Every once in a while, the media present statements so uninformed and unintelligent that the only really suitable word for them is “stupid.” Such stupidity is often the result of someone trying to support a position in the absence of evidence or argument of merit.
I have in mind a brief statement in “Sound Off” (29 Dec) supporting personal weapons, possibly assault weapons. Someone called in, “After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had thoughts of possibly landing troops on the shores of the American mainland. They gave up the idea because they knew that most American homes had firearms in them.”
Everything about this statement is false to the historical facts. The Japanese never deliberated invading America before, during, or after the attack on Pearl Harbor; the entire purpose of that attack was to deter America from interfering with Japanese conquest and control in East and Southeast Asia. So they never gave up an idea which they never held, and they would not have given it up for the reasons asserted. At the time, relatively fewer American homes had firearms, and those had shotguns, rifles, or six-shooters—which is why the West Coast, where the Japanese would have landed, felt defenseless and demanded that Japanese-Americans be interned inland.
The statement is absurd in its lack of proportion. The caller wants readers to believe that the Japanese had no fear of attacking our military forces—naval port and yards, army forts, and army airfields—on Oahu but feared civilians with firearms. Perhaps the caller will supplement this inanity with assurances that greater firepower from modern assault weapons in greater numbers among today’s West Coast population will deter North Korean ICBMs.
The puzzle is whether the caller, obviously ideologically driven, is ignorant of the facts and their implications or dishonest in attempting to persuade the ignorant with falsehoods. Certainly, such folderol can not contribute to that national conversation which gunslingers claim they want to have with the rest of us.
Nothing is puzzling about the Tea Party’s rationalization of its “small-government” position because it depends on calculated misrepresentations of the historical facts. The Tea Party claims that the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment to reduce the power of the federal government. It offers this double fabrication—sanction by icons and imputation of its position to them—to the faithful or the uninformed—often one and the same—as a huckster of falsehoods.
Anyone who did not sleep through the fall term of high-school American history should know that, within 6 years of the approval of the Articles of Confederation (1781), the country’s founders gathered to draft a new Constitution to repair the evident failures of weak government under the earlier document. Anyone who was awake to discussions of the Tenth Amendment should know that it was intended as a sop to small-government advocates. For this amendment relies on narrower interpretations of the broad language of the approved Constitution than are possible with a decent respect for the purpose and meaning of its language. Even so, the Tea Party has never identified one governmental power not mentioned in the Constitution which the states may reserve to themselves.
The Tea Party’s invocation of the Founding Fathers assumes that they were united in their views, which anticipated the Tea Party’s. Despite its professions to the contrary, the Tea Party disrespects the Founding Fathers in its ignorance of, or indifference to, the fact that they often disagreed, quarreled, even dueled, with one another. An excellent account of their personal and political relationships in the context of contested issues is Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers. It begins with the Burr/Hamilton duel; it ends with the Adams/Jefferson reconciliation, in which each former president and former adversary set aside past animosities to join in respectful friendship, explained his differences in position to the other, and—well, I shall not spoil the astonishing end. It is the kind of short, lively, informative book which should be read in high school. Tea Party members might want to give it a try, if they have the stomach for the truth.
These local examples of ignorance or dishonesty represent too much of what occurs in exchanges on political issues in this country. Politicians and political activists are given to trim their utterances to their policies and purposes. But now many otherwise ordinary people are doing it. We may deplore such conduct, but tut-tutting is not enough to effect a change; only penalties at the ballot box and public disapproval by the media may help. If it is not already too late—the inertia of widespread ignorance may already have corrupted public discourse beyond repair—it may help to explain how we got to this place, where stupidity and deceit have become acceptable in public discourse.
My candidates for blame remain, as I have argued previously, English and, to a lesser, degree, history teachers. In a desire to encourage responses, they tolerate any response. The supra-subject lessons taught are that any response is as good (never as bad) as any other; that any distinction between better and worse answers is judgmental (which is very bad); that any opinion has value because the opiner has value; and that there is no differences between idea and individual. Ergo, criticism is personal attack motivated by hate, and outrage at stupidity is anger. Such are the lasting lessons of the public schools. So they teach, not “critical thinking,” but disregard for factuality and reasoning, and intolerance of differences of opinion and discussion.
Such public education in Las Cruces differs from public education in other cities only in degree. Here as there, local education establishments do what the public wants them to do. Here, NMSU trains elementary school teachers neither proficient nor inspiring, who then produce large numbers of students neither proficient nor inspired. The public does not want it otherwise. It expects the university and the school district to reflect and reinforce the local conservatism which dominates the culture, strongly influenced by a Hispanic and Catholic conservative majority.
For two reasons. One conservatism wants continuity, not change. Two, conservatism is pessimistic; it assumes that change, especially in the name of reform, is less likely for the better than for the worse. So most people hope that the powers-that-be will leave things alone—polite handwringing and politic tinkering are sufficient—so that people can enjoy families, friends, and nigh-school football teams; than to involve themselves in civic affairs and remedy poverty, illness, and ignorance in this predominantly Hispanic, Catholic city and state. Which explains why Las Cruces and New Mexico officials say much about these problems but offer little in the way of solutions to them.
My proof of this dismal view of Las Cruces in an easy one. Knowledgeable residents who have lived here far longer than I report that the university and pubic schools are no better, and may be worse, than they were decades ago. Of course, School Boards and Superintendents chatter about education and doing everything for the kids; the fact that education remains mediocre means that public education continues to do little or nothing for them. Chambers of Commerce and developers chatter about jobs—which, given the City’s no- or low-skill workforce, means more low-paid work in construction, retail clerking, burger-flipping, and pizza delivery. But thanks to the local media, the city has no lack of editorial cheerleading and reportorial coverage of ribbon-cuttings and kick-offs by local notables gathering to congratulate each other on new initiatives which change nothing and achieve nothing. No follow-ups report their failures because their success is continuing stasis.
Local journalism has greater sins than these of commission; more serious are the sins of omission. Thus, the Sun-News got so mad about a senatorial candidate’s decade’s-old violation of an open-meetings law that it supported an ignorant and deceitful Tea Party candidate; more, it editorialized on the need for transparency so that the paper could report the news. Fine words, but before and after, it has gone AWOL about promised NMSU reports on investigations on the Yelana Bird-John Moraros episode involving racial and sexual harassment, and pornography, by leaders in the College of Health and Social Services or the more recent investigation of the problems associated with the loss of accreditation of DACC nursing program. The absence of editorials or articles on these cover-ups suggests a no-dirt-on-city-whites policy which enables ignorance and inaction.
Las Cruceans like it this way. They accept ignorance and deceit, and mediocrity and inertia. For higher standards would imply criticism of the status quo and might prompt reforms to better lives.