Last October, British columnist George Monbiot addressed “The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics.” As stupidity has grown to a piercing pitch over the last few months, his words are no less relevant now.
Monbiot writes for The Guardian and is an activist for climate change and the rights of indigenous people. The full text of this article along with his other writings can be found at his blog. Following are exerpts.
How did politics in the United States come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist?
. . . The United States has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.
There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived; but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency).
. . . It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic -- men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton -- were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W. Bush and Sarah Palin?
On one level, this is easy to answer: Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. U.S. education, like the U.S. health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on Earth, 1 adult in 5 believes the sun revolves around the Earth; only 26 percent accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of U.S. voters cannot name the three branches of government; and the math skills of 15-year-olds in the United States are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the United States, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that 1 in 4 of the state's public school biology teachers believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on Earth at the same time.
. . . Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason why intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day, men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.
. . . Obama has a good deal to offer America, but none of this will come to an end if he wins. Until the great failures of the U.S. education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.
Note: George Monbiot is the author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.
In the full text, available on his blog, Monbiot discusses Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.