Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Democracy in America

If you're reading this,
you're probably ignorant
By Tom Van Dyke

Good friend-of-the-blog John Fea asks "Are Americans Ignorant?."

First off, I'm a little uncomfortable with open-ended questions that float like a fart in the air. I've used that technique meself, I confess, but let's get real.

In the words of that great philosopher Ali G, he who smelt it, dealt it.

"Was George Washington a Satanist?" Well, 999 times out of 1000, you're arguing that he was. [Well, actually, he was, but let's drop that for now.]

So yeah, I think Dr. Fea is saying, yes, Americans are ignorant, even if it's in the form of a question.

This Tea Party thing is about to vote out the current regime in Congress bigtime, and the recent Pew [no pun intended, but I'll take it] polls that Dr. Fea cites about religions and civics knowledge say we Americans don't know squat about squat.

And sort of, we don't. We don't know if Vishnu is the current president of Israel or the latest iPhone app for Argentina. Probably most of us don't know that Bill Clinton's wife is the Secretary of State. How can we trust us to even vote?

But let's just do the math here. Think of how stupid and ignorant the average person is. Well, that pretty much means half the population is even more stupid and ignorant than he is. I mean, it is what it is. You can't fight the math in a democracy. And really, Vishnu will pick you up a couple bucks on a quiz show, but can't tell you the price of Chinese tea at Wal-Mart, OK?

And so on to the Founding:

Everybody knows the Founders were "elitists." Only white male property owners could vote or whatever. Federalists like John Adams were especially good with that. Adams wrote to Jefferson that an idea was floating around Massachusetts to come up with something like a House of Lords.

You know, the elite.

Jefferson replied:

"I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society."

Jefferson trusted the people, and he was sure right in that we had wealth [John Kerry] and birth [Bush 41 & 43, Al Gore]. Still, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama made it through the net, and that's not even going back very far.

And although I'm quite partisan, looking back at it historically, and with a trust of the wisdom of the American people, there's not a single election in the 20th and 21st centuries where I'd say the wrong man won. Ford? Mondale? Dole? Hey, I voted for Michael Dukakis and I'm not ashamed to admit it!

Even if we want to quibble about this guy or that guy, the batting average of the American people is way higher than that of the "elites." "In general," said Jefferson, "they will elect the real good and wise."

I don't think we're stupid or ignorant atall. I trust us, regardless of our knowledge or sophistication or lack of either. Plus, as it turns out, in this here democracy, I really have no choice but to trust my fellow citizens, talk it out, and then each head for the voting booth.

[In fairness to Dr. Fea, more precisely he wrote:

"Kerry's remarks were bad only if we define what is good and bad based upon the ethical system (if we can call it that) of American politics. And if this is the case, as I am afraid it now is, God help us.

Help! I think I am becoming an elitist!!"

As a partisan on the other side of John Kerry, I find his political ethics unacceptable if not invisible. I do think "what is good and bad" can be debated and realized "upon the ethical system (if we can call it that) of American politics."

Again, in the real world, on this earth, America is where the Kingdom of God vs. the City of Man will be debated; nowhere else. But Dr. Fea may be right. Perhaps we can't debate it in America either, but it's the American tradition to try.]


King of Ireland said...

From years of teaching, I think I have to agree with Fea.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I see your point, King, but it's the ideas of the elite that scare the bejesus out of me.

I think Jefferson would be with Buckley when he said that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

Jason_Pappas said...

I’d agree with Buckley here and Jefferson, if this is true. Let’s make a distinction between intellectual sophistication and common sense. The American people have had a decent amount of the latter. And it was something prized by our Founding Fathers, wasn't it?

Of course, while the FF believed the common sense of the citizenry could be engaged to support and sustain a liberal order, they also knew that people were susceptible to corruption. Here they devised structural features to achieve checks and balances.

Shall we say they were neither utopians nor cynics?

Brad Hart said...

Mr. Pappas:

I don't know any other way to get in touch with you so forgive my being blunt here in the comments. Would you be interested in joining our blog as a contributor? We're pretty informal here so you could post what you want, when you want. Let one of us know and we'll get you on board.

Jason_Pappas said...

My e-mail is jason_from_nyc on I'm honored. Let me ask you a few questions.

Pinky said...

What's with this idea that sounds like some one is worried about Americans being ignorant. Doesn't ignorance serve the interests of the ruling class?

Daniel said...

Of course, elites are capable of amazing ignorance. Most of the contributors to this blog have noted some truly ignorant statements made by some of our "Key Framers" (how elite can you get?).

We should not forget that the Framers had a pretty narrow notion of the appropriate electorate. Realistically, white property owners were probably the set of the population most likely to have the ability to make inform themselves on matters involving government. Government powers were far more limited and it was possible for an educated person to have a decent level of knowledge of the government's functions and decisions. Increasing size and complexity makes it unlikely that anyone can be sufficiently informed.