Friday, August 27, 2010

The New Age of Ignorance. . . . . .

  Few things seems more bizarre to me, more strangely twisted and disturbing, than a group of people that prides itself on its ignorance. And yet there is, in human society a strong tradition of 'Know-nothingism' which still emerges in these days of complex knowledge. Perhaps this strange ideology is partly sustained by the very fact that we live in such a complex age and people find comfort and solace in the idea of eschewing knowledge, as though by maintaining their ignorance they will somehow recapture a more simple (albeit completely imaginary) time in which there existed greater social, political, and philosophic clarity.

Of course, whatever the present state of the ideology of 'know-nothingism,' its roots are to be found in those who promoted it (and sometime still do) with the aim of maintaining control. Dictators and their ilk have long known that an ignorant population is an easily controlled and mailable one. And this promotion of ignorance was for centuries enshrined in the power and control maintained by the Roman Catholic church which prohibited on the threat of execution, for example, the translation of the Bible into common vernaculars comprehensible by the people. Besides undermining and threatening all those who would promote new forms of knowledge, for centuries the Church promoted ignorance as more or less a good thing, often couching this idea of know-nothingism in notions of attractive simplicity, an escape from all the trials and tribulation of worldly pains and knowledge. Later, more modern advocates of Conservative ideologies have promoted know-nothingism as the bulwark against ominous changes that lead, according to these advocates, to threatening chaos and radical, if often nondescript, social changes. The Tory-reactionaries of the late 18th century used this kind of argument in an attempt to hold back the looming changes in England which promised more universalized suffrage and education while threatening to undermine the absolute power of the British aristocracy. The aristocrats and their supporter knew what such changes meant to the maintenance of their authority and thus they actively and blatantly railed against education for the working and poor class, suggesting that any knowledge acquired by the masses would simply lead to dissatisfaction and rebellion.

Today, in most Western countries, we see varying degrees of resurgence in this ideology of know-nothingism. But nowhere is it more pronounced than in North America where openly fundamentalist politicians promote ignorance as a way of life. But our current government in Canada has taken this ideology to new, and unexpected, heights. As many commentators have begun to notice, this government is making every effort possible at closing down the knowledge based aspects of government. From killing the long-form census to firing ombudspersons whose job it is to monitor government with their expertise, this government has raised the bar on know-nothingism. For a generation now, neo-conservatism has been actively attempting to undermine knowledge in an effort to promote its agenda of near absolute and usually blind corporate power. From the Trilateral commission's condemnation of 'too much democracy' to the privatization of education, conservatives have attempted to shut down debate and knowledge based politics in order to maintain and ignorant and compliant population.

Conservatives in general, and Harper's Conservatives in particular, promote this agenda because they know that that cannot prevail in the face of an educated and informed population. They know that their cause would be profoundly weakened in the face of genuine and open discourse and thus the promotion of ignorance is their greatest weapon in the fight for dominance. Even their most hallowed argument of 'market efficiency' is largely a fabricated myth which is undermined time and again by actual discourse and investigation. Privatization of everything from transportation  to Third World social services has ended in disaster because the presence of middlemen that make huge profits consistently undermines rather than contributes to efficiency.

Conservatives everywhere are eager to keep people in the dark about almost everything because they know that knowledge will put an end to their efforts of control. And unfortunately a certain group of people lap this know-nothingism up because it eases their anxiety and feeds into a myth of simplicity and pastoralism. One needn't be a blind advocate of scienctism or technocracy to understand the benefits that knowledge, even specialized knowledge, can contribute to our social effort at constructing a better life. And in many cases it is actually simple knowledge that requires no specialization to understand which can contribute the most to these efforts. But this is a difficult struggle in an age in which our government can, for example, condemn an opposition leader for essentially being to smart.

Just the other day we witnessed a terrible example of know-nothingsm in action as the Manila police contributed to the deaths of eight people. Typical of a corrupt and brutal organization the Manila police lacked the expertise to handle the situation and were far too steeped in their own ignorance to understand what they lacked. After the fact, the police had to admit that they had "inadequate skills" to handle such a situation, but only a disaster brought them to this public conclusion. Luckily we averted a similar disaster when our government fired the nuclear watchdog, Linda Keen, for simply doing her job in attempting to avoid a literal meltdown.

Know-nothingism has threatened our civilization for centuries and our own government is keeping up the pressure. Will Canadians resist this ideology of ignorance? I am not sure.


Chet Scoville said...

I agree with most of this, except that I don't think it's accurate to say that the medieval world was ignorant because of the church. In reality, during the Middle Ages there just wasn't the technology or economy to educate the vast mass of people, even had there been the desire to do so. There hadn't been in the ancient world either, nor was there in the early modern period. Mass education didn't really start until the industrial revolution, when people suddenly needed to be educated to run the newly technological society around them.

All of that means that the particular form of know-nothingism you're describing here is a distinctly modern phenomenon; it's only very recently that ignorance could ever seem like a luxury, simply because for most of our history there was no other option.

kirbycairo said...

Well Chet there is a sort of chicken vs egg argument here. But keep in mind that I did not say that the Church was stopping mass education in the modern sense. I am talking about the way institutions (the church being one of the largest) have historically made great efforts to undermine any forms of knowledge that might in any way threaten their power. And the Church was particularly eager to prevent knowledge finding its way into the hands of the 'people' so to speak.

As for the wider issue of education and knowledge, I would remind you of these kinds of issues. Ancient knowledge was much more advanced than most people seem to understand - much of the knowledge came from ancient Greece - (this knowledge included much geographic, astronomical, and mathematical knowledge) which the Church of Rome went to great length to suppress. This effort continued during the Crusades in which much of the knowledge of the Arabic cultures was destroyed. The Church's efforts to suppress, destroy, and hide knowledge was an effort that went on for centuries and there is no way to know what kind of generalized advancement we may have seen if the knowledge of ancient Greece and the Arabic world had been allowed to flourish? Furthermore when I talk about an ideology of know-nothingism in the pre-modern world, I am referring to this kind of suppression and the way the Church used a pastoralism to justify its ideology of ignorance.