Sunday, March 25, 2012

The U.S. Is Trapped in an "Age of Ignorance

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.
I probably shouldn't take it for granted that everyone on this site is familiar with the The New York Review of Books. If I polled my close friends I suspect that most of them wouldn't recognize the publication, either by sight or by its title. Many would confuse it with the New York Times Book Review, or possibly even the New Yorker. It's somewhat expensive and has a fairly limited circulation. You won't see it at kiosks or even most newsstands.
It's also big, as in "long" and "wide."  In an era where the New York Times is being downsized to the size of an Ipad, the NYRB is something of an anomaly. If you carry it around, you need to fold it.
It's paper--no glossy photos here, although they have added color in recent years. No ads to speak of, beyond ads for books.
People who didn't historically gravitate towards books as they were growing up would be less inclined to encounter the NYRB, if only because it's title suggests it is a publication limited to, well, the review of books.  It is quite a bit more than that.  I discovered NYRB upon being introduced to the essays of Joan Didion at a young age. I found out the books I'd read by her were in part reprints of articles she'd written in the NYRB.  I bought a subscription and have subscribed ever since.
 I guess I'd agree with the following description from Wikipedia:
The New York Review of Books (or NYREV or NYRB) is a fortnightly magazine with articles on literature, culture and current affairs. Published in New York City, it takes as its point of departure that the discussion of important books is itself an indispensable literary activity. Esquire called it "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language."[2] In 1970 Tom Wolfe described it as "the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic".[3]
I like Tom Wolfe's quote, but the critical language there is "point of departure." Even in the context of book reviews, the essays contained in the NYRB generally expound and expand on a given topic. They're seldom limited to strictly reviewing the book at hand. And more often than not the essays have remarkably little to do directly with the books actually under "review."
The political slant of the magazine is leftward, but not obtrusively leftward.  Its writers usually make the case for the left by virtue of the force of their argument, which differentiates it from a publication like The Nation, which is unabashedly left-oriented.  During the first few years of the Bush Administration, and in particular after September 11, 2001, the magazine was a rare voice of reason in the face of an opportunistic Administration that deliberately  fanned the flames of jingoism and nationalism for its own ends.  As the magazine's Editor, Robert Silvers, puts it:
"The pieces we have published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American destructiveness, American relations with its allies, American protections of its traditions of liberties.... The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the [Bush] Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the effect of muffling dissent.
Wikipedia contains some good quotes which sum up the nature of the NYRB pretty well:
The Washington Post calls the Review "a journal of ideas that has helped define intellectual discourse in the English-speaking world for the past four decades.... By publishing long, thoughtful articles on politics, books and culture, [the editors] defied trends toward glibness, superficiality and the cult of celebrity".[2] In a 2006 New York magazine feature, James Atlas stated: "It's an eclectic but impressive mix [of articles] that has made The New York Review of Books the premier journal of the American intellectual elite".[30] The Atlantic commented in 2011 that the Review is written with "a freshness of perspective", and "much of it shapes our most sophisticated public discourse."
*   *   *
In 2012, The New York Times described the Review as "elegant, well mannered, immensely learned, a little formal at times, obsessive about clarity and factual correctness and passionately interested in human rights and the way governments violate them."
Well-reasoned, thoughtful, expository prose and argument has become a rare commodity in our public discourse.  I suspect one of the reasons for the NYRB's longevity and resilience it is that it's not only respected by those on the left, but it's also respected--and possibly feared to some degree--by those on the right.
Which is why when the magazine publishes something that for all intents and purposes is pure polemic, it's a rather notable event.
Charles Simic  (the author of the quote at the outset of this Diary) is professor emeritus of American literature at the University of New Hampshire. He was co-poetry Editor for the Paris Review. He is also the Poet Laureate consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, appointed in 2007.  As such, one might expect his expositions on American culture to reflect a nuanced, delicate sensibility.
His take in the online edition of NYRB--blogs, however, is anything but delicate:
It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today.Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught.
Simic witheringly points his finger at what one can safely interpret to be what we call the "right wing noise machine."
If this lack of knowledge is the result of the years of dumbing down of high school curriculum and of families that don’t talk to their children about the past, there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past.  
He cites as Exhibit "A" in this unfortunate trend the eager willingness of the American public to accept the blatant lies of the Bush Administration in egging us on to war in Iraq:
It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past—many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.
Simic's rant--for it can honestly be called that--attributes the dumbing down of our country into an "Age of Ignorance" to a compliant press that has sacrificed journalistic integrity upon an altar of false equivalence.
In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe.
After listing a litany of right-wing inspired myths (Global warming a hoax, Obama is a Socialist, the Government is 'coming for your guns,") that have seeped into our "accepted" national discourse, Simic concludes:
“Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt. What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.
Sentiments like these receiving the seal of approval from the NYRB are rather unusual.  I know we tend to see them every day on this site, to the point where they're almost a cliche.  But it's telling--and not a little depressing--to see them validated yet again.
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