How Ignorant Are We?
|July 17, 2008||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
How Ignorant Are We?
The Voters Choose but on the Basis of What?
We trim this long 2008 excerpt from a new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter, posted on Middle East Online, July 2. The author recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and is an Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, New York Times bestselling author, and associate professor of history at George Mason University.
By Rick Shenkman
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson
Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this: “Homer Simpson, Yes — 1st Amendment ‘Doh,’ Survey Finds” (Associated Press 3/1/06).
“About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.
“The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.”
Five defining characteristics of stupidity, it seems to me, are readily apparent. First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country’s long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
As foreign visitors long ago observed, Americans are vastly inferior in their knowledge of world geography compared with Europeans. The old joke is that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Many students tell me that they are the most well-informed generation in history. Why are we so deluded? The error can be traced to our mistaking unprecedented access to information with the actual consumption of it. Our access is indeed phenomenal. George Washington had to wait two weeks to discover that he had been elected president of the United States. That’s how long it took for the news to travel from New York, where the Electoral College votes were counted, to reach him at home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Americans living in the interior regions had to wait even longer, some up to two months. Now we can watch developments as they occur halfway around the world in real time. But only a small percentage take advantage of the great new resources at hand.
Polls over the past three decades measuring Americans’ knowledge of history show dismal results. What happened in 1066? Just 10% know it is the date of the Norman Conquest. Who said the “world must be made safe for democracy”? Just 14% know it was Woodrow Wilson. Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49% know it was their own country.
Who was the worst president? For years Americans would include in the list Herbert Hoover. But no more. Most today do not know who Herbert Hoover was. In 2004, just 43% could correctly identify him. In 1985, only 81% could identify Martin Luther King, Jr.
If the problem were simply that Americans are bad at names, one would not have to worry too much. But they do not understand the mechanics of government either. Only 34% know that it is the Congress that declares war (which may explain why they are not alarmed when presidents take us into wars without explicit declarations of war from the legislature). Only 35% know that Congress can override a presidential veto. Some 49% think the president can suspend the Constitution. Some 60% believe that he can appoint judges to the federal courts without the approval of the Senate. Some 45% believe that revolutionary speech is punishable under the Constitution.
The optimists point to surveys indicating that about half the country can describe some differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. But if they do not know the difference between liberals and conservatives, as surveys indicate, how can they possibly say in any meaningful way how the parties differ?
In 2003, the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad investigated Americans’ knowledge of world affairs. The task force concluded: “America’s ignorance of the outside world” is so great as to constitute a threat to national security.
Only 14% of Americans could correctly answer three-fourths of the questions asked about foreign affairs, only 11% of the questions about domestic issues, only 10% of the questions about geography, and of the questions about economics and money is where the rubber meets the road, only 5%.
Just 20% of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 read a daily paper. And that isn’t saying much. There’s no way of knowing what part of the paper they’re reading. It is likelier to encompass the comics and a quick glance at the front page than dense stories about Somalia or the budget. The young are single-handedly responsible for the low newspaper readership rates.
They aren’t watching the cable news shows either. The average age of CNN’s audience is sixty. Nor are they are watching the network news shows, which attract mainly the Depends generation. Or surfing the web for news; only 11% regularly click on news web pages. Yes, many young people watch Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show; 54% of the viewers of The Daily Show score in the “high knowledge” news category — about the same as the viewers of the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News.
Compared with Americans generally — and this isn’t saying much, given their low level of interest in the news — young people are the least informed of any age cohort save possibly for those confined to nursing homes.
Most people who do not pick up the news habit in their twenties probably never will.
One news subject in recent history, 9/11, did attract the interest of the young. A poll by Pew at the end of 2001 found that 61% of adult Americans under age 30 said that they were following the story closely.
It would appear that young people today are doing very little reading of any kind. Just 43% of young people ages 18 to 24 read literature. In 1982, the number was 60%. This generation is less well read than any other since statistics began to be kept.
Voters aged 18 to 24 turn out in low numbers. In 2004, despite an intense get-out-the-vote effort ever focused on them, just 47% cast a ballot. Since young people on the whole scarcely follow politics, one may want to consider whether we even want them to vote.
Millions every year are now spent on the effort to answer the question: What do the voters want? The honest answer would be that often they themselves do not really know because they do not know enough to say.
Reading the text of laws is often unhelpful. The chairpersons in charge of drafting them often include provisions only a detective could untangle. The tax code is rife with clauses like this: The Congress hereby appropriates X dollars for the purchase of 500 widgets that measure 3 inches by 4 inches by 2 inches from any company incorporated on October 20, 1965 in Any City USA situated in block 10 of district 3.
Of course, only one company fits the description. Upon investigation it turns out to be owned by the chairperson’s biggest contributor. That is more than any citizens acting on their own could possibly divine. It is not essential that the voter know every which way in which the tax code is manipulated to benefit special interests. All that is required is that the voter know that rigging of the tax code in favor of certain interests is probably common.
There are however innumerable subjects about which a general knowledge is insufficient. How many know that the Social Security system is running a surplus? And that this surplus — some $150 billion a year — is actually quite substantial, even by Washington standards? And how many know that the system has been in surplus since 1983?
The putative surpluses of 1998 and 2001, which President Bush cited in defense of his tax cuts, were in reality pure fiction. Without Social Security the government would have been in debt those two years. And yet in 2001 President Bush told the country tax cuts were not only needed, they were affordable because of our splendid surplus.
Today, conservatives argue that the Social Security Trust Fund is a fiction. They are correct. The money was spent. They helped spend it. People are scared that the system is going bust, no doubt thanks in part to Bush’s gloom-and-doom prognostications.
How much ignorance can a country stand? There have to be terrible consequences when it reaches a certain level. But what level? And what consequences? If we persist on the path we are on, we shall, one day, perhaps not too far into the distant future, find out the answers.
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