COMMENTARY: “In Danger of a Totalitarianism of Ignorance”

(The following commentary was published in the Opinion section of the Las Cruces Sun News on 22 February, 2010)

Here’s a quick quiz – are the following assertions true or false:

1) The earth began to form some 4.5 billion years ago.
2) Odin is the one true God.
3) Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans that to Orangutans
4) President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen.
5) We live on a cooling planet where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are natural occurrences.
6) Evidence and facts are not important.

Now let’s check our answers:

1) TRUE.  The scientific evidence supports this view.
2) FALSE.  Although once believed by most Northern Europeans, there is no evidence to suggest that Odin ever existed.
3) TRUE.  DNA evidence supports this view.
4) FALSE.  There is no evidence to support this view.
5) TRUE.  Geology shows that we live on a relatively thin crust of rock that floats upon a vast molten core and is, therefore, unstable and subject to upheaval.
6) FALSE.  Denial of evidence and provable facts can be detrimental to our survival as individuals and as a species.

It sometimes seems that we live in a post-fact culture, where unsupportable opinion has achieved a status (in a perverse application of the virtue of “fairness”) where we think that any knucklehead with a wacky idea deserves to be heard with as much respect as the scientist who has actually spent years teasing verifiable truth from nature.  And so our current national orgy of proud idiocy is having the very real effect of bringing the progress of our democracy to a grinding halt as we are encouraged to distrust anyone who actually knows something about the issues at hand — they are the “elite” or the “intellectual” and therefore NOT TO BE TRUSTED.  We are cutting the head off the body of this nation, and as the cultural guillotine lops off the informed craniums of our experts, the crowds cheer with an excitement that is as intoxicating as it is dangerous.

We attack the very social structures that allow us a life of historically unprecedented luxury and safety — a society built on science, technology and centralized government services.  We are the tics on the dog denying the reality of the very animal we depend upon for our comfortable lives.

It is in our nature to be skeptical, even wary.  But it is the greater hallmark of our species that we will often alter our beliefs when evidence offers a more enlightened view of reality…but not always.  As Proverbs says: “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”  Right now we have a nation of really angry “mockers” riding a wave of irrationality that operates on the proven strategy that the one who shouts the longest and the loudest can dispense with evidence and facts and rile up the populace to their own self-serving and (let’s be frank here) commercial ends.  And we — as a nation — suffer for it.

This may well be the battle of our time: the struggle against the forces of irrationality — of an ignorance that is proud in its defiance of fact and reason, where the Fool is truly made King.  We are in danger of creating a totalitarianism of ignorance, where instead of our intelligentsia being arrested and thrown into prison they are ignored into silence by a virulent popular “denialism”. Our very survival as a nation and as a species may depend on reversing this trend.

How can we reverse it?  Stand up and speak out for reason and rationality.  Stop believing things that have no evidence. (Every bit of mental capacity we devote to unsupportable beliefs increases the distance between our perceptions and reality, leaving us ever more vulnerable to crackpot ideas).  Read an article or book by someone who actually researches something — not a pundit, but a scientist, a naturalist, a geneticist or an historian.  Turn off the radio, and realize that if Rush or Beck’s ratings started dropping like a rock tomorrow, these blowhards would suddenly be seen fighting for what they really believe in: their living — not truth, not reality, not evidence (and certainly not you).

There is no “better time” to return to, no “traditional” America waiting to be brought back to life.  That is a mirage.  Time moves us ever forward.  We live in a more complex and interconnected civilization than any human has ever known and we’re all trying to find our way as best we can.  To do that with any hope of success we need our scientists, our teachers and our educated “elites” whose work on our behalf deserves respect and attention far beyond that we give a ranting personality on the radio.  We’ve turned things upside down — where opinion matters as much as fact — and we need to turn things “right side up” again in order to go on as a nation, as a people and as a species. The time for “every man for himself” is past.  We need everyone we can get pulling in the same direction with as much knowledge as we can muster.  Each of us must do our part, and part of that duty is to carry our own intellectual weight as responsible citizens of this great nation.

Bob Diven (the not-so-reverend bob)

Bob Diven (the not-so-reverend bob)

Bob Diven is an award-winning artist and performer and longtime resident of Las Cruces.  He writes as the not-so-reverend bob on his blog at:

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One Response to “COMMENTARY: “In Danger of a Totalitarianism of Ignorance””

  1. Your Op-Ed in this morning’s Sun-News was brilliant! My husband and I have been muttering these same thoughts to one another for a long time, too.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this important editorial.