Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Age of Unreason

Susan Jacoby’s “Age of American Unreason,” and Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America” ask fundamental questions about our country, and the disastrous course the nation is on. Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” was one of the first books to analyze the power of the right wing in America. Frank notes that Republicans successfully used the wedge issue of abortion to inflame otherwise normal people, and make them work against their own economic interest. Pierce traces the history of American “cranks,” and the book’s subtitle says it all: “How stupidity became a virtue in the land of the free.”

Jacoby takes a sweeping historical perspective. She notes that though this country was founded by Enlightenment intellectuals, today “intellectual” is a dirty word. She observes that right wing intellectuals, those neo-liberals or neocons working in think tanks like Cato, Heritage, or AEI, paint themselves as average people. Neocon intellectuals hide in their right wing ivory towers, and label the left “elite” intellectuals. They use the word ‘intellectual” interchangeably with “liberal,” another demonized term. How is that George Bush, a child of privilege and wealth, who went to Ivy League schools, posed as an ordinary Joe people wanted to have a beer with? It’s unbelievable.

Jacoby faults the American system of education with the proud stupidity of its people. When the framers were creating our government, they ceded public education to local, state control. European countries have national education standards, and no European country scores as poorly in math, science, or history as America does. Americans balk at the notion of national standards, but nationalized education should be considered. Students in economically underprivileged neighborhoods don’t do well on standardized tests; usually their school budgets are limited. Local control hasn’t served the country well. With national standards and funding, students in economically challenged areas could do as well as their middle-class counterparts. This is easier said than done. Local control is the sacred cow of the right. Religious fundamentalists have chosen local school boards as the launch pad for their political careers.

Frank, Pierce and Jacoby all fault American religion for instilling ignorance in its adherents. America is the most religious of all the developed countries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but considering the harm that fundamentalism has done to our politics, it must be examined. Social issues like abortion and homosexuality brought disparate groups together: right wing Catholics joined forces with Protestant fundamentalists and Mormons. It is shocking that a majority of Americans believe creationism should be taught in school, and that so many profess belief in the literal truth of selected Bible verses. Those who claim to believe all of the Bible literally don’t: none are advocating stoning of adulterers or disobedient children. Literal interpretation only covers creation and condemnation of homosexuals. It doesn’t apply to divorce, which Jesus strongly condemns.

Religious extremism has not served the country well. A better education in civics might help the majority understand that we are not a Christian nation, that the founders wanted a wall between church and state. Currently, six of the nine supreme courts justices are Roman Catholic: five of the justices adhere to an extreme form of the faith. While Americans are religious, the majority of citizens are not ardent Catholics. The court should reflect national consensus: this court does not. Americans must have the courage to challenge religious extremism in all forms. We are quick to label Muslims terrorists: we must apply the same standard to our own fundamentalists. American fundamentalism can condone, even encourage violence. Consider McVeigh or Dr. Tiller’s murderer.

Spirituality is personal and individual. Those who have been accosted by proselytizers know how hurtful the experience can be. Evangelizers believe they are following Jesus’ commission to “make believers of all nations.” Attempts to change others’ beliefs must be discarded in today’s world. Missionaries no doubt believe they are doing the right thing, and are surprised to find their efforts appear arrogant and supercilious. Better secular education might discourage parochialism, as would emphasis on foreign language and travel. Jimmy Carter established the “Friendship Force,” a low-cost form of travel and exchange that encouraged Americans to visit other countries. It is too bad the program did not continue after his presidency.

Jacoby, Pierce and Frank don’t give reasons for optimism. They have done the first step, though, identifying the problem and its causes. A majority of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. It is not just intellectuals who sense that something has gone wrong. After eight disastrous years of the Bush administration, it is hard to hope that a new president can turn things around. It cannot be done quickly. Some, notably Noam Chomsky, believe that the country’s misdirection is nothing new. Our bloated military budget, and the entrenched power of weapons manufacturers (so-called “defense” contractors) are discouraging. If change is to occur, real, lasting change, we must all work hard. This includes discussion of our educational system, and how to temper the political advances of religious extremists.

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