America’s Cult of Ignorance

asimov-culture-of-ignoranceIsaac Asimov wrote in the 1980s: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always 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.”

He describes a sad history of vilifying erudition, then Adlai Stevenson, now Barrack Obama; as well as unthinkingly accepting the proudly nonintellectual like yesteryear’s George Wallace or today’s Donald Trump.

The hippies gave us “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. By the time they were well into their 30s, community began to fall away to isolation. They shed their beads, donned work wear and started saying “Don’t trust the experts”. Hence the onset of the age of fear of elitists.

In 1980, Asimov wrote, “As soon as someone shouts “elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.” While this is still true of elitist hunters within academia, it is also now true that many calling out the sin of elitism are expressing a deeply-suppressed shame for their own ignorance.

Asimov’s concerning message of decades ago has only amplified and accelerated in the current age of instant and global communication. Today’s levels of national willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism have risen to a legitimate national security risk.

Life Cubicled

Actual conversation overheard at work today:

A: I think I’ll just stop off an pick up some KFC.

B: (palpable disgust) Eww…

A: You don’t like KFC?

B: (sustained palpable disgust) I HATE KFC.

A: Oh… I like their cole slaw.

B: Oh, I love their cole slaw.


A: Yeah…


B: (absolutely no irony) And their chicken.


Extra! Extra! Trump’s Press Secretary is a Pernicious Little Twit


Despite Trump’s boisterous claim that he knows words, the best words, he seems all to reliant on others to speak for him. At Trump’s first press conference, he had an attorney and a stack of papers do most of his talking. The stack of papers was far more succinct and on-message than either Trump or the attorney. And today, his first full day in office, he had his press secretary Sean Spicer speak for him. Having a press secretary speak for you to the press is actually a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Having Sean Spicer speak for you seems particularly reckless. Leaving the press corps waiting is also typical as schedules are often hard to manage for any administration. However, on the first day, the lengthy delay seemed intended as a punishment to a media that Trump openly disdains. Then Spicer made clear the intentions when he came out practically splattering the first row of journalists with the administration’s contempt.

He approached the mic a little breathless and understandably nervous. Then he opened his mouth and his speech quickly took the tone of a petulant rant. He spoke quickly, reluctant to take a breath for fear a media terrorist might lob a bomb in the form of a question. The entire event was organized to address “a little bit of the coverage of the last 24 hours”. The word coverage was spoken as one might say the word scabies.

The tone was set and the press corps seemed to push against the back rests of their chairs, seeking some distance from a man who may in fact be a little unhinged. According to his website, Spicer is “a seasoned communicator and strategist who has been combining his communications skills, creative sense, political savvy and issue knowledge to create, lead and implement successful public policy and issue campaign efforts for over fifteen years.” Fifteen years to craft this public relations tantrum is fifteen years lost. Far from a seasoned communicator, Spicer comes across mush-mouthed and far too reliant on reading rather than speaking.

Almost immediately he put forth rather confounding explanations for the smaller-than-normal crowds, widely reported, at Trump’s inauguration the previous day. To explain the biased images of sparse crowds, Spicer seemed at first to describe some new environmental consideration for our National Parks. However, it wasn’t, and it is hard to tell exactly what he was describing.

“This is the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass in the [National] Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual.”

A good amount of thought and effort went into crafting this spin. The result is bewildering. The Trump administration, as the man himself, seems unable to ignore any perceived slight. Rather than ignore it and move on, they call a press conference to highlight it, as well as draw attention to Trump’s own hypersensitivity. It begs the question how they will be able to handle an actual crisis.

Then Spicer cited fencing and security as the next conspirators hell bent on limiting Trump’s crowd size. Spicer spoke of inaccurately reported numbers of people at the event. He practically screeched, No one had numbers!” It was akin to a three year-old yelling, “But I don’t like my vegetables!” as if desperately and loudly stating something as fact can make unpleasant situations go away. Spicer went on to say the National Park Service controls access to the mall but does not release numbers. Ergo it is impossible to determine how many people may be in or around that area at any given time, and it was the height of irresponsibility for the press or the people to attempt such impossible estimations. Spicer stated this impossibility also applies to today’s Women’s March around the world. Apparently we will just never know. It is one of those divine natural mysteries that even science can’t overcome.

However, Spicer then proceeds to do the impossible and make an estimate of crowd size. By determining how many people can fit in the area, he was able to come up with, by his calculus, an accurate number: 720,000 souls. Their crack team also deduced that there were 103,000 more people on the D.C. Metro for Trump’s Inauguration Day than President Obama’s (Wrong!). So much for the impossible. I told you they put a lot of effort and thought into this response. In fact, by Spicer’s loud logic, Trump garnered “the largest audience to witness an inauguration. Period!”

Spicer then summarized Trump’s speech at CIA headquarters, with 400 in attendance who afterward gave a 5 minute standing ovation. There is a lot of emphasis on numbers here as well as devotion and sycophancy. Perhaps Trump will be able to cobble together a jobs policy that can put America’s unemployed back to work as paid enthusiastic audience members for speech rallies. Don’t think of it as a hand out or a hand up, but really just many happy hands clapping.

Spicer, the veteran communicator, then criticized the Democrats for stalling on the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as CIA Director (with no mention of the ten month block his party threw on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee). “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering instead of sowing divisions about tweets and false narratives,” Spicer spat. Perhaps journalists should heed this last point. He does seem at least knowledgeable, if not deft, with the false narrative.

At this point, Sean Spicer finally stopped reading his prepared statement. He reported upcoming events. Trump called Trudeau. Oh, and apparently Mexico has a new president as well. Someone named Uh-Na-Piña Nahto. Trump will receive Great Britain’s Teresa May, obliged by our two nations’ special relationship, as the first foreign head-of-state to pay a visit. Also, the whole administration has an ethics briefing tomorrow. Presumably they will discover they have none. Let’s hope that by then someone more palatable than Sean Spicer has been pegged to communicate that to the American press and people.

A Journey Back in Time

Recently I stumbled across an old travel log I wrote back in October of 2006 about a slow river trip in Myanmar. Much has changed there in the past decade, but the quiet riverways are still there for those who need a break from city stress.

Slow Boat Through Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar

 There’s not much to do on a slow boat trip up a long river in Myanmar.  There is no shuffleboard deck.  No waiters in neatly pressed white shorts to serve cold rum punch or garden salads, which is not to say there is nothing to eat or drink.  No reggae band to make the sweat feel worth it.  Thankfully, there is plenty to see even during the thunderous heart of monsoon season.  The landscape is an idyllic pastoral utopia of green, lush, fertile earth that literally erupts with life.  The river, its banks and surrounding paddies dominate the entertainment program.  Rice farmers work as they have for thousands of years.  Draft animals slop through the slough.  The only motor to be heard is that of our big rusty boat toiling upriver from Sitwe to Mrauk Oo.  The constantly reliable low churning drone of the engine distracts the animals and the farmers as they stop a moment to appraise the passing faces.  Then they are back to their task before our gentle wake even reaches their shore.  The hours tick away quickly as the passing view mesmerizes the passengers bend after bend.  Periodically the boat slows to a halt at a rickety wooden jetty where some passengers disembark and others hop aboard.  Chickens change hands and fish mongers ply passengers with salted fish on a stick.  Hardboiled eggs are just as popular. 

Occasionally a thunderclap introduces a fresh barrage of rain.  Passengers curl under umbrellas and raincoats.  The deck is covered but the tempest laughs at roofs and simply makes a sidelong approach.  Yet, a bundle of three opened umbrellas makes a rather effective shelter.  We are tightly packed and neighbors naturally form umbrella linked alliances.  Like the defensive position of a broad-shielded phalanx, we generally successfully repel the volley of water.  These frequent downpours set the schedule between eating, dozing and battening down under any available plastic.  After the rains retreat the people are enervated and activity swells into almost a carnival like atmosphere as people reposition themselves to share food and talk about anything and everything.  Burmese sarongs or longyis are retied around thin waists, wet clothes are flung over rusty side rails.  People laugh at seemingly everything. 

            After a while a lull sneaks aboard and the people begin to doze in heaps all about the deck.  One old man stands out.  He is moving about stepping over lazing families.  Almost frantically the old man worked, running worn wires round the roof beams and connecting them to an old scratchy speaker box on one side of the boat and an old recycled camp-style megaphone on the other.  The initial squelch from the speaker system roused even those most deeply dozing.  We positioned himself on the floor in the middle of the rousing crowd.  He held a bulging bag in his lap and a small portable cassette player on a knee.  Knowing most people were no fully intrigued, he pushed play and a sound spewed from the speakers that would have sent any cats aboard swimming home in fright.  The emanating incantations seemed to even scare the ubiquitous clouds away for a time.  The skies would not steal the old man’s thunder.  Everyone was awake now as the sounds of Buddhist prayer-chanting mixed with varied strings loomed over the entire boat.  The chants evoked auspiciousness and health.  Suddenly the man pushed the stop button and a silence hung in the air.  He took a moment to unplug the cassette player and replace it with a microphone deftly pulled from his bagful of tricks.  Another ear-splitting squelch underscored the anticipation, followed by a theatrical pause that had the crowd nearly pulling their hair out. 

            The man stood slowly placing his bag at his feet, straightening his neatly wrapped longyi and flattening his neatly tailored though slightly threadbare Burmese waste coat.  Suddenly he unleashed a barrage of phrasings that tested the parameters of the speakers’ range.  He was indeed animated.  He pointed at children, he pointed at old ladies.  He swept a thin over the heads of the crowd.  They smiled and laughed drew in quick short breaths as he jutted a pointed finger in their collective face.  He was a modern day medicine man hawking his magical cure-all:  Dr. Doe Thon’s 8-Herbs Tooth Powder.  This was to be used as a toothpaste for of course, clean healthy strong teeth.  The benefits don’t stop there.  Usage also increases hair growth, general virility and especially aids in the preservation of internal organs.  He constantly referred to himself as a proof-positive example of the powders powers.  It was clear that he had his own teeth.  With all the rattling of his jaw and jowls it seems his teeth were quite strong indeed.  His hair was jet black suspiciously with no streaks of gray.  It couldn’t be described as luxuriant but not as sparse as the hair on most 70-year-old heads.  He was a bit on the thin side but his overt enthusiasm belied vim and vigor.  The powder came in small sachets with a conventional label featuring a black and white photo of a much younger Dr. Doe.  Each packet cost 200 kyats or around 15 cents.  Dr. Doe passed a number of samples around the audience.  Many of the mesmerized masses eagerly perused the packet and sniffed at the powder inside.  A few tasted a pinch to discover a not-unpleasant flavor.  Alas, only a few were sold.  After interest in his pitch waned and another lull was imminent, the old man at down again.  He carefully replaced the samples in the big bulging bag of packets.  The speakers were taken down and the worn wire wound in a neat bundle.  He replaced his microphone in the same bag.  He patiently rewound his introductory cassette tape with a long fresh cheroot, before patiently and contentedly smoking it. 

            After a time, the boat was silent again as people lounged and lazed across the deck.  The old man laid down with his head pillowed by his bulging bag of powder sachets.  A thunderclap again forewarned of looming rain clouds.  Dr. Doe Thon didn’t have an umbrella.  He woke and began to look for a dry haven.  Suddenly a number of people nearby invited him to join them under their broad shield of umbrellas.  He disappeared under the protective dome.  He was sure to bring his bag within as well.  A few more sales were made there under those umbrellas.  When the rain finally cleared those folks came out with bright fresh smiles, firmly convinced in the veracity of Dr. Doe Thon and his 8-Herbs Tooth Powder. 

            A slow moving meandering boat trip upriver is a momentous way to see the best of Myanmar.  There is very little to do but eat, sleep and see.  Fortunately, the food is good, the rest is sound and the sights are surreal.  After many hours the boat reaches Mrauk Oo and the passengers slowly disembark and begin walking home.  Dr. Doe Thon walked away slowly along a muddy road.  He carried his heavy bags and tucked under a thin arm was a new umbrella someone had given him.  The sun was shining momentarily but there were other clouds that would have their way.  Dr. Doe was well prepared with a proven cure-all and a sound umbrella.