to, or denial of, facts or inferences. The results—dumbness, detachment from reality, naiveté, and narcissism—are dangerous to democracy. Incapable of making informed decisions in their best interests, the afflicted are prey to demagogues who exploit their ignorance and manipulate their trust with simple solutions to complex problems.

Inconsequential falsehoods are illustrative. At Cal State, Stanislaus, Sarah Palin aligned herself with Ronald Reagan in rousing, upbeat remarks: “This is Reagan country, and perhaps it was destiny that the man who went to California’s Eureka College would become so woven within and interlinked to the Golden State.” Uplifting but fact-free. Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, state of his birth; he did not move to California until five years after graduation; and Eureka, California, does not have a college. But, hey, who gives a wink?

Not her followers. Perhaps they assumed that Palin spoke truthfully about a hero of hers. When they learned otherwise, did they care that she knew nothing about her hero and simply used their affection for him to win acceptance for herself? Probably not: true believers do not care about truth. So, on serious issues, they do not care that she lied about “death panels” in the health care bill or, after urging that we “drill, baby, drill” for offshore oil, lied, after the BP spill, that she had not.

Palin is not unique; she has local equivalents in ignorance of, indifference to, or manipulation of, truth. In “What the U.S. Constitution is really about” (24 June), David Montes relies on his readers’ ignorance of, indifference to, or gullibility about, the basic facts about American history and government.

Montes’s column echoes the far-right-wing mantra that “the Constitution was intended to protect the people from the government. It was designed to protect our right to bear arms, our freedom of the press, to protect our religious expression, to protect our property.” Neither statement approximates the truth. He refers, not to the Constitution, but to the Bill of Rights. Defending these falsehoods, he added others, that “The Bill of Rights was added before it [Constitution] was ratified by the people so it's [Bill of Rights] always been considered an aspect of originalism.” The truth is otherwise: nine states ratifying the Constitution made it effective on 4 March 1789; the Bill of Rights was not proposed until 25 September 1789 or ratified until 1791.

As originalists must, Montes palters with the truth to conceal the conflict between originalist dogma and later, favored amendments. After invoking a Constitution bent to serve his politics, he absurdly claims that “Before we can honestly debate policy we have to honestly conclude which policies are actually constitutional.” Honestly, we can debate any policy if only to amend the Constitution. Honestly, no one can debate with those like Montes who use misrepresentations of the Constitution to rule out debate about policies not to their liking. Honestly, they know the Constitution goes against them.

Palin, Montes, and others of their mendacious ilk have a political strategy of deception and dishonesty to serve partisan purposes. Their pretense is protecting the Constitution to protect Americans from “tyrannical government” (do federal laws which they dislike make it “tyrannical”?). But their practice promises to debilitate democracy and diminish freedoms, for those relying on such means to get power will rely on them to keep it. Campaigns tactics smearing opponents and spreading disinformation mean to rile or mislead some to vote against their real interests, and to demoralize or disgust others to discourage them from voting. They and those ignorant, gullible, angry, or resentful are clear and present dangers to democracy and freedom.

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