Peak Ignorance

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on February 8, 2015

Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.


“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds…

‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’

‘Have they no refuge or resource,’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons.’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?'”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

In these pages, we often discuss various apparitions of doom, or what looks like doom. Many vectors are economic, a function of too much debt and concatenating fraud that must inevitably collapse like a house of cards. Some argue with justification that the latest shuttered storefront does not an economic collapse make, and that such trends are cyclical, seen throughout history. Fair enough. In point of fact, we probably won’t know that collapse is upon us until too late.
Yet a harbinger of collapse is upon us right now, and its manifestations emerge with each day’s headlines: peak ignorance. With every statement from an elected official rejecting scientific evidence, with each embrace of superstition, with banning of books and curricula, we see a retreat from logic and reason heralding a new dark age, a rejection of habits of mind established since the Enlightenment. “Peak Ignorance” is a mine that will yield rich veins worth exploring not just today, but in future screeds as well. But for now, let’s go to the videotape.
What issue could possibly unite names as disparate as Michelle Bachmann, Chris Christie and Rand Paul with Jenny McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Charlie Sheen? It’s the anti-vaccine movement, of course. One of the most ancient and taken-for-granted tenets of membership in a civil society is the obligation to prevent the spread of disease among one’s village or tribe– a factor of civilized life for centuries.
Quarantine is what communities did before vaccines. Wikipedia tells us the word comes from the Italian (seventeenth-century Venetian) quaranta, meaning forty, which is the number of days ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic. Quarantine is as ancient as the Old Testament, in which infected people were separated to prevent spread of disease. Many of the dietary restrictions in Leviticus can be seen as means to prevent transmission of pathogens. Closer to modern times, the advent of sewerage and public sanitation has saved uncounted lives lost in past eras to uncontrollable outbreaks of disease. One’s duty to prevent spread of disease to our neighbors has been so taken for granted it’s been uncontroversial. Until now, when we find ourselves amidst an entirely preventable measles outbreak. Chris Christie famously stepped in it this week with his statement about “balancing” the rights of parents to supervise their children’s vaccinations with the public health. He took a great deal of public criticism and in fact tried to walk it back. Christie, and Rand Paul with his latest statements found themselves making common cause with a fringe movement that unites far left and far right in the belief that inoculation is either a government conspiracy or poison.
This discussion comes in the wake of a much-publicized measles outbreak with its epicenter in southern California. The New York Times published this map of measles outbreaks, current as of Feb. 6:
A majority of the cases this year have been tied to an outbreak at Disneyland, which began in December. At least 40 people who visited or worked at the theme park contracted measles, and the disease has now spread to at least six other states. The map shows the counties where cases have been reported.
Measles was declared eradicated in the US in 2000. One would have thought by now the established principle of “herd immunity,” having reduced the incidence of many childhood diseases to the level of statistical error, would have been settled science. But as in the law, where the longstanding principle of stare decisis has been ratfucked by Federalist Society-vetted jurists, nothing is ever settled. And now, center stage, are a coalition of wealthy liberals and tinfoil hat wrapped conservatives seeing black helicopters in a war against public health and welfare. Why? Several reasons — a fading memory of vaccine-preventable diseases, adverse media coverage, internet misinformation (we are shocked, shocked) and litigation.
(As a child, like most of my friends, I hit the trifecta: mumps, measles, and chickenpox. I lived, but am grateful that my daughter had the MMR vaccine available. Each incidence of those childhood diseases takes two weeks out your life, is no fun for the kid, and is unsupportable in a household where both parents work, and presents a special disaster for single parents.)
For those who distrust the government/industrial axis that results in guaranteed profits for Big Pharma, I am not wholly unsympathetic. For that reason I had grave reservations about the Gardasil vaccine recommended for young women. Many anti-vaccine proponents cite a connection with autism corresponding to the presence of ethylmercury (thimerosol) in vaccines, a suspicion not borne out through scientific investigation. (For a thorough, objective and useful look at the history of thimerosol in vaccines and the autism controversy, please see this nuanced and peer-reviewed article by Dr. Jeffery Baker in the American Journal of Public Health.)
Surprising as it may be to have this discussion in the 21st century, this is where we find ourselves. Our culture is so polarized that even scientific principles are not immune from relitigation in the court of public opinion. The anti-vaxxer agenda is a bit of utter fecklessness that poses a public health threat to us all.
In other Peak Ignorance news this week… Wonkette moved a story about a kurfuffle in Vermont:

Here’s a sweet little story of Democracy in Action. A bright eighth grader writes to her state legislator with an idea for a law: Vermont doesn’t have an official Latin motto, so why not adopt one? And for that matter, make it a reference to history? Neato!

So state Sen. Joe Benning — a Republican who was actually trying to do a good thing, which he has probably learned to never try again — introduced a bill to adopt the motto “Stella quarta decima fulgeat.” — May the fourteenth star shine bright.” Because Vermont was the 14th state, see? Benning noted that when Vermont briefly minted its own currency, it was engraved with “Stella Quarta Deccima,” so the phrase had real historical cachet.

And then Burlington TV station WCAX put the story on its Facebook page with the headline, “Should Vermont have an official Latin motto?” and all Stupid broke loose when morons thought that Vermont was knuckling under to a bunch of goddamned illegal immigrants.

Charles Topher at “If You Only News” collected some of the worst of the over 600 comments from concerned Vermonters intent on protecting ‘Murka from invading Latin hordes:

We are pleased to report that satire is alive and well, and some wags have taken to replying in kind. Some gems quoted in the Wonkette article include:

  • I’ve got no problem with that. I’m more concerned that you stop teaching the Hindu-Arabic number system in schools. I for one am sick of all the pandering to foreigners in this country. We should be using American numbers.

  • This is America, not the ancient Roman empire. What’s next, Justinian law? If they don’t want to learn modern English, they should go back to the colosseum where they belong!

  • What’s Latin for, “A state full of crotchety old farts, half of whom are almost too stupid to breathe”?

  • What have the Romans ever done for us!?

This is ltoo easy, even for me. Yet there is a deeper issue at work. An historic American mistrust of intellectualism is taking hold again. The Guardian’s Patricia Williams even posted a recent article on this theme of academic book bannings, firings, and assaults on scholarship itself. This is testament to the rise of local right wing control of school boards, the better to weed out authors and ideas that might promote critical thinking or even activism. Consider, for example, this list of books and authors removed from the Tucson public school system as part of elimination of a Mexican-American studies curriculum.

The authors and editors include Isabel Allende, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Kozol, Rudolfo Anaya, bell hooks, Sandra Cisneros, James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, Rodolfo Acuña, Ronald Takaki, Jerome Skolnick and Gloria Anzaldúa. Even Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Shakespeare’s The Tempest received the hatchet.

Anti-intellectualism in the US has a long and ignoble pedigree. As Ray Williams, writing in Psychology Today has it,

Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science has been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation, reveals how a whole generation of youth are being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital “crap” via social media.

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

So ignorance has several vectors, but ultimately one small set of beneficiaries. Will we will be smart enough to sort this out?


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with his new bride Contrary in a triumph of hope over experience, and is grateful that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.


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