Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ben Carson, the GOP, and "The Rise of Anti-Knowledge"

You might remember Mike Lofgren from his writings about Congress (e.g., his book The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. ) Now at billmoyers.com he exposes the active bias against knowledge, "the rise of anti-knowledge."

Following are snippets to give you a quick look at Lofgren's central points. But do take a few moments and read the whole article - it is a really good look at how the far right gets comfortable with knowing what isn't so.

In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.

Some common-sense philosophers have observed this point over the years. "Genuine ignorance is . . . profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas," observed psychologist John Dewey.

Or, as humorist Josh Billings put it, "The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so."

I'll focus on Ben Carson as an example.

This brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades. Obamacare is worse than chattel slavery. Women who have abortions are like slave owners. If Jews had firearms they could have stopped the Holocaust (author’s note: they obtained at least some weapons during the Warsaw Ghetto rising, and no, it didn’t). Victims of a mass shooting in Oregon enabled their own deaths by their behavior. And so on, ad nauseam.

It is highly revealing that, according to a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus attendees, the stolid Iowa burghers liked Carson all the more for such moronic utterances. And sure enough, the New York Times tells us that Carson has pulled ahead of Donald Trump in a national poll of Republican voters. Apparently, Trump was just not crazy enough for their tastes.

We need the surgeon’s skills on pain of agonizing death, and reward him commensurately, but that does not make him a Voltaire. Still, it makes one wonder: if Carson the surgeon believes evolution is a hoax, where does he think the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that plague hospitals come from?

[Another writer] expresses astonishment that Carson’s jaw-dropping comments make him more popular among Republican voters, but he concludes without fully answering the question he posed. It is an important question: what has happened to the American people, or at least a significant portion of them?

The short answer is in three parts. First, anti-intellectualism has always lurked in America. Second, religious "fundamentalism has merged its personnel, its policies, its tactics and its fate with a major American political party, the Republicans". Third, there is a conservative media infrastructure that supports and encourages belief in what isn't so.

Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-"educational" complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact. This effect is fortified by the substantial overlap between conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians.

When these culture warriors get control of government the threat to Democracy becomes starkly revealed.

This brings us back to Ben Carson. He now suggests that, rather than abolishing the Department of Education, a perennial Republican goal, the department should be used to investigate professors who say something he doesn’t agree with. The mechanism to bring these heretics to the government’s attention should be denunciations from students, a technique once in vogue in the old Soviet Union.

Lofgren concludes with a mixed message of optimism tempered by a word of warning.

In all probability, Carson will flame out like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and all the other former panjandrums of a theological movement conservatism that revels in anti-knowledge. But he will have left his mark, as they did, on a Republican Party that inexorably moves further to the right, and the eventual nominee will have to tailor his campaign to a base that gets ever more intransigent as each new messiah of the month promises to lead them into a New Jerusalem unmoored to a stubborn and profane thing called facts.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, was published in paperback in 2013. His new book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, will be published in January 2016.

h/t Jana Eaton

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