What We Don’t Know Will Kill Us

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Photo via J. Sutt

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people react poorly to my saying America is doomed. Their anger and consternation, however, do nothing to change the bleak outlook for our nation. All their outraged responses do is confirm their lack of imagination.  They cannot imagine a world in which the great American experiment has failed to such an extent that our union dissolves.

They see only the facade of success: our shopping malls, our massive Interstate highway system, an entertainment industry that never pauses in pushing out all manner of material some good, some degenerate, most mediocre wastes of time. People cannot imagine that such institutions could ever fail. I mean, pretty soon Amazon is going to be delivering packages to you door with drones. Freakin’ drones, man!

Every material and technological advance reinforces their confusion, and leads them further to believe that spectacular impressiveness somehow denotes permanence. It does not.

All one has to do is to look deeper to see that our foundation is rotten. The scope of our fundamental problems is so enormous that no effort, however, herculean could contain, let alone reverse them.

These problems are numerous and most are well-known: our collapsing public morality, our overthrow of the traditional family, our distressed economy and natural environment. What gets talked about much less is the corrosive effect of our collective ignorance on our social and political order.

And ignorant we are.

In recent years, it has been reported that 1 in 4 Americans can’t name more than one of the freedoms protected by the first amendment.  This is compared to the fact that more than half of us can name at least two members of The Simpsons. Almost a quarter of us can name all five members of the famous cartoon clan.

As of 2006, most Americans between 18 and 24 could not find Ohio on the map. Two-thirds could not find Iraq. At that time, only 30 percent of college graduates could read and interpret the label on a food package.  One study found  that half of college graduates are incapable of completing everyday tasks. These numbers are certainly more grim now.

The statistics go on and on. Last year, NPR reported that the vast majority of high school seniors are ready neither for college nor career.

YouTuber Mark Dice makes a point of documenting the ignorance of the general public.  In this video, he asks people some basic questions about the meaning of July 4.

 

In this one, he documents the scope of our national ignorance.

All of this is toxic for a political system built on the idea of the well-informed voter capable of rationality and self-governance.  Together, these facts demonstrate that whatever is happening in America even now, it is not the cooperation of knowledgeable citizens hashing out a way forward through engaging the marketplace of ideas.

Instead, we are a nation of mostly ignorant consumers unfamiliar with even the basics of American history and political philosophy. Most of the slightly more than half of Americans who actually vote choose their candidates simply by consulting a mix of tribal and class loyalties, the popular media, and a vague sense of what kind of person they want their friends to think they are.

The results of this widespread ignorance are many. First, it allows those who control the national conversation, mostly through mainstream media, to achieve their agenda with almost no resistance. Those who dissent from that agenda are thrust aside where their resentment builds.

Second, the populace becomes more and more polarized as the great ignorant majority drops out of political life, mesmerized by the trinkets of consumer indulgence. Those who remain involved are the most passionate, most informed and most partisan. National life is reduced to a tug of war with a rope whose middle is quickly fraying.

Eventually, the rope will snap.  No other outcome is possible. We already have a vast,expensive institution, the public schools, whose job, ostensibly anyway, is to teach citizens the fundamentals of our system. They have obviously failed. There is now no means to undo the damage.

We must accept that in the future America, if it exists at all, will not be the America of the past. We must accept that though the walls still stand and the party inside seems like it will never end, the collapse of the foundation is certain. We must abandon the idea of reform, surrender the notion of making things better, and do what we can to prepare for what comes next.

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