The Age of Anti-Intellectualism: Facts Are Officially Obsolete

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These are plague years in America. The pestilence is as far-flung as any that ravaged Europe centuries ago – and potentially just as deadly. It’s not an affliction of the body, but of the mind. And unlike other diseases, the afflicted do not run from it or try to heal it; on the contrary, they embrace it wholeheartedly.

It isn’t stupidity; many of its victims are bright enough. It isn’t ignorance. Ignorance is simply an absence of knowledge; but this disease, anti-intellectualism, entails a willful avoidance of knowledge and a substitute of anti-knowledge. It isn’t just that many people no longer can distinguish between reality and fantasy; they no longer even have any concern that the distinction exists.

Half of Americans believe that Christianity came before Judaism, 30 percent believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks, 30 percent don’t know what year 9-11 occurred in, 5 percent don’t know the DATE 9-11 occurred on (seriously), 30 percent of Democrats believe George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks, 30 percent of Republicans believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, 20 percent of Americans doubt that the moon landing actually occurred, 25 percent don’t know what country the U.S. won its independence from (many say it was China), 37 percent believe that climate change is a hoax, 35 percent believe that homosexuality is a choice, 25 percent don’t believe in evolution, 25 percent believe the sun revolves around the earth, and 71 percent don’t know where the Pacific Ocean is. (These percentages may vary from survey to survey, but the high insanity quotient is a constant.)

We have reached the point in American history at which facts officially have become obsolete. The corner officially was turned with the election of Donald J. Trump, a man who literally lies more often than he tells the truth.

Mind you, the plague is not of a solely political nature. And it has been incubating for quite a while. But its inception point arguably can be traced to another presidential election, and the apotheosis of another delusional demagogue: Ronald Reagan.

The Gipper was a prolific fibber even in a field proverbial for prevarication (though he pales beside Trump). Yet his admirers extol him as a “strong leader” of impeccable honesty and “character”. Why? One reason is that Reaganauts, like Trumpsters, are individuals who are willing and even eager to be deceived. In Reagan’s case, however, we also must give credit where it is due: he was a highly skilled liar, an acumen no doubt honed by his years in Hollywood. But there’s another, more chilling factor: he seems actually to have believed his own lies. His habit of recounting movie episodes as if they were real-life anecdotes apparently stems from his own confusion of one for the other.

When he claimed, more than once, that he filmed the liberation of prisoners from Nazi concentration camps (he never made it out of California during the war), he gave the impression that he had vivid memories of the fictional incident, and even offered to show nonexistent film he’d shot. Hell, he probably even suffered from PTSD from firing the camera. 

He lied repeatedly about selling weapons to a hostile nation and then using the proceeds to fund drug-running terrorists in Central America. Then, after denying he’d sold the weapons, he insisted that all the weapons he didn’t sell would have fit on the back of a small truck. He didn’t seem to notice the discrepancy, and neither did his fawning fans.

In fact, inspired by his highly successful rape of reality, they began doing for the media what Reagan had done for government – Rush Limbaugh was one of the earliest to jump on the bandwagon and is still going strong, churning out an endless stream of toxic falsehoods attacking The Others. Eventually the movement gave us Fox “News”, which for the past two decades has been feeding suggestible viewers an alternate reality around the clock. These folks know that the public will not bother to do any fact checking if you tell them what they want to hear and appeal to their emotions. 

We now have a society in which any belief or opinion, no matter how kooky, is considered on equal footing (at least) with solid fact; and all you have to do is say “I disagree” to make an unpleasant fact vanish is a wisp of smoke.

This has been going on for some time. But now, anti-intellectualism is officially national policy. It’s going to have a figurehead in the Oval Office. It’s going to have a high priest with his finger on the button. We came very close to this situation before with the “election” of George W. Bush — a man who spoke in an incoherent flux of grotesquely mangled English, and didn’t know the respective duties of the three branches of federal government, or that Social Security is a federal program.

Now we’ve gone full-throttle, officially decreeing that knowledge is not only unnecessary but a handicap. The U.S. has elected a president who rarely if ever reads, has no government experience, has no knowledge of the Constitution or government policy, and whose only legal experience is in suing and being sued at least 4000 times. The U.S. is going to have a president who obtains a large portion of his “information” about the world from the loony conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, which he repeats more or less verbatim.

Jones, in case you’re not familiar with him, has suggested that the Sandy Hook massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing were staged; that 9-11 was an inside job; that airplanes use chemtrails to spread “weaponized flu”; that the government is using fluoride to control our minds; that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton smell like sulfur because they are possessed by demons; that Michelle Obama is a man; that juice boxes are engineered to make children gay; that Justin Bieber is planning to create a police state by brainwashing kids; and that the world is being controlled by lizards from another planet.

Trump was parroting Jones when he declared that Barack Obama is a Kenyan; that thousands of Muslims cheered in the streets on 9-11; that Clinton used drugs prior to a debate; that Antonin Scalia was murdered; that vaccines cause autism; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; and that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Does any of this bother Trump’s supporters? Why should it? After all, there must be something fishy about Hillary’s emails.

I just heard the umpteenth one of them say that Trump won the popular vote. Thanks to the miracle of Google, it would take only a few seconds to find out who really won. But why should they bother when their illusions are so comfortable?

And how many times have you heard them say that Clinton was responsible for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi? It would only take a few minutes online to learn that a highly partisan investigation spent months and millions trying to find evidence of some blunder by Clinton or Obama with regard to Benghazi; but in the end they were forced to admit that the administration acted properly and made no mistakes. Even Fox “News” reported as much, for Christ’s sweet sake. But millions of people would prefer to believe the lie.

Throughout the excruciatingly long campaign season, Trumpsters bombarded Facebook with bogus stories supporting Trump — or more precisely declaring that “Hillary’s a crook”. Many of these stories were concocted by teenagers in Macedonia who had no interest in Trump or the election or the U.S of A. They just wanted to make money. And they did — a ton of it. Some of them tried circulating fake stories promoting Clinton and Sanders, but they discovered that Trump was much more of a cash cow — which is to say, his supporters were much more gullible and misinformed.

A large number of Trump voters call themselves “pro-life” – a smug euphemism for “I believe abortion will go away if I sweep it under the rug”. It’s their hope and dream that Donald Trump will keep at least one of his campaign pledges and do what he can to make abortion illegal again. They choose to bury the harsh reality (as many did pre-Roe) that outlawing abortion just means that many women and girls will die horrible deaths from back alley procedures. And it’s entirely possible that some of them will be loved ones of “pro-life” voters.

And there’s another grim consequence of bubble-dwelling that is not only possible but absolutely certain. Trump has declared that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese (yet another nutty notion he cribbed from Jones) and this greatly appealed to voters whose favorite subject is not science. But we cannot ignore climate change forever; in the very near future, its effects are going to become so devastating that they will demand to be acknowledged. And that day probably will be hastened by the actions of Trump and company.

In the meantime, the denizens of alternate reality will keep on reveling in their plague, and turning their backs on the facts. Until the day comes when some pesky fact sneaks around and cures them by kicking them squarely in the nuts.

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5 thoughts on “The Age of Anti-Intellectualism: Facts Are Officially Obsolete

  1. A related issue or primary cause of the rise of truthiness is the reflexive and urgent need to never feel guilt. Never feel like they have made a mistake. Not admitting responsibility for consequences is the hill that conservatives would gladly die on.

    This is an intractable problem. It leads to the “good money after bad” situation of always and only electing the people that are damaging them personally.

  2. Part of it is that, as much as we don’t want to admit it, our brains are like unto organic computers and can be as easily programmed, if a bit less certain in executing its programming. It’s how social engineering works, including for spreading malware. Advertisers study how to do it, how to convince people to buy what they don’t need and to want to buy what they didn’t even want before and have no real use for and can’t afford. And, of course, it’s how propaganda and demagoguery work. (Of course, I don’t need to tell you of all people this.)

    The Halloween episode of CBS’s The Late Late Show with James Corden demonstrated this in an appropriately (for the day) terrifying manner, James had Alice Eve and Harry Connick, Jr. that night as guests, but also brought out Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard. In the first part of the segment, Lior uses “tells” to guess Harry’s PIN one digit at a time (I hope he changed it after taping and before that episode aired!).

    But much more impressive was the second bit. I’ll just link it here so you can watch and try it for yourself. Get a sheet of paper and a drawing instrument before watching it, then draw when he tells you to draw.

    It didn’t work on everyone in the audience (freeze-frame at 09:31 and look carefully, especially in the front row about three people from the right edge of the screen at the bald guy with the mustache in the gray shirt, plus the guy behind him and slightly to his left, plus the guy behind him and slightly to his right [maybe something about their angle of view had something to do with it? Maybe the cameraman blocked their view of Lior at a critical moment?]). But it worked on so many.

    This was supposed to be entertaining, but it was a terrifying wake-up call for me as I realized the implications. Our “wetware” is that easily and nigh-absolutely programmed without our conscious knowledge!

  3. I began worrying about the peddling of unreality during the 2008 elections, in which Minnesota Senatorial candidate Norm Coleman ran a campaign full of incredible mudslinging aimed at his opponent Al Franken. In previous years I had witnessed a lot of trash talking among various candidates, and even felt outraged by the swift boat rumors that most likely caused John Kerry the 2004 election. However, those which transpired during the 2008 elections between Coleman and Franken were so incredibly malicious and vilifying, that I have since begun to despair about our political system ever embracing the concept of truth and actual facts, again.

    Coleman had no scruples about accusing Franken of hating women, wanting to rape them, and even wanting to make rape and inscests legal in Minnesota?? And local opinion pages were rife with anxious comments from Minnesotans who apparently believed those absurd allegations! Fortunately, before the end of what could be the most narrowly won Senatorial election in American History, a damaging video released by Coleman (which featured Franken ranting like a madman) was exposed a being doctored. After the full context of Franken’s comments were synchronized with the video, it turned out that Franken was actually poking fun at former well-respected Minnesota Senator Wellstone, who ran alongside of his son while urging the boy to keep on going in order to win a footrace. So perhaps the fact that this expose was witnessed by the public, may have enabled Franken to win by only the few hundred votes that he eventually won by?

    I also, unfortunately, have to verify your claim that a large percentage of Americans don’t even know where the Pacific Ocean is;

    Jay Leno used to air a humorous segment of the “Tonight Show,” called the “Man on the Street,” which featured him asking questions of random people whom he passed on the streets. When asked where the Pacific Ocean was, even in California, which probably shares nearly 1000 miles of the Pacific coastline, several people had no clue about the obvious answer! But when considering how easily lies and misinformation are now being spread for political purposes, there is unfortunately, little to laugh about.

    When I quote Fact Checking websites while commenting online, a usual response is that these sites themselves are just partisan propaganda mills. And even though I mention Walter Annenberg’s political appointments and friendships with Republicans like Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, not to mention his hobnobbing with people like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, the usual response is that my information must still be doubted?

    When information is being so easily concocted and manipulated to serve political demagogues and Plutocrats, we are approaching a word where 1984, (the novel) has truly become a verifiable reality. So, what is called for is that the Press should follow in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow, and fearlessly stand up to power. Yet no matter how often I mention the mountains of scientific evidence which verify the reality of global warming, our local editors seem determined to believe that we still need a vigorous debate about the subject. However, what we really need are plenty of articles written by real climate scientists which not only dispute the claims made by deniers but which also include frequent journalistic debunkings pointing out exactly how and why, the claims of deniers are based on untruths and blatant falsehoods! Without that kind of clear commitment from the press, we might as well still be arguing over whether cigarettes are really carcinogens or whether the Holocaust ever really happened? The real facts are clear and obvious, and its high time that our knowledgeable journalists decided to say so, and then rationally defend what they say!

    Its always easier to believe a lie, if that lie resonates in tandem with your own doubts. But if we do not rely on factual reportings done by the Press, then anything goes, and people will back Trump using the same rationalizations which permitted Germany to obey Hitler—that he made the trains run on time? So who cares about racism, religious suppression, jobs with living wages, or the use of “enhanced interrogations” which are void of due process, only immediate and temporary satisfaction will be important to us anymore.

    Even if Trump brings us millions of new jobs, let’s never sell out our humanity over the rationalization that Hey!….maybe some jobs are being created?

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