There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
This quote from Isaac Asimov is almost as famous as the subject of the article it was taken from. It’s called A Cult of Ignorance, published in Newsweek magazine on 21 January 1980.
Even though 32 years have passed since it was first printed, it still sounds like an alarming commentary on a contemporary problem. I am willing to bet it will still be relevant after another 32 because the cult is not about ignorance. It’s a direct consequence of America’s instinctive contempt for authority.
This contempt came from a very noble idea, namely the one according to which every human being should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life, later reinvented under the label “the American Dream”. The rejection of every privilege by birth was something remarkably revolutionary at the time. In Europe, people always refer to the French revolution when they have to describe the rise of republicanism. But we Europeans rather conveniently discard the fact that the French revolution itself was inspired by the American one, which stated 15 years earlier.
Blinded by our self-proclaimed intellectual superiority, we often forget how difficult it was for the republican ideas to spread on the old continent. Compare the political careers of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. The first became a president but withdrew from power after two consecutive terms (reluctantly agreeing to the second one), the last proclaimed himself an emperor and distributed the crowns of the conquered kingdoms in Europe between his family and friends.
Such little but significant differences often lead to shocking misunderstandings. For the thinking American having a hereditary monarch as your head of state is beyond ridiculous, no matter how symbolic this position can be. For the thinking European, voting without an ID that explicitly proves your identity to the state is nothing but sheer stupidity and misunderstanding of constitutional priorities.
But while most of those peculiarities can be categorized as procedural, there is a thin line after which the American worship of ultimate freedom starts to resemble a camp fire getting out of control. The essence of the problem is that freedom, like any other ideal, is not something that can be absolutely defined. While it can be relatively susceptible to codification in political and judicial terms, viewed from a philosophical and emotional point of view, freedom becomes a very elusive, even contradictory term.
What further complicates the matter is that politics is often based on emotion, and law is often reliant on philosophy. The resulting mixture is bound to become unstable if left on its own. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is a quote often attributed to another American founding father, Thomas Jefferson. In a philosophical aspect however, it can be paraphrased as “Eternal humility is the price of knowledge”.
The lack of humility is what Asimov bitterly complains about and it symbolizes the worst excesses of American pride. It’s the inevitable shadow of the great ideas of liberty and is always on the verge of taking over the country by storm, adopting many shapes and touching on many subjects, from the sensible debate about abortion, to the bigoted opposition to gay rights, through the ludicrous demands for the recognition of creationism, ending with the most shocking and dismissive of all demands, the right to be genuinely stupid and uninformed.
Americans are often stereotypically described abroad as stupid. But just like any stereotype, such a description is ultimately incorrect. There are stupid people all over the planet, in every country and every forsaken village. The difference is that fools all over the world often feel shy about their intellectual abilities and decide to keep a low profile, at least when it comes to scientific matters. In America, on the other hand, the fool is unashamedly proud of his own stupidity, so much so that it can ultimately end up dictating the political discourse and ideologically hijack an entire political party.
The Republican party was founded by anti-slavery activists and it developed as the party of business and small government. But you will have a hard time recognizing those ideas in its current propaganda. It’s way easier to identify this party with the less educated, heavily prejudiced and retrograde part of the US population than with someone who is simply a fiscal conservative. And if the current tendencies are a reliable indication, it will get much worse, hence this map, which will guide you through the mind of the contemporary US Republican and the way he sees the world, in the rare occasions in which he is interested in it. As usual, it’s part of my Mapping Stereotypes project and will be included in my upcoming Atlas of Prejudice book.