Know Nothing America

23 Feb

None of us know much of anything.

Matt Ridley at Oxford finds this to be fascinating, a strength of our culture and humanity:


That TED talk (besides being another excellent example of why the standard of living of our mean is more important than the Gap between rich and poor) is inherently optimistic about the course of human events, the foundational democratic spread of knowledge, and the benefits that arise from it. A million years ago, one man could know how to make a stone axe, and he was the one that made it. Today, no one knows how to build a computer mouse, to use Ridley’s example, and yet they exist. This is the fundamental embodiment of our progress.

But there is a down side to our disconnect, our ignorance not only of various means of production, but our general misunderstanding of the larger world. Humility and curiosity have not spread as quickly as access to information in 2011. In an age of unprecedented databasing of knowledge of all varieties, we are more uninformed (per capita) than ever. Simultaneously, the ubiquity of information broadcast methods has given mighty bullhorns to anyone who wants one (your humble author being a case in point). The result is much shouting, much misinformation, and very little listening. No one knows how to make a mouse, and they don’t know much of what they’re talking about either.

In short, we are really screwing up a good chance to get some things right. More knowledge is available to more people than ever before, but instead of boasting the most informed electorate ever, we’re squandering it.

This is a dysfunction not endemic to Left or Right. Pensioners demand the government remove itself from Medicare. Conspiratorial buffoons have millions, not thousands, of adherents. Most young Americans get their news from one of a number of comedy outlets. We have “serious” debates about whether we should teach children to believe in science or religion, as if one must choose, and further, whether science is a matter of belief. We have the second coming of the Know Nothing Party, wrapped in the flag and a couple cherry-picked Thomas Jefferson quotes, battling faux intellectuals who confuse condescension and comprehension. Locally, our Coalition of Economic Justice ignores basic economic tenents of supply and demand, economic rationality, and individual choice, instead seeking desired results via fiat. Who can blame them – policy decisions are based on feelings, influence, and the volume (speech, not size) of constituencies, and rarely data.

None of this is new, only amplified, enhanced, sped up, and engorged. One need not go back as far stone axes to see a different world. Four hundred years ago, of course, in a long life someone could absorb a majority of the world’s accumulated learning, as mathematics and science and philosophy were all seen as extensions of each other. Only one hundred years ago, during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the average sailor with Amundsen or Scott knew how to sail and repair a masted sailboat, navigate and use charts, fix boilers and hunt penguins, mountaineer, run dogs and use skis, and conduct geology and meteorology experiments. When Shackleton was stuck in the ice for a year, the crew amused themselves by playing football and reading the encyclopedia. Cover to cover.

Now our brains are full of other knowledge: how to send a text message, operate kitchen appliances and decipher Microsoft products, drive a car (but not fix it) and saute mixed vegetables (but not grow them). Would you knowingly trade Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Feynman for the number of children Brangelina have adopted and a plethora of sarcastic hashtags? If the human brain is no more capable of retaining knowledge (and maybe rewired via iPhone and Google to be dumber), it is filled with less and less fundamental Truth and more and more Gawker. A deep, clear lake of information is available, but we content ourselves with the knee deep bog. 

That there have always been more breeders than readers is not new. That the breeders have the intent and ability to change the course of events, due to the surety of their own mistaken beliefs and delusions of grandeur, may be.

21 Responses to “Know Nothing America”

  1. Leo Wilson February 23, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    Brian – I’m sorry, this looks like just so much cynical, elitist drivel. The guy who dropped out of school in the 8th grade, started a welding business that paid for his childrens’ education and his own vision of the American Dream and still fixes isn’t uninformed. He’s just found his information from other channels, including personal experience.

    The Amish farmer who was educated to the level of 4th grade and has spent his life building haystacks by hand and raising veal isn’t to be discounted, he’s to be honored as a man of peace and productivity that feeds his family, his community and his neighbors. His opinion counts, and is worthy of being counted.

    That one man has a gift for academics (including science) and another a gift for mechanics doesn’t devalue either. There’s no need to discount any citizen as worthless, since all contribute something to our society and deserve both a voice and the courtesy of an audience.

    The need to revile or discount others’ worth is telling. It speaks of an inferiority complex that bolsters itself by belittling others. It’s lame. We are NOT know-nothings, we are an interdependent society that allows each to excel within her own gifts and disciplines with the trust that others will do the same and allow us to capitalize on their results.

  2. Chris Sasiadek February 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    “It was self-sufficiency; we call that poverty now-a-days…”

  3. M3Rcuryj3Spinderellasnightmare February 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    How jeffersonian… I find the irony viscous, when looking at the wnymedia homepage line up.

    A tribute to wellstone..a stones throw.

    Ignorance is bliss.

    Just ask daschele, leahey..

    Pat Tillmans favorite author

    great stuff, tho..

  4. Mike In WNY February 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Anarchy breeds spontaneous order and progress.

  5. Brian Castner February 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    @ Leo – You and I are often like minded, except when it comes to the Tea Party, so I think we are closer on this than you think. I will accept blame as the writer – let me explain.

    I am probably cynical, but not elitist at all, except in so far as I think we have become a nation of opinionated ignorants when we have never had more capacity to be the opposite. I do not discount the self-educated welder or the Amish farmer. In fact, I bemoan that no one knows how to fix their own car or grow their own food anymore, and I hold up sailors and explorers as heros, who could do and study. Instead, I despise the fact that 1) the average American has filled his free time on TMZ rather than learning to weld, and 2) that welder is now trying to rewrite healthcare legislation and considers himself a constitutional scholar because he read a couple email forwards from his buds. There are certainly philospher-farmers out there – someone listens to Praire Home Companion and actually lives on the prairie – but in my opinion, there are too few, or at least fewer than you believe. I am not immune to this criticism – I try to write about what I know, but there are times that I argue about urban planning, the law, economics, etc on the far edge of my understanding. It doesn’t stop me from writing, though, does it? Nor many others.

    @ Mike – I don’t know if you are being sarcastic, or even how that applies, but I’d love you to explain.

  6. Mike In WNY February 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    As people have increasingly looked toward government for job creation, innovation and general care, we, as a nation, have become less innovative and more ignorant of the means of production and the world in general. A limited government would release people to realize their potential. The “unseen hand” would coordinate individuals’ efforts and result in a more advanced society.

  7. Leo Wilson February 23, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    @Brian – I also venture my uninformed opinion, and sometimes false memories.

    We have been electing elites who supposedly know better than us for decades, and they have led us to where we are. Disasterous trade policy, foreign policy that polarizes our citizens and brings them to confrontation in the streets at the same time it alienates our allies, tax policy that drives employers overseas or out of state, swindling native Americans with taxes they have been guaranteed for centuries not to have to pay, a prison population that dwarfs some island countries, lacking accountability, an unnecessary dependence on foreign energy sources, scandously high levels of “costs” to manage programs that represent our good will and generosity – and you think the welder doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Are you serious?

    The educated elites in our government have institutionalized corruption to levels that compare to pre-Mousilini Italy, and you’re concerned that an honest, hard working farmer is unqualified?

    It’s the qualified that got us into this mess.

  8. Brian Castner February 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    @ Leo – I guess I disagree with you that the history of our country is a series of qualified technocrats implementing their learned policies wholesale, and then seeing those well-thought out policies fail into the mess we’re in now. Instead, I see 60 years of short sighted politics, corruption, bipartisanship (everyone gets half of what they want, with no overall plan), etc that has landed us in this mess. The welder or farmer is no more qualified to make good healthcare policy than most of our politicians. We have experts who are qualified – they have never been given a chance. The difference in 2011 is you or I could reasonably become one of those experts, and we have more opportunity to learn more than ever before, but overall, we blow off that opportunity and pay attention to Lindsey Lohan’s crotch instead.

    I am most concerned by the bad policies of the power brokers, and I spend most of my time writing about that. But I recongize that we have a less and less educated (capable? trained? pick a word) citizenry, and that’s making matters worse.

  9. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    @Brian – One of my friends is a qualified expert in Health Care systems, and has been working recently with South Africa to get something started there. She was part of Hillary Clinton’s team of experts in recommending a plan in 1994. When the people understood two things: that every estimate by government is at best half of what actual costs will be, and that Hillary suggested that it would take 17% of our Gross domestic revenue pre annum at a time when GDR was just shy of twelve trillion dollars, (that’s about 2 trillions per annum, x2 because the estimates always lie), the people rejected it.

    It wasn’t rejected because it wasn’t worth it, it was rejected because nobody in their right mind would trust the government with that much power, since the elites in the “ruling class” have no accountability and expect us to invest TRUST in them after decades of hard, irrefutable evidence that they betray that trust almost without exception.

    Before any health care system will be implemented in this country, we are going to have to revisit the basis for out country: limitations on the discretion of politicians to act against or outside of the will of the electorate.

    That isn’t about power brokers, it’s about the legitimate, well-informed concerns of that welder and that farmer.

    Trust is something you do with your children in order to develop and test their character, with the full knowledge that being betrayed is a possibility. Only fools rely on trust in business or politics when there is a capable legal system that may eliminate any need for it.

  10. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Today, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act imposes an 80% medical loss mandate on private insurers. How does that compare to what the UMMC is doing? Can the govenment live up to its own measure of what “fair” is? Is it WORTHY of being trusted to administer health care in light of this?

    And, we approved Medicare and Medicaid because we are a generous nation that looks out for the impoverished… is the government acting as responsible stewards of out generosity, or should they be viewed with the same horor and disgust as the Red Cross inspired when it said it would use donations collected for 9/11 victims for other things?

    • Alan Bedenko February 24, 2011 at 9:48 am #

      I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me what value is added by medical insurance as an industry.

  11. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    If you agree with my points, Brian, welcome to the TEA movement. That reasonable distrust, based upon the experience that inspires it, is what the movement is all about.

  12. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    @Alan – insurance, safety net, same thing. What’s your point?

    • Alan Bedenko February 24, 2011 at 10:03 am #

      Safety net? Sounds like something the states ought to do.

  13. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Now I’m feeling a bit of remorse for one of the words I used. Feel free to call what I’ve been saying, “drivel”. I’ll understand.

  14. Brian Castner February 24, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    @ Alan – no one can give you a good reason for medical insurance to exist, because there is none. It is a parasite that produces no discernable good, and increases costs of the entire system by adding an additional layer of profit.

  15. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Interestingly, what caused the need for health insurance was the injection of government money into the health care system. From 1944-1964, medical costs increased at a rate between 2-4% per year. As soon as medicare started putting federal money into the system, the rate of increase doubled, has never been less and has usually been more than 8% per year. Government intervention created this beast.

  16. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    The same would happen if the governemnt started injecting money into any sector of the private economy, precisely because they have no accountability. Before 1964, the doctor came to my house, prescribed meds that cost less than $10, and charged my Mother $35.00 for the visit.

    • Alan Bedenko February 24, 2011 at 11:01 am #

      Before 1964, penicillin and the Salk vaccine were novelties & cancer was a guaranteed death sentence.

      Chances are that more money in the system led to more innovation in the system, and better care & treatment of disease. It would seem to me that adequate medical care and access to quality treatment and care is something that every American deserves, regardless of economic class.

      It’s well past time for Americans to just make Medicare available to anyone who wants it. If people want the right to pay a private company to pay for their medical expenses, so be it. But having a single payer option that works well for seniors available to anyone who opts in and contributes to it ought to be available.

  17. Leo Wilson February 24, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    @Alan, I agree with all of that. The problem isn’t the necessity, the quality of care or the will of the people, it’s the total lack of accountability in the government that insists on running the show. Nobody wants to give them that much money without curtailing their ability to abuse it and spend it on other things the way they did with SSI.

    My hesitation (OK, dug in heels and stubborness) is all about competant, honest management, and my call is to restrict those who would administer it, very closely, so no need for trust is left.

  18. Mike In WNY February 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Alan, your use of cancer treatments and the polio vaccine is a perfect example of the “broken window theory“.

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