Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Roof confessed that the reason for those murders was racism. But far more than just being a racist act, Roof’s crime was a crime that arose out of ignorance, stupidity, or some combination of the two.
David Niose, writing in Psychology Today, says that anti-intellectualism is killing America. Dylann Roof is a symbol of that trend, because, as Niose observes:
Many will correctly blame Roof’s actions on America’s culture of racism and gun violence, but it’s time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation’s culture of ignorance.
Niose offers other examples of current American anti-intellectualism: Senator James Inhofe’s throwing a snowball on the Senate floor to “prove” that climate change is a hoax. Georgia Congressman Paul Broun saying that evolution and the big bang theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell.”
Former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, commenting on President Obama’s stated desire for all Americans to have the opportunity to attend college, called the president “a snob.” A New Jersey state senator called the high school AP history curriculum “biased,” and “negative,” apparently because it dared to point out that America has not always been Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” These are the sort of things we’re up against.
What are the causes of this “dumbing down?”
Niose takes a look at how ignorance affects Americans’ attitudes on social policies. In talking specifically about Dylann Roof, he says that while it is true that even educated people can have racist feelings, those who have learned critical thinking skills usually realize that racism is wrong, even when they can’t eliminate all of their own racial biases.
The other half of the story, when it comes to Roof, and what happened in Charleston, is guns and the American culture of violence. Americans hear a barrage of propaganda from the NRA, and other organizations, that “they’re coming to get your guns!” Many Americans, including many who have a good formal education, believe they may someday need their guns to combat their own government. This despite the fact that the government of the United States has never moved away from the principals and laws laid out in the constitution, and there has been an orderly transfer of power, even to a member of the opposing party, for over 200 years. It could be argued that the fear of losing personal weaponry, leading to a takeover of the country by a corrupt government, is the single most irrational position held by any American.
Niose also points out that Americans have the erroneous belief that America is “the greatest country in the world,” despite the fact that in international rankings, we are usually far from number one. American media feeds that belief, especially right wing media. You’ll hear Fox News talk about how high taxes are in other countries, but they’ll never mention the services citizens of those countries receive for those taxes. Niose observes:
Love of one’s country is fine, but many Americans seem to honestly believe that their country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom, that the quality of life here far surpasses everywhere else in the world.
That belief is helped by the fact that so many Americans never venture outside the borders of the United States, and have no clue of how people live in other countries. Even Americans who do make it out of the U.S. are most likely to travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean islands. In Canada, they find a country that on the surface appears to be very similar to the U.S., even though there are significant differences. In Mexico and the islands they see countries that are in far worse shape. So they really have no idea that people in most of Europe, Australia, or New Zealand enjoy a quality of life that in at least some respects is far superior to that of many Americans.
Corporate control of media, and religious fundamentalism are also contributing factors to American anti-intellectualism. Corporations have to bend the media narrative to their favor, and religions can’t allow anyone to challenge their orthodoxy. And he who controls the narrative controls history. Or, as someone once said, “History isn’t what happened. History is what is written about what happened.”
Niose is not the first or only person to sound the alarm about anti-intellectualism. Patricia Williams, in an article published at Alternet, talks about the dangerous practice of book banning in schools. She highlights the case of teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall, whose firing was upheld by a federal appeals court. Why was she fired? Because she asked students in an upper level English class to look at the American Library Association’s list of “100 most frequently challenged books,” and write an essay about censorship. Parents complained, and she lost her job. The court ruled that Evans-Marshall was “not speaking as [a citizen] for First Amendment purposes.” Evans-Marshall is just one of many examples of teachers who have been fired for challenging their students to think.
So what can we do to fight this anti-intellectualism? That’s the challenge, considering we have a major political party that is focused on manipulating ignorance to their advantage, corporations that are funding media that is connected to that party, and religious leaders telling the faithful that following reason instead of faith is “turning away from god.” We truly have our work cut out for us.
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