A Know-Nothing Nation

Posted: January 3rd, 2010 under philosophy, politics, psychology.
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Light, With Intermittant Heat, Likely
Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, January 1, 2010

I have long been disturbed by the sensationalism and bias of the media in our country. I read this article by Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic.

Cohen states:
Media Monkeys

The lines between television news and entertainment haven’t just been blurred; they have been obliterated by a terribly divisive and destructive mix: the cynicism and greed of television executives and the concomitant apathy, ignorance, and lack of curiosity on the part of the American people. Which came first? Even if you argue “the people” and not “the media” it still doesn’t excuse the glee with which television news has embraced the fashionable at the expense of the important.

Our family has not had cable or satellite t.v. for years. We don’t watch television and do not miss it. The only reason our girls know anything about celebrities such as Hannah Montana is through their friends. A copius amount of reality shows and celebrity gossip pervades the airways and consumes the minds and lives of the American people. I constantly hear people discussing the latest shows and can’t imagine wasting my time that way. When Tiger Woods’ “indiscretion” is the top news story for weeks, I know our media has failed us.

The proof is in the ratings. Everyone in America should watch Frontline, for example; our nation would be far better off for it. But, instead, everyone in America watches American Idol. As a direct result, hundreds of millions of us can’t name our Supreme Court Justices, or find America on a world map, or list all of the States of the Union (never mind their capitals). In this regard, our public schools have failed us. Our technology has seduced us. And our leaders have encouraged or just capitulated to the descent. We are devolving into a “Know Nothing” nation despite our unprecedented access to first-hand information about events and issues.

As Americans we are fortunate to live in a democracy in which we have the opportunity to vote; it is our right and our responsibility to do so. However it would be better that those who are not educated about the issues do not vote. It is in our country’s best interest for its citizens to understand the way the government works, to research the issues, and to use reason and logic in their decisions.

Dunce Cap

It’s no wonder most of our politicians are vacuous and venal. They are being elected by people who are too busy or too bored or too lazy to do anything other than cup an ear for the loudest, cleverest, most dramatic sounds emitting from their televisions, computers or PDAs.

Too often people are driven by ignorant passion based on emotion, and guided by confirmation bias. It is imperative that we be open-minded, skeptical, and well-informed. As Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch said, “Talking louder and faster doesn’t make your idea any better.”

Indeed, sadly, we have both the government and the news industry we deserve. Tens of millions of people now form their dogged (unfounded, hysterical, self-defeating, etc.) opinions about politics (and law and governance and history and science) based upon the sly words and dramatic performances of modern-day carnival barkers, false prophets and snake-oil salesmen like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly and Nancy Grace. Like Sinclair Lewis’ irrepressible Elmer Gantry, these charlatans all share the same cynical inside joke: The louder you scream, the more people will watch; the bigger the conspiracy you allege, the more people will believe it; the more outrage you offer up, the more passionate and prolonged will be the response. It’s about entertainment, not news.

Commentators and experts who want to shed light instead of heat–those who are humble or who simply want to be honest about the limitations of their own powers to predict future events– are shoved off to the sidelines and replaced by people who often have nothing to say but who are willing to say it loudly. On my beat, the law beat, I have learned that those who know don’t talk too much and that those who talk too much typically don’t know. Problem is, people watching at home can’t tell which is which, who is who.

Too many kids are being taught what to think, rather than how to think. We need to teach them to think critically at an early age, and to base their opinions and decisions on sound, logical, unbiased facts. I love that our daughters are so inquisitive and skeptical. They are constantly challenging and questioning what they see and hear. We enjoy having discussions, and nothing is off limits. I hope they continue to be guided by what makes sense, rather than simply listening to the “noise.”

1 Comment »

  1. Your post reminds me of an Eleanor Roosevelt (?) quote I saw tweeted recently: “Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.”

    Comment by Steven Pam — January 10, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

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