Sunday, May 1, 2011

Birth, Death...Stupidity

Scene: An upper room where some people are hiding out a whole bunch of years ago.  A man suddenly appears in their midst.
Man: "Thomas, come here. You doubt that I'm real, right?  Put your fingers into these wounds.  What do you say now?"
Thomas: (Puts fingers into the wounds.) "Yeah, well I still don't believe.  It could be a trick."

     Some recent articles (e.g., Kate Zernike's in today's New York Times) have tried to explain what's going on in the minds of the 'birthers' who continue to believe (in spite of the newest incarnation of his birth certificate) that President Obama is not a natural born citizen of the United States. Many of these people insist that they are not racists, despite now wanting to see proof that the President actually went to the schools he says he graduated from--or if he went to them, to prove that he was as good a student as he claimed--or, if he was that good, then we need to know how he got into such schools in the first place.

     More than a few of these doubters are motivated by the view that there is just something wrong with a black person holding such high office.  They would not admit it to themeselves, of course, but engage in Olympic class self-deception about the racism at the root of their doubts about the President's citizenship. 

     Yet, let's grant that not all of these recalcitrant doubters work from some clear or muddied racial ideology.  We still need to remind ourselves that racism is only one of the many ways to be very stupid, and that these other ways are also powerfully destructive of democratic value.

     Do we remember Senator John McCain during his run for President having to correct the woman who said that she didn't trust Obama because 'he's an Arab'?  Have you ever had the frightening experience of sitting next to someone on a plane or train who tells you that "the Jews" are behind rising gas prices?  And how difficult is it to find internet sites offering  'evidence' that the World Trade Center towers actually collapsed because of bombs placed inside the structure itself?

     Democracy is valued, among other things, because it is tolerant of many different-often even contradictory- views about what we should be doing, why we should be doing it, why it matters, and so on.  And the belief of the great John Stuart Mill and others that error will not find a solid resting place in the discussion, so long as we allow all sides to be heard and make sure that no views are suppressed makes a good deal of sense.  But error is one kind of thing; blatant stupidity is quite another.  Perhaps even industrial strength ignorance can be handled in a democracy, provided it is not valued for itself, that it allows for the possibility of its being mistaken and correctable by facts.  The still defiant 'birthers' are just one example, however, of the stupidity that is extolled as prized precisely because it cannot be refuted by fact.  No sets of facts, no matter how incontrovertible and no matter how high the sets are piled before these kinds of believers, will ever make a difference.

     This kind of stupidity is a vice, a habit of reactive behavior that is second nature to anyone who has it. To these holders of the vice, it looks like courage in the face of attack..  The principal reason why thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle had serious doubts about democracy was not the fear that democratic decisions are sometimes mistaken and in need of correction, but that the vice of stupidity would come to be seen as the real virtue, that reason and intelligence come to be seen as threats to the common good.  The American philosopher John Dewey warned us that genuine democracy absolutely requires intelligence as its most important characteristic.  It's time to read him again.

     An elderly woman friend of my mother's--let's call her 'Aunt Francesca', because in Italian families everyone you know merits a family title--once told me that she had ghosts in her house.  She could hear them making banging noises at night.

"Aunt Francesca," I respectfully suggested, "couldn't the noises simply be the radiators clanging as the furnace gets them going in this cold weather?"   She replied: "You don't understand, filio mio, that is exactly how those clever ghosts make their presence known!"

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