Michelle Gillett: 'Age of ignorance' definitely upon us


STOCKBRIDGE -- You know how you can get caught up with things on Facebook despite your better judgment? I am a sucker for videos that involve dogs doing funny things, for photos of relatives' children and attendant comments, tests that tell me what kind of bird, "Downton Abbey" character, mythological creature, historical figure I would be if I were a bird, "Downton Abbey" character, mythological creature or historical figure. I stop at anything to do with poetry, writing, and once in a while, politics. I also have a weakness for flash mobs.

Last week one of my Facebook friends shared a link from "The New York Review of Books" to a blog by Charles Simic. I read it because Simic is a poet whose work I admire and whose political views I relate to. Like most of the things I pay attention to on Facebook, the link disappeared into the long scroll of yesterday's news, but unlike most things I read or watch on Facebook, it didn't scroll down in my head, but stayed with me.


The blog, titled, "The Age of Ignorance," was written by Simic two years ago. The friend who posted it must have noticed its timeliness still. Simic addressed issues I worry about: why do we believe all the nonsense we are told by the media, talk show hosts, and yes, even Facebook?

"Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal, " Simic begins, and then continues to illustrate all the ways this is true. "It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last 40 years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year."

Simic teaches American Literature and says it has become "harder and harder in recent years, since students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or poem was written..." An article in "The Washington Post" last week about the differences between digital and print reading cited research done by cognitive neuroscientists who warn that we are developing digital brains: new circuits are enabling us to skim through online information and at the same time, those circuits are competing with "traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia." Our superficial online reading is affecting in-depth reading and concentration. Try surfing the web all day and then settling down with "Moby-Dick."

Of course, there are other reasons for our increasing lack of knowledge. But the most insidious, Simic believes, is the propaganda fed to us by what he calls "the most fanatical and intolerant parties." Political polarization is creating a culture of lies. And too many people don't bother to find out what is true. For instance, last week Fox News, the most watched news network in the country, claimed that the Obama administration was to "give up" direct oversight of the Internet and "transfer control to an international body controlled by foreign governments." The White House doesn't really have oversight or control of the Internet, but millions of people now think China will soon control the Internet.

In the past, Simic points out, "if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid attention to him. No more." We pay too much attention to nonsense, and now that the Supreme Court has decided to allow more private money in electoral politics by removing a limit on the total number of candidates one can donate to in one election season, we will be listening to even more of it.


The Koch Brothers, whose political spending knows no bounds, have already spent vast amounts on politicians who support their interests or whose support can be bought. Their ad campaigns claimed the new health care reform law has caused health care costs to skyrocket when the opposite is true -- health care spending is at the lowest point ever. There was so much disinformation flying around about the Affordable Care Act, it was hard for anyone not to feel the buffeted by confusion.

The Kochs' company is also "one of the primary sources of carbon pollution in the United States" and so, they have underwritten campaigns against environmental regulation. David Koch has claimed that global warming is beneficial: "The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because a far greater land area will be available to produce food."

With their campaigns funded by billionaires, candidates will soon be filling the airwaves with interest groups' ideals instead of their own, if they had any. Let's hope Abraham Lincoln's words still have a meaning despite our willingness to believe what's not true. "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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