Ignorance Is Bliss? Not in America

Ignorance is not bliss

Ignorance is not bliss

Michael Brenner

Why bother with facts? That question threads its way through political discourse, through educational philosophy and through observations on the media. Rarely is it confronted squarely. For the lines between actual reality and virtual reality have been so blurred that the distinction itself no longer is generally recognized.  The axiom that since I say it with good (personal) reason, it’s as good as true has become the implicit article of faith. However, the immediate benefits of playing fast and loose with the facts have huge costs for society as a whole that our self-absorbed fellow citizens blithely overlook.

This cavalier attitude ignores the great advantages of thinking with a fact filled mind – rather than a sparsely populated one that reaches for the smart phone on those increasingly rare occasions when a bit of information is sought in lieu of just making it up. To demonstrate that proposition, here are ten facts that can help navigating the turbid waters in which we routinely find ourselves.

1. The United States Constitution – above all the Bill of Rights or first ten amendments. Article Four stipulates that…

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The freedom to be secure in one’s domicile and communications from intrusion by police authorities has been under heavy attack since 9/11. Two successive administrations have mounted a series of draconian programs , abetted by innovations in electronic methods of surveillance, which have voided fourth amendment protections of much of their practical value. All these trespasses have been declared legal and constitutional by the White House, the Department of Justice, the heads of our intelligence agencies and obedient federal courts.

Here is what General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), declared before a public body in 2005:

“the phrase ‘probable course’ is not in the fourth Amendment.  If there is any amendment to the Constitution that we are familiar with at the NSA, it is the fourth.”

That is an outright lie – one that he repeatedly stated.  None of the MSM reporting on his remarks pointed that out. The vast majority of listeners took Hayden’s statement at face value.  Doubtless, they had only foggiest idea of what the fourth amendment actually says and/or were too lazy to check it. Hayden, by no means a stupid man, found it convenient to misstate the amendment’s wording to justify the illicit spying on Americans he was conducting.

  •  The benefits of having the facts at one’s disposal are three-fold. First, they immediately tell you that the high official up on the stage addressing a crucial civil liberties issue was engaging in gross misrepresentation. Second, in reaching for a bowdlerized version of the Constitution, he was trying to hide something that he otherwise could not defend. Third, the stark evidence of this public lying would alert you to subsequent lies on the same subject by General James Clapper, his successor, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, by CIA Director John Brennan, and by President Obama himself.

Lesson: do not accept instruction from authority figures without checking. Shameless lying nowadays pervades our public life

2.   University Tuition.  American higher education is consumed by anxious discussion of the rising price of a college education. Steadily increasing tuition is putting it beyond the reach of many from poor or modest income families. Burdening oneself with heavy debt or working while studying are their only options. Graduation rates are falling correspondently. Most of the debate concentrates on ameliorative measures.  Most prominent is the movement in the direction of distance learning using variations of Mass Online Open Courses or MOOCs.  Many blame University authorities themselves for not cutting costs so as to contain rises in tuition. President Obama is one of those blaming the victims. Many others blame partying students.

The simple truth lies in the fact that public policy toward high education has changed drastically over the past 40 or so years. There has been a reactionary movement away from support for public universities.  In the 1960s, tuition for in-state students was negligible.  In California, it was free. Monies appropriated by legislatures covered up to 90% of the costs. Today, that has dropped on average to 13%.

There it is – without the ideological and political dressing that distracts us from a harsh truth.

Lessons: practice thinking historically and by analogy. To do so requires only elementary logic and elementary arithmetic when applied to a reasonable stock of knowledge

3. Educational Performance. Nearly everyone agrees that American public education is failing – from K – 12. The evidence: the relatively poor performance of American students on standardized tests that measure abilities in math and science around the globe.  The East Asians are at the top, the Scandinavians follow a step below.  The United States is well down the table at something like 23 or 27.

The sky is falling! These figures, which are accurate, are being used to justify a wholesale attack on public education while providing fuel for the Charter school movement that amounts to a de facto privitization of American education.

Yet, a closer look at what actually is going on reveals a quite different reality – one that points in the direction of quite different educational policies. There is one factor in the equation that explains a very large fraction of the differential test scores by nationality which the above mentioned studies register. Simply put, the United States has a far larger underclass whose children are far less prepared for today’s rigorous education. We have a vastly greater percentage of families that live below the poverty line, and/or are immigrants from countries where English is not spoken and/or are raised in broken families and/or in neighborhoods riven by drugs and crime. If one factors out these elements, then American students score pretty much at the same level as do their European counterparts.

Of course, underachievement among children of the underclass is a serious problem. But it is not reason to condemn public education generally and teachers in particular – as do Secretary of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama. Nor are Charter schools an answer to educational failings among the underclass. While there are a few successes among heavily financed and well publicized private schools aimed at those children, on a nation-wide basis Charter schools perform marginally worse than do public schools – despite the liberty they have to exclude “problem” children.

Lesson: avoid fads, fashions and panaceas in public policy. Those promoting them usually have an ulterior motive – financial or political

4. Afghanistan. In December, President Obama held a White House ceremony to mark the end of the Afghan war. A neat photo-op was lapped up by the media. Yet, the factual truth is that the United States’ military engagement has not ended and will not end. Yes, on several occasions the President had stated that American forces numbering about 5 – 7,000 would remain in place to train the Afghan National Army and to provide passive Intelligence support. That has changed, though – officially. The President announced late last year that our forces would continue to participate in search-and-destroy missions and to operate attack helicopters (not just drones) on an “as needed” basis. That was confirmed by recent reports of American troops leading raids, and by declarations of Ashton Carter. Then the Associated Press reported on March 14 that “the United States has abandoned plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by year’s end.”  The NYT confirmed on March 20 that “senior Obama administration officials broadly concluded during meetings over the last week that many of the roughly 10,000 troops and thousands of civilian contractors in Afghanistan would be needed well into 2016.”

Moreover, the Congress is now considering President Obama’s request for a War Authorization Resolution directed at ISIL. Loosely drawn, it would enable the White House to take military action where and when it deems necessary to deal with an ISIL or ISIL associated threat. Any radical Islamist group in Afghanistan that declares itself to be ISIL-affiliated thereby could trigger an expanded American intervention.

Therefore, the United States’ war-fighting role is not over. Whatever one thinks of the policy, the important point is that the President has gone back on a solemn pledge that he made to the American people. He obscures the fact by hosting a ceremony to mark an ending that is not occurring and which his actions contradict. Furthermore, he has felt no obligation to explain why the reversal of what was advertised as an historic decision. The MSM and the political class have ignored this shell game – in part because their brains already had forgotten what was said three months earlier.

Lesson A: Place no stock in authoritative, official sources. Test every statement against your own memory and apply a standard of logic. Cultivate a healthy skepticism that presumes a predisposition to misrepresent – in one way or another

Lesson B: For 13 years, the U.S. has been building Bernini’s Vatican clock tower on unforgiving subsoil in Afghanistan. It will suffer the same fate; our leaders will never admit this.

5. Habeas Corpus is the oldest and most fundamental of civil liberties. Dating from the Magna Carta in the Anglo-American tradition, it is enshrined in our Constitution. The principle denies government authorities the right to arbitrarily detain citizens. Much of our criminal jurisprudence flows from this ensconcing of habeas corpus. There is nothing more hallowed in word and deed.

Yet the Congress has passed, and President Obama – the constitutional law professor – has signed into law legislation that directly contravenes that principle.  The  National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012  requires the Executive to apprehend, imprison and detain indefinitely any person who it judges to be a threat to the safety and security of other Americans, i.e. a potential terrorist. These actions involve no due process whatsoever, are to be kept secret, and even the victim’s family members kept in the dark. In short, persons are to be “disappeared” as in Argentina under the military Junta, as in the old Soviet Union, as in North Korea today.

An ignorant Congress, an ignorant MSM and an ignorant public thus shred our most basic civil liberty without public debate.  Although there is no guarantee that fuller awareness of what habeas corpus is and has meant would have prevented Congress and Obama from this blatantly unconstitutional act, such knowledge might have agitated the public and given our rulers pause.

Lesson: Read the Bill of Rights carefully and the entry on it in Wikipedia. Resist suggestions that the unique stresses and strains of the times call for a bit of arthroscopic surgery

6. Vietnam. The fourteen year war in Vietnam War was the greatest, and most costly, strategic failure in American history – at least until Iraq. The casualties were ten times as high, civilian deaths in the millions, even if the diplomatic price was far smaller. American society was traumatized by Vietnam. Still, in the best American tradition of turning optimistically to the future – going forward, the veil of amnesia was drawn over the war. It is barely studied in schools. It is largely ignored by students of international relations. It almost never passes the lips of our leaders. Hence, its lessons for our more recent misadventures in the Islamic world have been totally missed.

This willful ignorance has had profound effects in encouraging errors and deceitful actions to go unremarked.  Here is short list of things from Vietnam that might have profitably remembered. The United States government lied its way into war by fabricating the notorious Tonkin Gulf incident – just as the Bush administration lied about WMD and Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida to win support for the invasion of Iraq. That’s one. The United States committed atrocities on a large scale in Vietnam. My Lai, the most infamous, was not unique. The killing of civilians, in some places and some times, verged on becoming a sport. Indiscriminate shelling and bombing of villages killed many more. Torture and rape were commonplace. That’s two.  By comparison, we followed Marquis of Queensbury rules in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, though, was due less to conscious adherence to higher moral standards than to the nature of the combat, the enemy and the terrain. (See the comprehensive, documented account by Nick Turse in Kill Anything That Moves.  There also are a number of documentaries that recount atrocious events and programs confirmed by live interviews with participants).

Three, the promiscuous use of massive firepower was to the net advantage of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. It elicited popular support and served as a recruitment mechanism just as our use of violence in the “War On Terror” has served as a recruiting sergeant for various violent jihadist groups.  The United States prosecuted the Vietnam War on automatic pilot even for years after it became obvious that our objectives were unachievable. Today, we stay on the Afghanistan treadmill despite the President’s inability to articulate what a satisfactory outcome would look like. Deja-vu all over again!

Lesson: The lessons to be taken from Vietnam are so numerous and so profound that every dutiful citizenship owes it to himself to immerse himself in its history.

7. Social Security. The most baleful effects of studied ignorance register in the case of Social Security. Current discussions are predicated on a supposed vulnerability of the Social Security Trust Fund that simply does not exist. This is a case of bipartisan misrepresentation that borders on the Big Lie. The Fund is not running out of money any time over the next 25 years – even without the minor adjustments that would keep it solvent for at least another generation beyond that. But there is a powerful interest in propagating the myth that it is on the point of bankruptcy.

To understand how and why this pernicious game is being played, we must bear in mind two cardinal facts. One is that the government has been draining monies out of Social Security for the past 45 years to cover expenditures in the conventional budget. The revenue sources for each are separate and legally distinct. The former come from our Social Security withholdings that all salaried workers and employers pay. The latter come from general tax revenues.  By combining the two, the overall budget deficit looks smaller than it actually is since Social Security has been running surpluses for this entire period – and because shifting money from one to the other continues. The withdrawn funds are replaced by special IOUs issued by the Treasury exclusively for this purpose.

In theory, Social Security should be able to cash them in when needed. But that would have the effect of adding to the general budget deficit rather than lowering the number as has been happening routinely up until now.  So the date that both Congress and the President are fixed on is the day when Social Security begins paying out more than it is taking in via new contributions and accrued interest on the bonds.  That date, estimated to be 2021, will come decades before the Fund is actually exhausted – if no adjustments are made.

Shining the light of truth on the issue of Social Security funding needs would have a revolutionary effect.  For one thing, it would expose the fact that beneficiaries – now and in the future – have been subsidizing all those programs that are government funded. This is a gross example of regressive taxation since the Social Security withholding scale falls more heavily on those at the lower end of the income ladder.  The other implication is that the elderly and infirm are having their benefits cut so that the rest of the country (especially the rich) don’t have to pay higher federal taxes.

Lesson: The entire discourse on Social Security has been twisted out of shape by a bipartisan project to shortchange all those that rely on it

8.  Energy Imports

There is a current of excitement running through the foreign affairs community sparked by the prospect that the United States will cease being a net energy importer within 25 years. The International Energy Agency’s annual WORLD ENERGY OUTLOOK 2013 projects that by 2035 or so, the country will produce enough oil and natural gas to dispense with most foreign supplies. New extraction techniques rather than discovery of new sources are the deus ex machine that is slated to work this startling turnabout.  Were this seeming potential to be realized, some imagine the United States gaining freedom of action in dealing with the oil rich states of the Middle East as well as troublesome commercial partners elsewhere like Venezuela.  We might choose to ignore them altogether. Moreover, as a net exporter itself, the United States could gain leverage on other parties. That is the happy vision that is tantalizing to global strategists.

However, the reality is that there is no readily definable magic threshold beyond which the balance of dependency between supplier states and consumer states, and thereby reciprocal influence, shifts drastically. That is to say, the energy trade, like most international commerce is symbiotic; it has its own logic. Moreover, the motivations of governments are not solely economic. There are realpolitik and nationalist sentiments at play as well.

In addition, economic conditions in one country are heavily dependent on economic performance in other major national economies.  If the European Union, Japan, or China experiences a severe downturn, it quickly will have serious repercussions on the United States. The precise degree of sensitivity to external developments cannot be calculated.  Some countries, e.g. Germany, have a larger share of their economic activity directly associated with imports and exports than some others, e.g. the United States. For the former it is 44%, for the latter it is 16%. But even the United States is unable to insulate itself from macro-economic developments among the largest national economies. The global financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated vividly the fragility of current globalized economic system.

Fourth, in a world of economic interdependence, it makes no sense to speak of the United States economy as if it were autarkic. So long as other major economies remain energy dependent, their vulnerability to supply disruption is our problem as well.  Economic security in today’s world cannot be achieved within one’s sovereign boundaries, by dint of one’s own efforts alone.  There is no such thing as economic security in one country -whatever its energy situation. And energy is still the most crucial element needed to sustain the global economy. So, by implication, energy security for the United States encompasses the energy security of the developed world generally – if the measuring rod is performance and stability of the global macro economy.

Lesson: Be skeptical about claims that ‘a silver bullet’ has been found to deal with any of America’s deep and chronic problems

9. Founts of Wisdom    Former Secretary of State and CIA Director Robert Gates’ recent memoir is worth reading and its contents worth retaining. Doing so serves two purposes.  It is a salutary reminder that the reflections of public men are self-serving in the extreme; therefore, any statement in them should be taken with a large dose of salt. Gates presents himself as a wise, experienced senior statesman endowed with exceptional probity of judgment. From this lofty perch, he casts aspersions at those who have disagreed with him or somehow crossed swords with him. He goes out of his way to be dismissive of Vice-President Joe Biden whose judgment on all matters foreign is disparaged. He writes: “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Biden’s mortal sin was to argue against the Pentagon plan in 2009 for a drastic increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan open-ended in time, of which Gates was the architect and chief promoter.

Gates, the self-declared cynosure of sound judgment, said this about Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1991:  “Mikhail Gorbachev is a ‘drugstore cowboy’ who has shown his true Bolshevik colors.”  That was more than a year after the disintegration of the USSR’s Eastern European empire and the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO. The incident that provoked Gates  was when hard-liners of the dying Soviet Union broke up demonstrations in Vilnius, Lithuania.*   Gates also  is the man who skewed CIA intelligence assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions so as to serve the personal agenda of CIA Director William Casey in the Reagan days.

The second reason to be attentive to Gates’ record is that he is issuing oracular pronouncements about prospective future American military engagements.   In a speech before West Point cadets in February of last year, he declared unequivocally:

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa ‘should have his head examined.”

This is from a man who was an ardent backer of the invasion of Iraq and the instigator of the Obama escalation in Afghanistan.

His new-found skepticism is a piece with other such imperative warnings that senior public figures have made in the wake of one military adventure after another. In the train of the Korean War, one heard from all sides: “Never again a war on the mainland of Asia.” Within little more than a decade we were up to our waist in Vietnam. That war led to a similar chorus admonishing us to avoid at all costs another such quagmire.  Then came the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters.

That has been followed by a medley of Gates-like alerts that it would insane for any President to do something similar. How long will this new pledge last? So long as the United States sees itself as a global power with unique interests, unique capabilities and unique virtue – one that is committed to maintaining full-spectrum military dominance in every part of the globe – its half-life is very brief.

Lesson: Whatever comments about candidates, other persons, events or policies that are made by Robert Gates should be scrutinized against this backdrop. We should treat the memoirs of all other public figures with similar skepticism.

* Quoted in Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1997)

10.  “Opportunity” vs Economic Justice

“Inequality” is in the political winds. It promises to be the catchword of the 2016 elections. Even rock-ribbed Republicans now follow the fashion of sprinkling it into their speeches – despite their have promoted policies and philosophies throughout their careers that have caused the drastic shift in national wealth from the poor and those of modest incomes to the rich and, especially, the top 1%. Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee, is reported by The New York Times as struggling with how to present herself on the issue. Having long abandoned the Democrats’ natural working class constituency and cozy with Wall Street, she is squirming.

Hillary is tempted to take the course of least resistance – the same path blazed by President Obama last year. It features a calculated substitution of the phrase “equal opportunity” for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Simply put, create the impression that the goal is for everyone to have a crack at becoming a billionaire while ignoring the generation long decline in standards of living for the majority of Americans.

Last January, Barack Obama used the State of the Union address to sow exactly that confusion. His much heralded war on inequality, barely a month old, was being replaced by a clarion call for a Marshall plan to build “ladders of opportunity.”  The politics was obvious: “opportunity” is less contentious. The opportunity theme has been picked up by many others on a bipartisan basis for that reason. America today is a plutocracy. Talk of how national wealth is distributed upsets those who garner the lion’s share. It smacks of ‘class war,” i.e. the exploited, the short-changed, the neglected and the strugglers may get into their heads the “un-American” notion that the game is rigged – that government policies favor the well-placed, that appeals to that same government for relief are rejected as unacceptable abuse of the system which is theirs alone. Mr. Obama obviously had heard and listened to them between December 4 when he gave his inequality speech, “inequality is the defining issue of our times,” and January 24 when he changed the mission.

Now Hillary Clinton seems poised to surrender to the mythology that so neatly serves the Republican philosophy and those interests it promotes. It literally is music to their ears. The unhappy economic plight of the less well-off thereby is no longer defined as the result of structural features of the American economy as fostered by government policy.  Rather, it is transformed into an individual matter whereby persons are deprived because they have not managed to climb the latter of success.

The availability of such ladders is one issue. Another, even more important, is the condition of those who have no access to the ladder and/or that the reward for their work has dropped because of the way power is distributed and used in America. Most people are not going to reach the top or anywhere near it – that is an impossibility. But that does not mean that they should be denied a decent life.

By concentrating on opportunity alone, politicians and pundits evade the hard issues of public policy. Moreover, they ignore simple logic. It makes no sense to encourage people to climb the ladder of success when their conjectured ability to do so promises riches that are unavailable. Not everyone can be as well-off as today’s 1% is, or the 5% or the 10%. There is not that much money to go around. Nor are there that many managerial/entrepreneurial jobs – who will do the work of the “working man?” In other words, improving the standard of living of salaried Americans whose share of national wealth actually has declined steadily for 40 years, who are worse off today in absolute terms than they were a decade or three ago, demands a shift in some portion of the wealth concentrated at the top to those lower down the scale. That is the arithmetic of it.

Against this reality, the placing of a few aluminum ladders against the commanding heights of the economy (whose denizens continue to ride the express elevator) will mean little or nothing for remedying the historic inequality that we are experiencing.

Moreover, the opportunity ladder metaphor disparages all those who work hard at the myriad jobs that the large majority of Americans occupy. Are they to be respected as diligent contributors to the national welfare – or deserving only of thin rations since they failed in a universal competition to scale the ladders that lead into the boardrooms, trading floors and real estate development sites of America?

These are the facts, and these are the questions that we should have in mind as the candidates nimbly try to finesse the inequality issue.

Concluding Lesson: We cannot trust our public officials to level with us. Their encounters with truth-telling are incidental. It follows that we must enable ourselves to test their veracity and the probity of their judgments by retaining a large inventory of factual knowledge by which to assess both.

Two other features of our political culture make this an imperative. First, the MSM have largely abdicated their responsibility to serve as the public’s watchdog. Initially too  intimidated by a fear of political or commercial retaliation to do anything more that passively defer to the prevailing intellectual consensus, media executives and editors nowadays take as the norm a timid  aversion to looking beneath the surface or behind the veil. Second, we cannot count on the political parties to highlight the errors and omissions in each other’s public posturing. Politics has become a play of images with the contestants, especially the Democrats, keen to keep contentious substance at bay. That is due in large part to the degree of coincidence among the parties in accepting as given a broad set of premises about contemporary America. 

Of the ten issues posed above, there is a near bipartisan consensus on nine of them; responsibility for the masking of disturbing realities is shared. Only on inequality, is there a noteworthy and visible difference – if we leave aside President Obama’s backtracking and Hillary’s equivocation.

We’re on our own. 

Michael Brenner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.  Article used by permission of the author.

6 thoughts on “Ignorance Is Bliss? Not in America

  1. Professor Brenner.. You have just brought down from the mountain the ten commandments of how to be a good citizen of our democracy, or what is left of it. Let all who read this heed the words and spread the message.

  2. Brilliant message. Simply stated – after reading about the surveillance violations – again for the Nth time – as presented here – I can help but ask this – so if the 4th makes the violations illegal – which it clearly does – & the govt [tyranny is more appropriate] says the surveillance is legal – then wouldn’t that require a constitutional amendment to change the GUARANTEED RIGHT in the very same constitution? On the other hand, a tyranny that breaks it’s own rules [ALL DO – but the US – damn enough said – and selectively applies them as it pleases] becomes illegitimate & thus unfit to use any “rule of law” much less the very ones it burns to ashes, violates on any & every imaginable level, & yet uses as a reason to “show” why it represents all this is good – actually why it is the ALMIGHTY.

  3. Recommend the following article by John W. Traphagan
    Professor of Religious Studies, University of Texas, Austin

    see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-w-traphagan/america-ignorance-asia-intelligence_b_5505032.html

    America’s Cult of Ignorance Is No Match for Asia’s Cult of Intelligence

    Isaac Asimov: “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.”

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