Politics: When Dumb Meets Disconnected

There's an old joke. What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? Answer: I don't know, and I don't care.

Old, but is a nice summary of the current state of political involvement. Each makes real change difficult. Together they make it impossible.

There's a line between ignorant and stupid -- although it's a very busy crossing.

Stupid is the 21 percent of Americans who Gallup says believe in witches and warlocks; the 18 percent who believe the sun revolves around the earth (plus the 3 percent who had no opinion); and, in another study, the 23 percent of American women who would rather lose their ability to read than their shape.

Actually I'm fine with that.

As Forrest Gump said, "Stupid is as stupid does." If you believe that witches come out when the sun goes around to the other side of the earth, and it's better to be hot than literate, chances are your impact on my life isn't going to be all that great.

It's ignorance that scares me.

By ignorance I mean the determination to fit the wide world of fact into the tiny confines of personal belief. The scorecard of ignorance, at least my definition, is growing. Stem cell research is evil. Global warming is fiction. Barack Obama is a Muslim. Saddam caused 9-11. Healthcare legislation will set up death panels. Sarah Palin is the one we want to sit down with world leaders.

People who think like this are very likely to vote.

And they can elect candidates like a leading Republican primary contender who said that being part of the debates was a mistake -- because it put him up against all those fancy fast-talkers. They can give a national platform for another contender who looked straight into the camera and linked a life-saving vaccine to retardation.

Ignorance is both embracing and forgiving to its own. That is where apathy delivers a one-two punch to our prospects.

Ignorance loves apathy the way flies love road kill. It feeds on it. It consumes fact, and truth; common sense and common good. The hard lesson of history is that we can wake up to find that it has found its way into our lives.

Apathy can come from laziness. But I think just as often, especially today, it comes from a loss of hope that things can actually change. We are slogging our way through decades of disappointment -- from government to Wall Street to the church to media to freakishly large men who hit home runs. Different day. Different assault on trust.

For many of us, the most recent -- and in some ways most bitter -- disappointment is the first term of Barack Obama. We thought we had elected something new and different. Now, the evidence is mounting that we elected something that is very much the same.

You could counter that the "occupy" movement is anything but apathetic. Actually, it deposits us in the same place. Arabs wanted a change in regimes. The occupiers want -- what? "Hey-hey, ho-ho. A bunch of different things have got to go." The chants go on, the garbage mounts.

The drift toward violence may reflect the realization that if you can't change the power structure, you might as well smash its windows.

Can we shake off our apathy, connect reality and marshal a productive counterattack against the forces of ignorance? Right now, the odds aren't looking all that good.