The Trend Toward An Ignorant Single-Mindedness Threatens The Future Of Our Democracy Itself.

In her essay published yesterday in the Los Angles Times, Susan Jacoby writes that “Americans are increasingly close-minded and unwilling to listen to opposing views.” Jacoby is the author of the book, The Age of American Unreason. Based on this essay, reprinted in Truthout, I would like to read her entire book. Excerpts from her article:

  • As dumbness has been defined downward in American public life during the last two decades, one of the most important and frequently overlooked culprits is the public’s increasing reluctance to give a fair hearing — or any hearing at all — to opposing points of view…. Virtually everywhere I speak, 95% of the audience shares my political and cultural views — and serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit.
  • Whether watching television news, consulting political blogs or (more rarely) reading books, Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold. This absence of curiosity about other points of view is the essence of anti-intellectualism and represents a major departure from the nation’s best cultural traditions.
  • In the last quarter of the 19th century, Americans jammed lecture halls to hear Robert Green Ingersoll, known as “the Great Agnostic,” attack organized religion and question the existence of God. They did so not because they necessarily agreed with him but because they wanted to make up their own minds about what he had to say and see for themselves whether the devil really had horns. Similarly, when Thomas Henry Huxley, the British naturalist who popularized Darwin’s theory of evolution, came to the U.S. in 1876, he spoke to standing-room-only audiences, even though many of his listeners were genuinely shocked by his views.This spirit of inquiry, which demands firsthand evidence and does not trivialize opposing points of view, is essential to a society’s intellectual and political health….
  • When I recently spoke about the militant parochialism of American intellectual life on a radio talk show, a caller responded by telling me that there was nothing new about Americans preferring to bask in the reflected glow of their own opinions. Talk radio and political blogs, in his view, are merely the modern equivalent of friends — and haven’t we always chosen friends who agree with us?
  • Well, no. Tell it to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who certainly had many, often bitter disagreements about politics and whose correspondence nevertheless leaps off the page as an example of the illumination to be derived from exchanges of ideas between friends who respect each other even though they do not always share the same opinions. “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote Jefferson in 1815.
  • It is doubtful that today’s politicians will spend much time trying to explain themselves to one another even after they leave office. They are, after all, creatures of a culture in which it is acceptable, on the Senate floor, for Vice President Dick Cheney to tell Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to “go [obscene verb] yourself.” …
  • Ironically, the unprecedented array of choices, on hundreds of cable channels and the Web, have contributed to the decline of common knowledge and the denigration of fairness by both the right and the left. No one but a news junkie has the time or the inclination to spend the entire day consulting diverse news sources on the Web, and the temptation to seek out commentary that fits neatly into one’s worldview — whether that means the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report — is hard to resist.
  • A vast public laziness feeds the media’s predilection today to distill news through polemicists of one stripe or another and to condense complex information into meaningless sound bites. On April 8, for example, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, testified before the Senate in hearings that lasted into the early evening. Although the hearings were on cable during the day, the networks offered no special programming in the evening, and newscasts were content with sound bites of McCain, Obama and Hillary Clinton questioning the general. Dueling presidential candidates were the whole story.
  • Absent from most news reports was testimony concerning the administration’s ongoing efforts to forge agreements with various Iraqi factions without submitting the terms to Congress for ratification — a development with constitutional implications as potentially serious as the Watergate affair. No matter. Anyone who wanted to hear Petraeus bashed or applauded could turn to his or her preferred political cable show or click on a blog to find an unchallenging interpretation of the day’s events.
  • The tepid interest in the substance of Petraeus’ testimony on the part of the public and much of the media contrasts sharply with the response to the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. All 319 hours of the first round of the hearings were televised, and 85% of Americans tuned in to at least some of the proceedings live.  I remember those weeks as a period when everyday preoccupations faded into the background and we found time, as a people, to perform our civic duty. An ongoing war may lack the drama of Watergate, but it is doubtful that anything short of another terrorist attack on our soil would convince today’s public that it ought to read the transcript of a lengthy congressional hearing or pay attention, for more than five minutes, to live news as it unfolds.
  • It is past time for Americans to stop attributing the polarization of our public life to the media, the demon entity “Washington” or “the elites.” As long as we continue to avoid the hard work of scrutinizing public affairs without the filter of polemical shouting heads, we have no one to blame for the governing class and its policies but ourselves.
  • I yearn to live in a society that values fair-mindedness. But it will take nothing less than a revolutionary public recommitment to the pursuit of fairness, knowledge and memory to halt, much less reverse, the trend toward an ignorant single-mindedness that threatens the future of democracy itself.

From The Los Angeles Times, “Talking to Ourselves,” written by Susan Jacoby

This entry was posted in M Bock, Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Trend Toward An Ignorant Single-Mindedness Threatens The Future Of Our Democracy Itself.

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Many have commented on how political debate, and even the actions of the Congress, have been polarized, so that people can not recognize any validity to positions on the other side, in part because it seems that the way to win, take power and accomplish your agenda is to denigrate and degrade your opponents, blow them off, and then run over them. It seems from my conservativesthat conservatives in America have ridden to power in this way with their four big electoral triumphs, Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich and Bush II. Recognizing that conservatives will never be a numerical majority in the country, they seek ways to run things from a minority perspective, often from being tougher and harsher than the moderates and liberals they are dividing and conquering. (These political labels are of course vast oversimplifications, but may be useful here.)

    However conservatives often have extremely personal stories of having been disrespected by liberals, often on college campuses, and from their perspectives, they are just giving back what they have gotten and in the words of JFK, have gotten even as well as mad. Anything like this is of course a model of a cycle of violence, which whether physical or psychological, just generates more violence in the future.

    The fragmentation of the media into many little worlds, which overwhelm people enough that they never look outside of them, also points to the lack of an authority capable of structuring a debate to point out the strengths and weaknesses, both logical and emotional, facing different political positions. While I do not claim to understand the meaning of “postmodernism” it does seem to have something to do with the lack of authoritative “metanarratives” which apply equally to different viewpoints.

    We also face the emotional reality of the insecurity attending constant change of technology and culture. Uncertainty dominates, the future is unpredictable, and no one is safe from their knowledge, relationships, status, career and values being rendered obsolete or irrelevant. This is very much part of the discussion underlying the “bitter cling” remarks of candidate Obama, as well as the popularity of the religious movement broadly known as “fundamentalism” which provides a moral certainty rooted in the past that people can connect with, even if it also poses a real disconnect with scientific knowledge that people also believe in (about why there is oil and where, and about medical discoveries explained by DNA). In fact today you can feel pretty inadequate if you are not on top of the latest telecommunications gadgets, which have been around for a year or two or even less. This is an unprecedented amount of uncertainty and vulnerability with which we live daily without really noticing or appreciating its implications, even when some act of seemingly senseless violence occurs.

    In times of high uncertainty and anxiety, particularly when mixed with diversity and mistrust, it is pretty easy to feel comfortable with people like you and uncomfortable with others. It is also to find people like you and particularly those like you who are into denigrading people like “them.”

    Underlying all of this is the fact that we are all capable of good and evil, but tend to seek validation of our good side and to externalize the capacity for evil onto “them.” Since most of us who have privileges are at least partially standing on a pile that contains at least some evildoing, and we are aware that others might be more than willing to turn the tables on us, we can easily become quite defensive about things we don’t want to hear.

    The author Jacoby says “we have no one to blame for the governing class and its policies but ourselves.” In other words we get the kind of government we deserve. There is obviously something to this but there also some inherent problems. Like the people who made the subprime mortgage meltdown happen, the governing class has big advantages in time (who had time to listen to everything Gen. Patraeus had to say in his day long testimony), wealth and sophistication over the rest of us. The world is too complicated for many of us to understand much of it in the detail in which small pieces can be understood. We need a news media with some integrity, that serves a public function and is not just out there to add to the bottom line of some corporations, or to ensure that they continue to dominate our public institutions. Obviously we need to make more time for study of public affairs. We are all busy, but no doubt people were busy during the American revolutionary period too. At the same time we need a system that keeps the powerful in line, and which ensures that people will know the things they need to know, and consider what the uncertainties are. We also need communities in which people can disagree about significant subjects and live with the fact that power may be wielded more efficiently, for a while anyway, if the powerful are not bothered by restraints such as convincing others that their policies are good ideas. To the extent that we have ourselves to blame it is because we have not created these institutions, or fought to keep them, or stood up for those who have tried.

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, I agree that we need the four things you cite. You write,
    We need a news media with some integrity, that serves a public function …
    we need to make more time for study of public affairs...
    we need a system … which ensures that people will know the things they need to know
    We also need communities in which people can disagree about significant subjects.”

    Our opportunity is to organize an internet community that could bring your vision into reality — at least on a limited scale. I wrote this post about a 501C(3) that I have great hopes for: “Grassroots Dayton: Sowing the Seeds of Democracy”This non-profit, over time, I feel, has the potential to create an alternative news media for the Dayton area — one that could emphasize in-depth discussion and study and understanding of important topics. It has the potential of creating a quality of internet community that at present does not exist.

    I am amazed at myself at how little I actually know about our local and state government and about the issues that are impacting us locally and state-wide. I’ll confess that I don’t have a clue as to what occupies the time of the county commissioners, or the city councils — even the one that meets only several blocks from my home in Kettering. I am really ignorant of what is happening in Columbus — at least to the depth required in order to have the type of nuanced understanding that a perceptive citizen should have. You quote Jacoby as saying, “we have no one to blame for the governing class and its policies but ourselves.” I agree, but I also think that this is a harsh judgment. My ignorance of state and local issues in a sense is my own fault, even though I do spend time reading newspapers and watching TV news — and it is my ignorance, multiplied many fold throughout the citizenry, that allows the governing class to have a free hand — but the governing class does not make it easy for me or anyone else to really apprehend the truth.

    On practically every issue, there is an amazing cloud of misinformation and wrong analysis that someone in power advances — proving over and over the adage that, “where I stand is a function of where I sit.” What is amazing is how, in a supposed democracy, the minority has managed to form the debate, to control the conversation and to advance its members to elected office. We need to keep repeating this question: Why is our democracy not working as it should? It is the key question.

    Any organization, if it is to be successful, must attract leaders, strong individuals into its group. Grassroots Dayton has a great potential but if it is to fulfill its potential, a lot of strong individuals will need to work together to bring its potential to reality. I think that the idea of making democracy work could be a sustaining motivation for such individuals, particularly if such individuals were part of an authentic community where that idea was a guiding value.

    DaytonOS, and other web-sites like it, does a great job of bringing people together for discussion and sharing of views, in a sense, creating community and educating each other. Grassroots Dayton hopes to create an internet organization of individuals who will become a community in an even more in-depth way, and who will work together to help educate each other and by so doing help educate the larger community as well.

  3. Stan Hirtle says:

    Several thoughts on this.

    I am somewhat wary of “internet communities” at least as anything other than organs for discussion and debate. As far as exercising power over the internet, other than as a fundraising vehicle, I am less convinced. We often use the expression “taking it to the streets” but even that has a mixed record. In Myungmar, Zimbabwe and Kenya in recent months, no firm good results have been accomplished. To say nothing of the US. On the other hand, the fall of the Soviet block was accomplished by pretty much nonviolent means in the streets. As the power of the government to do surveillance and targeted violence increases (what is being done in Iarq can just as easily be done here) it’s vulnerability to angry citizens is likely to diminish.

    Whatever citizens can do to get rid of governments that displease them, it seems unlikely that the internet alone is going to accomplish it. What we have seen to some extent in the US is the invention of a political position on some blogsite, but what makes it meaningful is when it is adopted by the more significant media, as when the blogs invented the “Swift Boat” campaign against Kerry, which was then picked up on. Something similar happened with tapes of Rev. Wright. The internet may make it easier to spread information among those habituated to receive it, although the internet is more efficiently being policed, particularly by cops for intellectual property rights. However the mainstream really defines the debate still, whether by expanding or contracting coverage of the war or by focusing the debate on Rev. Wright, flag lapels and the like (all issues that were being circulated on the web by various partisans before being picked up in the ABC Disney debates.

    But supposing people want to take on someone powerful. Can they succeed? At this point it is not clear that they can.

    Another question is “how should democracy work?” What is it, and what do we want out of it? There are many specific details than can fit within the general term “democracy” and perhaps it is more a direction than an exact system. What is the best democracy can do to enhance life for people? What are the people prepared to tolerate, particularly if it seems that it is easier to accomodate than fight? How much time and energy are people prepared to put into it? And to what extent will they accept defeat?

  4. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you write, I am somewhat wary of “internet communities” at least as anything other than organs for discussion and debate.

    A lot of serious organizations are hierarchical and bureaucratic and have no interest in operating as a community, have no interest in using the power of democracy to help them achieve their goals. These type of serious organizations might find ways to operate more effectively by using the internet, but they would have no interest in creating an internet community, because the concept of community is opposite of their organization’s culture.

    The challenge for Grassroots Dayton is to become an effective and authentic community, that will be inviting to individuals who share its purpose. Its purpose is shown in its motto, “sowing the seeds of democracy.” In my article, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy, I list five ways that Grassroots Dayton might proceed and the 5th way is: “Define itself as a democratic community and act as a democratic community.” Unlike other organizations, the idea of community is integral to how Grassroots Dayton seeks to organize itself, so, the idea of using the internet to facilitate community logically follows.

    We are all “wary” — until we have more information. To become an “internet community,” the primary challenge for Grassroots Dayton is in defining itself so that potential participants will have good reasons to support it. Grassroots Dayton needs to answer the question: What does an inviting democratic community look like? The challenge for Grassroots Dayton is not in finding ways to use the internet, the challenge is in defining itself in such a way that a core of individuals will commit to its goals and vision. I am working on my next article.

    In my reply above I say, “We need to keep repeating this question: Why is our democracy not working as it should?”
    You ask the follow up question, “How should democracy work?”

    A democracy that was working as it should would elect governments that took actions and made decisions in the best interest of its citizens. The evidence that our democracy is not working as it should is astounding.

  5. Original Eric says:

    How should democracy work?

    Citizens solve problems at the lowest level possible
    Public deliberation actually works (cf Kettering Foundation)
    Interest groups acknowledge pluralism and seek consensus rather than polarization
    Community blog wannabes stifle the impluse to feature partisan videos

  6. Greg Hunter says:

    I’ll confess that I don’t have a clue as to what occupies the time of the county commissioners, or the city councils

    Not a damn thing of any value, the leadership in Kettering is just swapping favors, while professing to move the City forward. Drive down Stroop road and when you get past Moraine Country Club a boulevard will rise up out of the street. Look at it closely and ask your self why the City spent money to install an automatic watering systems in that boulevard? Favors? Or will it be “that is a gateway to Kettering and we are installing gardens reminiscent of the ancient gardens of Babylon” or some such BS.

    I think America at all levels are “arranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and we will pay the price of hubris together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *