Summer's Culture of Ignorance

Things often get crazy during an American summer. It was during the summer months, after all, that the Tea Party emerged. Maybe summer gives people more time to discuss the latest conspiracy theory. Maybe it's the combination of sun and storm that makes for the overheated political antics of summer. How else can you explain the dumb and dumber displays of recent American political behavior--a behavior that speaks to an ever-growing American culture of ignorance?

Consider these recent beyond belief examples of 21st American political thought and behavior:

1. In Kentucky Brandon Smith, the State Senate Majority Whip, no less, made an incredibly ignorant suggestion about climate change. In the July 9th edition of Climate Progress, Emily Atkin wrote that...

At a hearing to discuss how the state could deal with the Environmental Protection Agency's new proposed greenhouse gas regulations for coal plants, Majority Whip Brandon Smith (R-Hazard) argued that carbon emissions from coal plants can't be causing climate change because Mars is also experiencing a global temperature rise -- and there are no coal plants emitting carbon on Mars. "I think that in academia, we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that," Smith said. "Yet there are no coal mines on Mars, there's no factories on Mars that I'm aware of. So I think what we're looking at is something much greater than what we're going to do."

You have to wonder if Senator Scott ever took any courses in the sciences. Maybe he did but just doesn't "believe" in science's inconvenient truths.

2. While we're on the subject of climate change denial, a group of anti-environmental protestors, as reported in The Week, have found a uniquely noxious way to express their political positions.

Anti-environmental conservatives have found a new way of expressing their opposition to President Obama's climate change initiatives: adding a device and smokestacks to their trucks so that they spew out as much black exhaust as possible. Called "coal rolling," it's a way of giving liberals "the finger," said one Wisconsin smokestack seller. "You want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you."

These smokestack protestors set a fine example for an informed public discourse.

3. Anti-immigrant protestors in Arizona have objected to the potential presence in their communities of groups of Central American children, who, fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries, have crossed the US border in search of a better life. As the Federal Government decides what to do with an ever-growing population of these children, officials have arranged for them to be housed in "centers" one of which is slated for Oracle, Arizona, a fact that has stoked anti-immigrant protests. In Arizona, as reported by CNN, "a demonstrator held a sign that said, 'Send 'em to Coyote Obama,' describing the U.S. President with a popular term used for smugglers who help immigrants illegally cross the border. "I'm protesting the invasion of the United States by people of foreign countries. This is about the sovereignty of our nation,' Oracle resident Eldon Rhodes told CNN affiliate KVOA."

Echoing the point of view of Eldon Rhodes, the irrepressible Texas Representative Louie Gohmert called the influx of immigrant children an "invasion" that should be met with some kind of military response. As reported in Think Progress, Gohmert made the following statement on House floor.

'Even with $3.7 billion that's requested, there's no way for what's being called for is going to stop the invasion that's occurring,' Gohmert said. 'That's why I'm hoping that my governor will utilize Article 1, Section 10, that allows a state that is being invaded -- in our case more than twice as many just in recent months, more than twice as many than invaded France on D-Day with a doubling of that coming en route, on their way here now under Article 1, Section 10, the state of Texas would appear to have the right, not only to use whatever means, whether it's troops, even using ships of war, even exacting a tax on interstate commerce that wouldn't normally be allowed to have or utilize, they'd be entitled in order to pay to stop the invasion.'

Here is a public figure who seems to be afraid of an "army" of poor and frightened children--a scourge that needs to be eliminated. This rhetoric reflects the lean and mean element of contemporary American society.

3. When it comes to gender, many of our public officials, including some of the women who serve in Congress, display antiquated sexist attitudes about the emotional and intellectual capacities of men and women. Consider North Carolina Congresswomen Renee Ellmers. Reporting in Slate, Amanda Marcotte wrote:

North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, one of the Republicans who is supposed to be working on improving her party's outreach to women, became just the latest in a long line of Republicans saying boneheaded things about women.... "Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level," she explained, adding that male Republicans need to "bring it down to a woman's level" to get the women's vote.

Rep. Ellmers 's ignorant statement is not likely to "bolster" the Republican Party's outreach to women.

There are many more examples, of course, of the angry political expression of ignorance lest we forget House Speaker John Boehner's lawsuit against President Obama or Sarah Palin's call for Barack Obama's impeachment--if only she and her cohorts could specify his impeachable offenses. This pointless, cynical, ignorant and stupid political behavior seems to glorify the exercise of selfishness, the practice of boorish in-your-face protest, the expression of baseless hyperbole and the enactment of senseless grandstanding.

Why is there such expression and celebration of ignorance in contemporary America? From my anthropological vantage, I see the boorish culture of ignorance in terms of race and social class--two centrally important elements of our social life that we don't like to discuss. Race, which is purely and simply a social construct, has long been used to create social and economic division. Clinging to our myths of equal opportunity and a society free of prejudice, we are loath to admit that racist narratives and racial and ethnic prejudice are central to how we construct social life. Much of the antipathy toward immigrants is based on racial and/or ethnic hatred--a fear and disgust of the other who threatens to reconstitute the power dynamics of our society. Camouflaged racist attitudes are central to the wholesale and outsized antipathy that many people feel for President Obama. Although I've been disappointed in some of President Obama's policies--especially his ideas about higher education--he's had an enviable string of successes. The stock market is in record territory, unemployment is down, and Osama bin Laden is dead. Even so, people want to impeach him. Let's face it: a substantial portion of our citizenry can't accept the fact that a black man was elected and re-elected President of the United States. And so the Republican Party has done everything it could to deny this black man any success or respect--even if such political behavior increases the index of social misery. This attitude, which for me is nourished by race and racism, has gummed up the workings of our political institutions. Facing a stiff headwind of blind opposition, President Obama, if you look at his record, has still managed to succeed. He is, as Mark Morford put it in the SFGate, "our best worst president."

The second factor that fuels political idiocy and conspiratorial fantasy is social class. It has been an American myth that we are all members of the middle class, whatever that may mean. The social and economic policies of the past 30 years--supply side economics and neoliberalism-- have not improved our economic standing or the quality of our social lives. Instead they have undermined the middle class. Life is no longer sweet for a large group of Americans, especially for working class and lower middle-class white folks, who fear the "loss" of country, which means the erosion of their perception of past religious and social values that once bolstered the social lives of the white majority. Here is a case in which class consciousness, shaped through narratives of race and ethnicity, has triggered fear, which, in turn has generated hateful, irrational, shameful and destructive behavior--the foundation of a culture of ignorance that generates a worldview of conspiratorial fantasy.

When will people wake up from this culturally contoured political nightmare? Given the trends of American demographics, there is light on the horizon, a light that will in large measure slowly remove from our social fabric the stains of racism, ethnic hatred, and the culture of ignorance. The end of summer, after all, brings us a sense of renewal. As the Songhay people of Niger like to say: "Life is patience."