Best nations really are the brightest. Solution: Close the reason gap

America's pushing dumb and dumber, while dumbing down the next generation.

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Note to 2022 readers: The Past Lives On

When researching my next piece on the Party of Reason vs. the Party of Unreason, I stumbled over the use of a neat quotation attributed to philosopher George Santayana.  I couldn’t find corroboration for the line, “Reason is the passion for order,” on Santayana’s page.  But lo and behold, I find I had used it, perhaps imprecisely, in 2010 at the SC. I read my essay with some surprise, not only because I was pleased with the lucidity of thought but because the same language I used twelve years ago fits almost perfectly, just change a few names. Okay, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but even this scribbler was stunned by the eerie closeness of the parallels, even the worsening of conditions as irrationality rages on. Puts a dent into my optimistic stance, however. Enjoy and comment whether you agree. R Becker

March 9, 2010

What most jeopardizes every American, curiously enough, is wholly within our control. 100 percent. Better still, substantial solutions are affordable, may be sequenced, and every dollar stays home—a bargain at half the cost of endless Iraq vs. killing machines, we just have to value rationality and intellectual capital, “national resources” more put upon than compromised farmland, rivers, clean air or water. Echoing the Cold War on missiles, we have a Reason Gap.

Yet this galactic, infrastructure task—to revitalize education and discovery from top to bottom—remains invisible, off the media radar. In the real world, there’s nary more from the Obama crew, beside reversing stem cell and a modicum for alternative energy.

America’s pushing dumb and dumber, while dumbing down the next generation. Astonishingly, at least to the over-educated, we are willfully blind to how rapidly and profoundly the key engine for our high living standards is slipping away. Whether running a family or a conglomerate, you can’t fix stupidity, signaled by not learning from failure. Terrorists stick to actual caves, but we are constrained in mental frames.

Intellectual Capital rules

The crucial imperative is feeding innovative, intellectual capital across the boards, from K through advanced studies, public and private. Do we need another Sputnik to rouse us from smugness? Or dispel groundless anti-government bigotry, or learn technological revolutions don’t come from praying for the Rapture? Nor is democracy advanced by equating taxation with thievery, or the IRS with thugs, or talking up new civil wars with secession nonsense. These sorry outcomes result from not educating and informing legitimate protesters about what defines a citizen and what honors America.

Rational adults simply don’t argue whether or not expertise, training, and creativity are nice-to-have luxuries. They know they are imperative national must-haves. Either we invest in problem-solving—to then resolve well whatever else comes up—or we fail twice, defeated by ourselves and unpredictable destiny. With all respect to health reform, bodies don’t solve problems, brains do, especially by identifying and fostering emergent geniuses. Second-class education guarantees we become, except for a fortressed elite, a second-class nation trapped in a third-class life.

Historic resources, such as ready labor and capital allowed us to turn rich farmland and mineral holdings into enormous wealth. But so did extraordinary state and federal commitments to train the best and the brightest. Not achieved—talking to you, John McCain—by tapping the worst and the dimmest.

We are what we know

Unarguably, government funding drove the most extraordinary surge of widespread affluence in world history, ours from the late ’40’s through the ’80’s. Certainly that WWII hadn’t destroyed our industrial power counted, but science and learning were kickstarted by the Sputnik shock, sending billions into education.

The answer today still doesn’t take rocket science. Needed today is a Party of Reason, where rationality honored by a critical mass establishes consensus about ultimate problems—and sets forth legitimate, serious solutions for debate. The logical, evidence-driven minority is besieged by the reigning, unholy alliance in charge: super-rich, rightwing, big business reactionaries allied with small-town, evangelical rubes. Thence cometh our anti-intellectual, anti-education politics that scorns learning, even about evolution or geologic time. Keep ’em dumb and they don’t know when they’re getting taken.

Forget partisanship or terrorism or earthquakes as dire threats compared to the primacy of unreason, of faith cemented to backward-looking ideology and fat wallets. Indeed, America is now conducting its own non-scientific experiment testing how long an advanced country will survive our own torrents of non-rationality and irrationality.

Unsolved disasters remain

If “reason is the passion for order,” from George Santayana, then unreason is the passion for disorder. While a nation’s best laid plans may still fail, to begin by defying reality guarantees disaster, whatever your wishful thinking, trust in the Lord, or making it up as you go along. Said WH Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, “It’s hard to negotiate with the irrational.” It’s hard to do sustain anything partnered with the non-rational or the irrational.

The distinction is not without interest. The non-rational denies evidence or efficacy, refusing to learn from failure. Denying global warming, for example, or fighting pollution curbs while quibbling how much is man-made. Or subsidizing dinosaur fossil fuel extraction, vs. underfunding new energy. Democrats are not rational when worshiping pointless bipartisanship, refusing to redefine Bush-Cheney fictions on terrorism or taking on their frontal attack against the Constitution or civil liberties, and for torture, abuse, and lawless invasions. Whether from blindness, cowardice or expediency, avoidance by the party in power worsens whatever is already wobbly.

For the GOP, lying about WMDs or Saddam and 9/11, death panels or Obama the non-citizen, is hardly non-rational when serving explicit objectives. Deception forever served Bush-Cheney, achieving every major administration goal: 1) trashing government as problem-solver (with virtual bankruptcy), 2) deregulation, 3) top-down tax reduction, 4) government intrusion in citizen privacy, 5) launching at will, imperial invasions over oil and staging areas, 6) violating church-state lines by fund religion, 7) denial of minority and gay rights, and 8) billions in no-bid corporate payouts to security, defense and anti-terrorism players. However deranged Dick Cheney sounds, there is method to his madness, escaping scot-free.

Of course, Sarah Palin epitomizes shameless irrationality, alleging foreign policy expertise because Russia’s next to Alaska, where attacks of course will first come. What distinguishes Palin is her weird alchemy, making a virtue of the irrational and the ignorant, testifying to mavericky independence. That Palin glories in not knowing makes the Orwellian equation: never let shocking ignorance get in the way of status, power, money, or celebrity.

Ditto Tea Partyers, whose taxes are less or unchanged for 15 years, yet who rail against taxation as death sentence. Likewise, the irrational bellow, “keep that government takeover away from my Medicare.” Anti-abortionists who “honor life” by murdering doctors evoke irrationality, like airborne terrorists crashing into offices to “protest” unfairness. Is it not irrational to claim God speaks in your ear or punishes sinners with earthquakes?

“You can’t fix stupid”

When else has there been so much contempt for thinking—rife with religious mania, open ignorance about science, history, and technology, disdain for other people’s rights, even wholesale hatred of our country? Torrents of stupidity are ticking time-bombs, guaranteed to dissolve the very glue—core beliefs like one-man, one vote, majority rule or that elections matter—that defined our national community for 200 years.

As with prejudice and hate, you’ve got to be taught ignorance. Willful ignorance is an active state, full of rigid devotion to fear-laden, reductionist mindsets that undermine consensus and resolution. New-born babies are less “ignorant” than most Tea Partyers, or zealots who pray Palin becomes president. What makes the fiercely ignorant dangerous is they know so little yet are dead certain they know so much.

Either America develops a Party of Reason, and a full commitment to enlightenment and the brainpower within intellectual capital, or say hello to the land of the unfree and home of the stupid. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. A hundred million minds, that much worse.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.