[Photo by Leslie Slouka]
Mark Slouka is a novelist, essayist, contributing editor at Harper's magazine, and director of the writing program at the University of Chicago.
In the latest (February 2009) issue of Harper's, Slouka writes that Americans should be happy because "Bucking all recent precedent, we seem to have put a self-possessed, intelligent man in the White House..."
Slouka is happy about that, too, but his happiness is qualified. While the situation is Washington has changed, he remains worried about the intellectual state of the American people.
"I'm less certain about us," he says. "I'd like to believe that we're a different people now; that we're more educated, more skeptical, more tough-minded than we were when we gave the outgoing gang of criminals enough votes to steal the presidential election, twice, but it's hard work; actual human beings keep getting in the way."
After providing a couple of examples of mind-boggling human dumbness, Slouka says he keeps hearing a voice "whispering that we haven't changed at all, that we're as dangerous to ourselves as we've ever been ..."
The danger comes, not merely from the fact that, as a people, we are ignorant "(of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) ... [it is also] our complacency in the fact of it, our growing fondness for it. A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame--no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We're deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath."
In place of knowledge and learning, says Slouka, we have come to "care about auto racing and Jessica. We care about food ... And money. ... We care about Jesus, though we're a bit vague on his teachings. And America. We care about America. And the flag. And the troops. ..."
But we remain ignorant!
"One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44 percent believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number--not coincidentally, perhaps--are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth."
Complicating the matter further, says Slouka, we have traded knowledge for opinion. We believe in our opinion, "regardless of the facts." Thus, Slouka tells of the "man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool" who told him last summer, "if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for us."
While we recognize expertise in certain areas, like basketball or refrigerator repair, "when it comes to the realm of ideas, all folks (and their opinions) are suddenly equal. Thus evolution is a damned lie, global warming a liberal hoax, and Republicans care about people like you."
Not only so, but "belief" also has been given an exalted status in our minds. It's no longer so much about what you might actually know, but what you "believe." "Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There's a kind of Biblical grandeur to it, and as God's chosen, we have an inherent right to it."
"We may not know much, but at least we know what we believe." And that, says Slouka, is why so many of us weren't concerned when "Sarah Palin couldn't answer Charlie Gibson's sneaky question about the Bush Doctrine. We didn't know what it was either."
What really worries Slouka and should concern all of us is that our pervasive ignorance carrys over into our voting patterns and thus threatens the very life of our nation. What do we do about the fact that 1/3 of "white evangelicals ... believe the world will end in their lifetimes, or [that] millennialists ... know that Obama's the Antichrist because the winning lottery number in Illinois was 666?" What can we do about such ignorance?
And then we have the "real problem ... underlying American democracy" -- the 38 percent of the population that didn't even bother to vote. Maybe, suggests Slouka, many of these were just too "fed up to bother...
"Millions of others, however, are adults who don't know what the Bill of Rights is, who have never heard of Lenin, who think Africa is a nation, who have never read a book. I've talked to enough of them to know that many are decent people, and that decency is not enough. Witches are put to the stake by decent people. Ignorance trumps decency any day of the week."
What has Slouka worried and should worry the rest of us, in spite of the fact that Obama won the election, is "the unpleasant fact that a significant number of our fellow citizens are now as greedy and gullible as a boxful of puppies; they'll believe anything; they'll attack the empty glove; they'll follow that plastic bone right off the cliff.
"Nothing about this election has changed that fact."
And if nothing else, because a republic such as ours can survive and thrive only with an educated populace, we should probably prepare for some interesting times ahead, if not, indeed, the discombobulation and disintegration our precious democracy.