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Ignorance and American Politics

One maxim I live by: in seeking the comfort of certainty, I will never relinquish the strife of doubt, for even the most basic truths require arduous and renewed efforts to be known and acted upon as such.

Now, if I were ever to seriously enter politics as a candidate, speechwriter, or even, say, as the once and future Executive Propagandist of the American Realm, it would behoove me to drop this maxim pronto, full-stop.

Certainty and doubt are, of course, still of use to the politico, but they are not tools for gleaning truth or ignorance.

No, in politics, one is always certain of one’s truths and victories while being forever ignorant of one’s falsehoods and failures. The politician is happy to remember the parades in his honor, but it darkens his doorstep to remind him of the times when he blindly marched those same people to folly.

Knowledge is slippery and selective to the political mind.

At the bottom of politics, there is a smarmy certainty, a sort of bad faith underlying the whole hubbub, which rejects any notion of natural human ignorance or honest questioning. It’s a sort of faith in power for power’s sake; a willingness to create a vision in one’s mind and force it upon the rest of the world with audacious violence. The cornerstone of Statecraft is drenched in sure-fire sacrifices of the contemplative life.

What opportunities have we, the human race, lost to this belligerent drive for conquest?

Why don’t we try a little ignorance?

Socrates is credited with saying, “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” I take this to mean our knowledge always appears against the horizon of our natural, eternal ignorance.

It is a sublime horizon, a place of not quite nothing that longs for something more. Ignorance is the birthplace of the human will to know. Ignorance is not bliss; it is more a golden age that must reign supreme as the truth wins little victories in starts and stops.

Accordingly, a willingness to admit and then plumb the depths of one’s ignorance is the first sign of a true lover of knowledge. Ignorance is a beautiful thing, an intractable thing, and it seems to be the only thing we can say with certainty about human nature, i.e. we hardly know anything at all about our underlying nature.

It keeps defying us in bumfuzzling ways.

The only unforgivable form of ignorance is to claim full or enough knowledge. Those who treat their given understanding of nature as an iron rule should be prepared for nature to show them just how pliable, in fact, iron is. Given the right amount of heat and pressure, nature will surely produce a light bright enough to reveal our ignorance time and time again all the while melting our pretense of knowledge into new mysteries.

He who does not understand his own ignorance in this way cannot begin to understand himself or his world in full. He who understands his ignorance but does not admit it is even worse. He is a purveyor of fictions masquerading as facts, a fact-mongerer in the worst sense and is most likely a preacher, politico, pundit or lawyer of some type.

On the contrary, to be rightfully called and shown ignorant is, to the thinking man, a day of rising, an opportunity for further learning and growth. Damn any notions of embarrassment, shame, or society. The contemplative life does not care for glory or social standing in others’ eyes. The contemplative life, much like art, is not a democracy.

Thus, in the realm of modern American democracy, it is little surprise the word “ignorant” – when spat with utmost sincerity and precision in the general direction of most Americans – is treated as the highest of high insults. To honestly point out someone’s ignorance is treated as a taboo in the land of the free rather than a welcomed, much-needed service.

I have found this taboo especially potent on my native soil, the South. To call someone ignorant in the South is akin to spitting in his face. I venture this comes from more than a century of being portrayed as the backwards part of the country, as the villain in the official American story books. For example, the always acerbic H.L. Mencken called the South “the hookworm and incest” belt of the nation. Strong stuff, indeed. And possibly true. That is why it stung so much then and continues on stinging like a WASP today.

However, if we look to the so-called North, ignorance does no better in escaping a taboo status. It is after all the Yank who throws these slurs at the Southerner. The progressives of America are just as much caught in the trappings of class distinction and the pretensions of academia. They approach ignorance with a superiority (as opposed to an inferiority) complex. These Puritans are always looking to “save” their lessers from the fallen world and are quick to nit-pick the habits of the so-called lower classes.

No matter what dichotomy one sets up – North or South, Republican or Democrat, man or woman, straight or gay, black or white, rich or poor – natural ignorance is used and abused everywhere one looks on the American political scene. Ignorance is not seen as the Promethean ally to the contemplative life but as its mortal enemy and always makes its appearance as “the speck in your brother’s eye” and never as “the plank in your own.” Ignorance is not considered an egalitarian feature of the human race, but as a sign of one’s lowly status in the class system of a country where “all men are created equal,” or even as a symptom of political weakness to partisan herds and their special interests.

It is not so much that the American people lack ignorance. There is much they do not know. The problem is, in knowing so little, they consider their crumbs of knowledge to be a belly full enough to satisfy the whole world, or at least, their political opposition. Rather than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – values meant for a contemplative people – the everyday American values are identity, status, and the pursuit of privilege. When knowledge and ignorance become tools for power, all we have left are the shallow relations between our given stations in society.

Therefore, I am thoroughly convinced the American public – a sampling of which includes (and please for forgive me for possibly repeating myself here): politicians of all partisan stripes who promise, pamper, and placate their loyal herds of small “d” democrats; media pundits who prattle, coo, and boom into microphones for their various cults of personality; agent provocateurs who rake through and recruit from rabbles ripe for rousing; charlatans who sermonize, exorcise, and even jazzercise for their credulous congregations as well as dire doomsayers who prophesize only to terrorize their already fear-filled folk followings of human Eeyores; and of course, I have yet to mention all the swindlers of the suckers or all the hoodwinkers of the dour dupes, but our time is running short for all this listing, so let us in our final moments of beating this horse to death not forget the one type of person that allows all these other political types to flourish: the self-deceiving individual suffering from mental myopia. I am thoroughly convinced this grand collective of imbecility is wholly uninterested in discussing any social event or political phenomenon with respect for Socratic ignorance.

The political public loves to fight with itself, to look at events in a frantic frenzy, and upon coming to swift conclusions based upon already existing biases, separate into factions each of whom claim they are the keepers of the real truth, tellers of the real story, while all the other factions are just a bunch of dunderheaded liars.

It can be clearly said the American people agree on this: Americans want what they want and they want it how they want it. To suggest they may not know what they want is heresy.

This is how the public can claim to love the truth and want the facts without ever coming to the truth or finding out the facts. One faction serves as the foil to the other faction’s fact finding mission, which creates a sort of perpetual indignation machine set in motion in the name of truth with no hope of actually ever finding it.

And even when the facts should be clear to all factions, you can be sure some politician, media pundit, or political activist is quickly looking for a way to obscure the facts for the sake of preserving the faction’s orthodoxy, whether the faction be distinguished by country, state, party, religion, race, gender, ideology, etc.

All this being said, stop demanding the facts. Instead, ask: why can’t we try a little ignorance?

Stop hoping politicians will see the err of their lying ways. Politics is the realm beyond good and evil. It is the realm of the will unguided by such pedestrian notions as right or wrong, imperfect knowledge, and natural ignorance. Such discussion is already decided before politics gets going. Good and evil are merely tools for the politician. All that is left in the realm of politics is power and all the potential ways it can be used.

And if you’re ever feeling down remember: there are imbeciles always and everywhere. Nitwits are pervasive among us no matter the school of thought. They have been with us time immemorial. Get used to it. Scream it at the top of your lungs: I’m surrounded by nincompoops! The nincompoopery: these people are our neighbors, our family members, and our friends.

And you never know: an ignoramus may stare back at you in the mirror this very morning, for we have met the boob and he is us.

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