Clarence Darrow told us what happens when ignorance takes hold in a country

Building a Nation of Know-Nothings

[Via Daring Fireball]

Timothy Egan:

Take a look at Tuesday night’s box score in the baseball game between New York and Toronto. The Yankees won, 11-5. Now look at the weather summary, showing a high of 71 for New York. The score and temperature are not subject to debate.

Yet a president’s birthday or whether he was even in the White House on the day TARP was passed are apparently open questions. A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.

As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. I’m not so sure, though, that all the conservatives professing to believe that Obama is a Muslim, or wasn’t born a U.S. citizen, or any of these other fabrications, truly believe them. I think they know they’re spreading lies. See, for example, this story of a confrontation in an Oklahoma Starbucks.


Basing decisions on incorrect and misleading data is a sure course for ruin. Reality will eventually win, no matter how loud you shriek “LA-LA-La” with your fingers stuck in your ears. Just as many liberals believed that TARP was passed under Obama’s administration as did conservatives. Ignorance is not purely a matter of where you fall along the political spectrum.

Ignorance can make people feel comfortable, that perhaps scary reality can safely be held at bay if they simply believe hard enough in the lies.

But ignorance will only serve the short-term needs of those with a vested interest in maintaining ignorance, usually those with money or power. It will not solve the problems we have to face.

As the post states, this sort of managed ignorance, where many of the people spreading lies are not stupid and surely must know they are lying, does not happen by accident.

Clarence Darrow spoke about this appeal to ignorance in the Scopes Trial. HIs words from 1925 could just as easily be applied to the matters of today:

I will tell you what is going to happen, and I do not pretend to be a prophet, but I do not need to be a prophet to know. Your Honor knows that the fires that have been lighted in America to kindle religious bigotry and hate. You can take ,judicial notice of them if you cannot of anything else. You know that there is no suspicion which possesses the minds of men like bigotry and ignorance and hatred.

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Catholic and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one, you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers; tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

We see this whether the the topic is evolution, vaccination, climate change or politics. It raises some wonderful questions: Who are the powers that benefit by the “setting of man against man and creed against creed?” What do they gain by feeding ignorance and fanaticism?

Our Republic only works well with a base of educated citizens. They have to be smart enough to take really complex reality and find useful solutions. Unfortunately, an ignorant populace uses simplifying heuristics or rules of thumb that are wrong and easily manipulated. Thus the dual approach here of keeping people ignorant so they can be manipulated by fear-inducing lies and heuristics.

Perhaps if more people actually created views of the world based on verifiable facts and rational thought, rather than on lies and fear, we might be able move forward. Actually, unless we can get a large core of Americans who want to work with reality rather than against it, we will move backwards.

These are the forces that are using managed ignorance to maintain power. We must work against them with all of our strength because they will be happy to destroy us all in order to maintain themselves.

Image: Dominic Alves

9 thoughts on “Clarence Darrow told us what happens when ignorance takes hold in a country

  1. Creating a scene in public and using foul language is no way to change people’s minds. Assuming that they are oil and gas retirees and ‘are wealthy” is also being ignorant. I agree with the posted rant, but disagree with the way it was presented with no respect and no calmness. Does he really thing he changed anyone’s mind or was it just satisfying to be an arrogant bully? Besides, what difference does it make if he is a Muslim? Doesn’t the Constitution guarantee freedom from religion?

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