Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The New Know-Nothings

From Editor & Publisher, December 1, 2004

“Public acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is well below the 50% mark, a fact of considerable concern to many scientists," Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, observed today. He noted that given three alternatives, only 35% say that evolution is well-supported by evidence. The same number say evolution is one of many theories and not well supported by evidence. Another 29% say they don't know enough about it to say.

Almost half of Americans (45%) believe that human beings "were created by God essentially as they are today (that is, without evolving) about 10,000 years ago," according to Gallup's poll.

“I know nothing. Nothing.” Bumbling German prison camp guard Sgt. Schultz made this line famous in the sixties sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.” Willful ignorance, a staple of television comedy, can sometimes make life easier, as in Schultz’s case, where the less he knew about Hogan’s shenanigans the better. In the real world, however, choosing to ignore reality more often than not is a recipe for disaster.

An actual “Know-Nothing” political movement began in the 1850s in America as an anti-immigration group dedicated to protecting the rights of native-born protestants. Thankfully, it survived only about 10 years, but the sentiments of exclusion and fear of change endures to the present day. The movement’s ideological descendants have since gained power their predecessors could never imagine.

The new “Know-Nothings” take the name even more literally than their 19th Century forefathers. In America today, large numbers of citizens live in willful ignorance, choosing to reject scientific evidence and common sense for a faith-based view of the world where anything goes. Today’s politically powerful evangelical Christians accept a more or less literal interpretation of the Bible—God created the earth in seven days; Noah really got two of every animal in the world on a boat, and so on. The fact that they can’t prove any of these beliefs by acceptable scientific methods doesn’t stop them from going to extreme measures to try and justify their fantasies with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo and self-serving data.

The influence the new “Know-Nothings” wield at the national level is a nightmare come alive. The National Park Service now includes a creationist version of the Grand Canyon’s origins among its tourist information. The Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian group, has forced the National Park Service to edit a video on civil rights at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. One of their demands—take out Rosa Parks and put in Betsy Ross.

And of course the rise of the conservative cable stations and talk radio feed the religious right with all the news that fits ideologically, whether it’s true or not. It is of no concern to any of them that our nation’s embrace of Know-Nothingism has made us the laughing stock of the world. In fact, it energizes true believers to know that beret wearing French wine-snobs are in a snit over us.

In my lifetime, this country has gone from landing people on the moon to believing the moon is made of cheese. We have entered an era no one would have predicted in the days when we watched Neil Armstrong step off a ladder onto the powdery terrain of our neighboring planet. The rules have changed drastically. In this new century, superstition checks science and dogma replaces common sense. With Armageddon right around the corner, Americans, we are told, have no need for grand visions to realize or future goals to work toward, save converting the planet to our version of Christianity before the End Days actually end.

All great societies eventually fall, but it is maddening to feel as though I am watching this relatively young experiment in democracy self-destruct before my eyes, in virtually the blink of an eye. Recent elections make me fear that Americans are devolving, shrinking from the bright glow of the future, growing sickly and hateful in the shadow-world of ignorance. I keep telling myself, “It can’t happen here.” But it is happening. I’m watching it on television, reading it in papers, writing about it on the Internet. The prime directive is repeated over and over again not by scar-faced thugs in black trench coats, but by loopy white guys like Limbaugh and Falwell and Bush: Ignorance is bliss. Embrace it, America.

“I know nothing. Nothing….” Sorry, Schultz. It’s not funny anymore.

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