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The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics

By George MonbiotMonbiot.com.

Obama has a lot to offer, but until our education system is fixed or religious fundamentalism withers, anti-intellectuals will flaunt their ignorance.

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the United States come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind’s closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist?

Like most people on this side of the Atlantic, I have spent my adult life mystified by American politics. The United States has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century: Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived; but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan’s response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter — stumbling a little, using long words — carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said, “There you go again.” His own health program would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn’t always like this. The founding fathers of the republic — men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton — were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W. Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer: Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. U.S. education, like the U.S. health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on Earth, 1 adult in 5 believes the sun revolves around the Earth; only 26 percent accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of U.S. voters cannot name the three branches of government; and the math skills of 15-year-olds in the United States are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But this merely extends the mystery: How did so many U.S. citizens become so dumb and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of U.S. politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: Religion — in particular fundamentalist religion — makes you stupid. The United States is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication ofOrigin of Species, for example, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin’s theory was mixed up in the United States with the brutal philosophy — now known as Social Darwinism — of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people from being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation, according to the doctrine; gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

 

Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable to the public from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian Right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism.

But there were other, more powerful reasons for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The United States is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the Southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. “In the South,” Jacoby writes, “what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order.”

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest Protestant denomination in the United States, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the South stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that 1 in 4 of the state’s public school biology teachers believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on Earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishization of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln’s career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary; all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason why intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day, men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly rage against the “liberal elites” destroying America.

The specter of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the elections of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite — like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush — has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an overeducated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the right-wing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a good deal to offer America, but none of this will come to an end if he wins. Until the great failures of the U.S. education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.


November 3, 2008 Posted by | Politics | , , , | Leave a comment

Daylight Saving Time: Why Did We Do It?

 

At 2:00 a.m. local on Sunday, most of the United States (except Hawaii and Arizona) will leave daylight saving time behind and fall back an hour to standard time.

 

The annoyance of resetting clocks (or forgetting to, and showing up an hour early for appointments on Sunday) may raise the question of why we bother with this rigmarole in the first place.

 

Daylight saving time is most often associated with the oh-so-sweetextra hour of sleep in fall (and the not-so-nice loss of an hour in spring), but some of the original reasons for resetting our clocks twice a year including saving energy and having more daylight hours for retailers, sporting events and other activities that benefit from a longer day.

 

As far back as the 1700s, people recognized the potential to save energy by jumping clocks ahead one hour in the summer – Benjamin Franklin even wrote about it – although the idea was not put into practice until the 20th century.

 

During both World Wars, the United States and Great Britain began observing daylight saving time.

 

After the war, U.S. states were free to choose whether to observe daylight saving time and the calendar start dates of the time change. The result was time confusion for travelers and newscasters. In 1966, Congress enacted the Uniform Time Act, which stated that if any state observed daylight saving, it had to follow a uniform protocol, beginning and ending on the same dates throughout the country.

 

Starting in 2007, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 lengthened daylight saving time by four weeks, starting it three weeks earlier in spring and ending it one week later in fall. Daylight saving now begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday of November.

 

Formerly it began on the first Sunday of April and ended on the last Sunday of October, so that extra week gives trick-or-treaters a precious extra hour of candy-gathering before sunset.

 

But not everyone is wild about daylight saving time, with some states opting out all together and others proposing to do so.

 

Hawaii has never observed daylight saving time, as its tropical latitude means its daylight hours stay fairly constant year-round. Arizona likewise has not observed daylight saving time since 1967 because the extra daylight in the summer would just mean more energy consumption to keep the desert state’s residents cool.

 

Many Alaskans would like to stop observing daylight saving time because the change in daylight from summer to winter is already so extreme at their northerly latitude. A petition has even been set before the state this year to abolish the observance of daylight saving time in Alaska.

 

Florida too finds daylight saving time less useful because of it’s southerly latitude. In 2008, a Florida state senator introduced a bill to abolish the practice in Florida.

 

From 1970 to 2006, most of Indiana didn’t observe daylights time, but began to do so in April 2006 after eight counties in the western portion of the state switched from the Eastern to the Central Time Zone.

 

None of the U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, observe daylight saving time.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Lifestyle | , , , | Leave a comment

7 Ways to Learn More Without More Study

7 Ways to Learn More Without More Study

By Nancy Shute

 

The abundance of new research on how teenage brains work, aside from being cool for its own sake–teen brains are developing madly, pruning synapses and insulating neurons to build a lean computing machine–is fueling a new movement to help kids make the most of the brain they’ve got. Think of it as a user’s manual for a machine that’s still being wired.

One of the leaders in that movement is Wilkie “Bill” Wilson, a neuroscientist and director of DukeLEARN, a Duke University project to teach teenagers the practical applications of neuroscience. DukeLEARN’s curriculum for 9th-graders won’t be in the schools until 2009, but with the first homework of the fall already being stuffed into backpacks, I asked Bill for a sneak preview. He asked: “How would you like to learn more without having to study more?” Sign me up! Here’s how:

 

1. Get to bed and go to sleep. Sleep enables memory consolidation, which is psych-speak for saying that you remember stuff after you sleep on it. What’s more, overall performance, attention, and the ability to concentrate are damaged by lack of sleep. “So you’re hurt in two ways,” Wilson says. Teenagers need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night for optimum performance.

 

2. Start studying a few days in advance of a test. Memories are embedded better if the brain is exposed to information repeatedly. Cramming doesn’t work, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to embed and consolidate.

 

3. Feed your head. The brain is an energy hog, and it runs badly if it doesn’t get high-octane fuel. That means protein and complex carbs–eggs and wheat toast for breakfast, say, rather than sugary cereal and orange juice. The biggest mistake teens make, Wilson says, is to skip breakfast or to go for sugar, which raises blood sugar, followed by a quick crash.

 

4. Body exercise is brain exercise. Aerobic exercise really improves brain function, perhaps because it increases blood flow, or perhaps because it reduces stress and anxiety. Exercise also prompts growth of new brain neurons, at least in rats. Twenty minutes or so a day of activity that raises your heart rate will do it.

 

5. Learn now what you want to remember for the rest of your life. Teenage brains are much better at remembering things on a conscious level than the brains of young children or adults. Scientists aren’t sure why, but they know that human brains are primed to notice and remember what’s new, and teenagers are exposed to lots of new stuff. “You’re going to remember the first time you had sex more than the 33rd time,” Wilson says. Whatever the reason, the teenage years are the time to learn new languages and acquire other lifelong skills.

 

6. Harness the power of risk-taking. Adults are always harping on the downside of teenage risk-taking, and it’s true that teenagers are more apt than adults to get themselves in trouble with drinking, driving, and unsafe sex, to name the biggies. But the fact that the parts of the brain that drive people to try new, risky, and exciting things appear to be more developed in teenagers can be a huge plus. Pick appropriate challenges–difficult sports, a tough job, mastering a performance art, traveling overseas–and the teenage brain is uniquely primed to tackle them. (Click here to read what the 19-year-old Harris twins told me last week about their “do hard things” campaign.) Wilson says: “You have this power you’re given to go out and do it without fear.”

 

7. Learn what you love. Because emotional systems develop faster in teenager brains than do inhibitory systems, teenagers learn things they’re passionate about quickly and well. “Your brain gives you tools like attention on the project, focus,” Wilson says.

 

Wilson’s project is a work in progress; DukeLEARN will be testing whether teaching teenagers how their brains work will improve academic performance and lead them to take better care of their brains. But nobody says you can’t do your own experiment, starting right now.

October 19, 2008 Posted by | Lifestyle | , , , | Leave a comment