We live in dangerous times. Our age is marked by false pride. We do not celebrate great scientific achievements. It is not the joy of the conquest of disease. Nor are we celebrating the discovery of new continents or exo-planets. The latter are great discoveries of modern astronomy, not unlike the great age of exploration. Yet, they exist outside any kind of celebration or popular imagination.
Our age is one of unreason. It is one of un-logic. It is one of conspiracy theories. It is one of prideful ignorance. The presidency of Donald J. Trump is not surprising or unexpected. We have built towards this moment for a few decades.
The irony of this is that we live in an era of the real possibility of universal deep knowledge. We have never had as much access to information as we do now. We have online encyclopedias, and free books. Though admittedly there is a deep digital divide.
There was a time when books were extremely expensive. They were written by hand, and even when the early Gutenberg press dropped the cost, they were still a luxury item. Reading was not taught to all. Peasants, and serfs did not need to read. Slaves in the ante-bellum south were punished for even trying to learn. The mass of factory workers relied on the few in their social strata who could. A basic universal education is not that old. Knowledge is power, and it was zealously guarded.
Universal education is the standard we presently live by. Yet, this does not mean people learn to read and *comprehend* complex information. Nor can people necessarily detect lies, half lies and conspiracies. Nor do people read for pleasure after they leave school. According to the Washington Post:
The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent.
That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.
A big part of this is TV, and other screens. People increasingly consume popular media over anything else. These are extremely passive activities, which requires very little brain power. You do not need to imagine things, as they are portrayed to you. When reading, you need to do the hard work of imagining what the writer is describing. And if you read non fiction, some of it can be difficult going. After all, books on climate change, science, technology or history have at times very complex concepts.
We no longer teach young people how to think. We teach to pass state mandated tests. History, arts and other cultural pursuits have given way to testing defined proficiency. Ergo, while people learn to mechanically read, they do not understand.
Nor is this moment unprecedented in the American experience. Americans have been at times proud of their ignorance. The know-nothings of the 1840 and 1850 are a good example. Some of the markers for this phenomena is the immense distrust of authorities. It does not matter if these are public health officials and vaccines, or other experts. Incidentally, one reason we do not see polio or smallpox is the success of global public health campaigns. The intelligence community, whether you agree with the ultimate goals of empire or not, have mostly kept us safe. Then there are scientists that warned us about climate change, and other scientific facts. Economists have told us of the weaknesses and strengths of our global economic system. They have even told us that income inequality will have an explosive quality, and it is dangerous.
Historians have told us about the past and how it informs the present. Computer scientists have given us the incredible freedoms we have, but warned us of the dark side of the technology we use. This includes the fact that it is these experts who have told us electronic voting systems are not secured, nor can they be made to be.
In other words, we live in a world with people that can inform the world we live in. However, these experts have lost any trust as Americans think that they have the right to have a view, as uniformed as it may be, on things they barely understand.
Instead, we have adopted ways of looking at the world that are more akin to ideology than fact. These involve conspiracy theories that are internally consistent, but untrue. Pizzagate, and QAnon are but the latest of these. And we have a president who not only embraced birtherism, but *was behind it.*
Incidentally, birtherism was and remains a racist theory. To believe that the first African American president was not born in the United States is consistent with white supremacy. And by now it is crystal clear that President Donald Trump is racist.
The 911 Truthers are a whole different category of this eschatology of non-knowledge. However, the 911 truthers fit in a tradition of denying the official story, starting with the Lincoln assassination, going through Pearl Harbor and ending with the Kennedy assassination. We have a conspiracy cottage industry that relies on the general distrust of government. It is a characteristic of the national character, to believe the Feds are lying to us. It is the mysterious deep state after all.
There are some conspiracies that have some evidence for them. For example, *Operation Mockingbird* during the height of the Cold War is true. Even if it did not go quite as CT believers think it did. It is not that the government infiltrated news rooms. It is more like there was agreement between reporters, editors in chief and the national security establishment. They agreed on the boundaries, and at times national security reporters asked the intelligence community if, or when, to print material. This was basic to the formation of consent that Noam Chomsky speak off in his work *Manufacturing Consent.* It has grown in scope and breath. These days editors and news media do not cover policy issues. Some of it is what the reading public wants to pay for. After all, eyeballs on screen are essential for advertisers. Policy does not pay the bills.
If we are honest, most Americans do not want to know of the complexities of the Federal budget, or even their local budgets. What they wish to see is the police blotter. This has become a self fulfilling prophecy. We are an ignorant population that prefers to navel graze instead of keeping tabs on the government. How do we self rule when we have no idea what our representatives are doing?
And yes, it is true… the government did experiment on American populations during the Cold War. And there were very serious attacks on privacy, that the Church Committee discovered in the 1970s. All of those pale in comparison with what we are experiencing. These days you have a hard time speaking of these issues, since people prefer the convenience of their devices than their privacy. And with the Internet of Things, privacy likely has come to an end.
If we are to change this, we need to do a lot of self searching. We have tools unheard of in human history. Our ability to understand what we face is critical. We must learn to trust those who have expert knowledge.
As a society we also need to re-learn to read for pleasure. We must also learn to seek policy information. While popular culture is nice, it can be a narcotic. This is why a strong man can be elected.
If nothing else, Trump’s ignorance reflects the times. This is an age when Abraham Lincoln, or John Kennedy would not have been elected to higher office. Both would be perceived as egg heads.
Lincoln was a self made man, in many ways he searched for knowledge and educated himself. JFK was the product of the Ivy League system, and the son of a wealthy man. However, he also believed in public service for its own sake, and spoke to the country as a fellow country man.
Kennedy asked the country to believe we could reach for the moon, literally. Lincoln wanted to preserve the union, and what emerged out of the civil war was a nation, not a collection of states.
Trump, like the modern country he leads, is ignorant. He is also self serving, and a narcissist, who seeks to divide the nation. His war is between his base, and the rest of the country. As Lincoln once quipped, a nation divided, cannot stand.
We have rejected this toxic ideology of ignorance in the past. This age of unreason may still come to an end. But for the moment, this is hurting the country. It is also hurting our chances as a species to survive the coming decades. The stakes are nothing short of survival of the survival of the species. This is what is unprecedented in this age of unreason, this new dark age. The stakes are that high, and it is willful.