Monday, May 26, 2008

Ignorance as a Third Rail

Dick Polman courts indelicacy:

It's not easy to raise this topic. It seems to be OK in this country to malign educated people, to dismiss them as "eggheads" and "latte-sippers," probably because there is a sizeable anti-intellectual strain in our culture. But I would suggest that stupid people should also be ripe for open discussion - if only because millions of willfully clueless voters may well function as the swing decision-makers in a close '08 presidential election.
The delicacy of labels like "stupid" and "willfully ignorant" in the context of American politics is confirmed the very first comment made to his post:
Typical of the elite liberal media - they think everyone is dumb except them. And if you actually figure out how to get out of bed and find your poling place, if you don't vote Baraq Hussein Obama, you're just a dumb hick who can walk.
Of course, Dick Polman has not claimed that "everyone is dumb except" the Dick Polman's of the world; Dick Polman has not said anything of the sort. He has done nothing worse than quote some of the words of actual Americans as gathered in a focus group conducted by Peter Hart. Excerpts:
"I'm a little concerned. I don't know enough about [Obama's] Muslim background and their beliefs and how he views everything. I'm a little concerned. I need to check his background."
[Another voter]: "He's representing a minority in more than one case. He is African American and he is Muslim. And in light of that...it does feel like we're being judged or pounded down on because we want to carry a gun or we want to wear the American flag pin." ...
Hart reports that whenever somebody volunteered that Obama is a Muslim (which he isn't), nobody in the room protested or sought to correct the inaccuracy. Hart writes: "When asked to raise their hands if they think that Obama is a Muslim, seven of the 12 do, including two voters who currently support him over McCain ..."
But by contrasting Polman's narrow claim with the wider one imputed to him by the commenter, and by supplying some of the details Polman was commenting on, I've played right into the game as it is played: I've played the role of the egghead elitist, or at best, the apologist for egghead-elitists; I've dared to suggest that there are ignorant voters, and that their existence is worth noticing.

It is worth noticing, but it's also worth noticing that it is still early in the campaign. There is a place in the world for people who don't live and breath politics on a daily basis, and I suspect the people quoted spend their daily energies on other things. Fair enough. In fact, there's a fair case to be made that politics-obsessed people like me are the crazy ones.

But it is also worth noting -- here goes that dreaded egghead tendency again -- that they aren't wholly uninformed. It's not as though they've never heard of Barack Obama; their misconceptions have have a definite shape, and that shape is not politically neutral: they "know" that Obama is an African-American Muslim presidential candidate who "pounds down on" gun owners and disdains flag pins.

Ignorance is one thing; ignorance actively cultivated in the service of politics is quite another.

There are valid reasons to prefer Barack Obama over John McCain, and vice-versa. Because there are valid reasons, it would be tragic -- a subversion of democracy -- if voters decided the outcome based on falsehoods.

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