On the Charleston S.C. Massacre and the Deeper Roots of Ignorance in America

My good friend Penny Lundquist just posted a link to a Psychology Today article by secular humanist David Niose entitled "Is Anti-intellectualism Killing America". It holds anti-intellectualism and a "culture of ignorance" partly responsible for the racially-motivated murders of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, SC by 21-year old Dylann Roof. And it holds this culture responsible for the death of reason itself in America as well.

Interesting. The idea of a culture of ignorance got me thinking in two directions: about the factors that contributed to Dylann Roof's homicidal mindset and about those that underlie America's broken system of political discourse.

Thinking about all this, I decided that before discussing anything I needed first to come to terms with the idea that something - anything - may be killing America. This notion is discomfiting: it locks one into the narrow dualistic box that America is either being killed or it is not. Heck, that's how conspirators and terrorists like Dylann Roof think - and also folks who make charges like this one:

Not a good move, you might say, if our concern is with anti-intellectualism and thinking that's free of bias and prejudice.

And if all this isn't enough, the idea that something is killing America flies in the face of loads of recent evidence that America's economic health is good: that the nation has recovered from the global financial meltdown of '07 and '08. Just look at American's financial markets: for months they've been hitting historic highs. On the other hand, these highs can be seen as symptomatic of the cancerous disease of extreme economic inequality: of a metastasized pursuit of financial wealth invading and consuming its host body politic.

This latter thought is alarming. But then I think of the thirty or forty recent college grads I've met this year, all of them bright, bushy-tailed and full of youthful optimism.

Full of Confidence and Hope?

For many of these college grads, the notion that something is killing America may not even register (Unless of they are among the nearly 70% who are saddled with almost $30,000 in college debt). Many Harvard grads I've met are entering the so-called helping professions like teaching and social work. These very capable young people have hope and confidence, and it's contagious.

So I had to ask: why should I take seriously the idea that something is  killing America? The best answer is that the very fact of being human compels all of us to think in categorical, either/or terms even though they are irreducibly emotional. Socrates says somewhere the dualism is king of all men. Things are either going well for us or they are not. We're either happy or sad. Or somewhere in between. Reason itself, I would venture to say, is grounded in emotion: in the unique blend of temperamental optimism and pessimism that each of us brings to the table. Including the most dispassionate, disinterested and enlightened person among us.

The Dalai Lama: Even He Is a Dualist . . .
Take the Dalai Lama. He might dismiss outright the idea that something is killing America, saying that it's driven by negative emotion and is inherently irrational. Yet even he would be speaking from a temperamental and emotional core that's as unique to him as his fingerprints.

Now suppose that 300 million Americans have perish from an nationwide outbreak of Ebola, leaving only a few million survivors at risk of infection. Would the Dalai Lama feel compelled to say that something is killing America? Perhaps. So with this data-driven hypothetical in mind, I will take a risk and say that I stand with David Niose.

Something, I think, is killing America. Something cancerous, and something that can quantified in many ways. I will call it mindism. It's definitely not a form anti-intellectualism: it's not a bias of the uneducated against the educated. On the contrary, it's the reverse: a bias of the educated against the uneducated, a denial of the native intelligence of most Americans.
MINDISM is the belief on the part of those in power that most Americans are either too busy, too distracted, too uneducated, too indifferent, to ignorant or too stupid to be capable of informed input into the government decisions that affect their lives.
In my experience over the years, mindism has gradually become virtually second nature among policy makers including academics, legislators, journalists, and publishers, general managers and owners of media.

To my mind, the disease of mindism, while cancerous, is eminently curable. But the cure will require a shift of awareness as to how America can best shape its future at local, state and national levels: a consensus among policy makers that the present, money-driven system is broken and that a new, citizen-participatory system is needed if America is to secure its future. In my view, America may be on the cusp of such a realization.

If so, the locus of the cure is easy enough to see: it lies in nation's political media, especially the TV channels whose political attack ads are instrumental in determining election outcomes at all levels of government: local, state and national. Then follows the cure itself: the existence of new, citizen-participatory uses of media which, I would add, must include the active participation of young people from high school onwards. This is critical.

Let me explain. Young people have to grow up early these days. Too soon in life that are confronted by unwelcome challenges of modern life: things like divorce, drugs, media violence, youth violence, sexual violence and hyper-competition for college admission. Much too soon they find themselves forced think like adults.

Yesterday my 16-year old son Joe shared with me some perceptive yet pretty nihilistic observations about the world around him, mainly the communication gap among students and faculty existing at his high school. In response, and substantially in agreement with him, I blurted out that America, like his school, has also lost its way, that we are a nation in decline. And why? Because, I said, Americans have lost the ability to think as a people.

The last thing I want to do is to instill pessimism in my son. Yet Joe's observations were sharp; he definitely had his finger on the pulse of something - a less than functional school culture - that makes sense to me and the sharpest people I know. I was proud of his ability to think for himself. I also wanted him to know that he was thinking at a high (or global) level: one, as I told him, that I myself didn't reach until my fourth decade. Hope and optimism, I figured, will come in time.

This global, either/or level is risky and even dangerous. Take Dylann Roof. Reading his manifesto, it's clear that he too was thinking at a global, either/or level. But something in him got stuck: made him to stop thinking and start shooting. He's a bright guy. But the life-saving information that might have enabled him keep on thinking instead of shooting in all likelihood never got to him. Suppose Roof had seen a network TV series about America's homicidal racists: a series that discussed the psychology of homicidal rage and showed him how to deal with it rationally. The kid would have had a choice.   

So back to David Niose: in addition to the two culprits of fundamentalist religion and corporate influence as causes of the culture of ignorance that's emerging in America, I add the third culprit of mindism, which in mainstream political discourse today is a unacknowledged as racism, sexism and homophobia were in America before the 1960's.
Negative Mindism. Our Concern Here.
The first item in a Google search for mindism should take you to my blog about it of several years ago. But the term is problematic. The same Google search gives you sites like this one whose valuation of mindism, unlike mine, is positive and redolent of the influential mindfulness movement (of which I myself am an enthusiastic practitioner).

Positive Mindism. Not Our Concern Here

The term anti-mindism comes to mind, but it's clumsy. Although few people are writing about it these days, the mindist bias of the educated against the uneducated is central to the thinking of Noam Chomsky, whose "Manufacturing Consent" propaganda model of American political discourse was fully articulated by formative 20th century thinkers Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann, as Chomsky has shown. My own definition of mindism, given above, derives from the thinking of Bernays and Lippmann.

I regard the breakdown of American political discourse - its dysfunctional state - as the unintended yet necessary outcome of the propaganda model of political discourse advanced by Bernays and Lippmann. To keep citizens in ignorance - to deny their fitness to participate in government (accept at voting poll in our money-driven election system) - is inevitably, over time, to create the culture of ignorance that Niose speaks of. Mindism throws light on many of the features of this breakdown:
  • The polarization of American politics. Mindism is the explicit core belief on both sides of the warlike red state/blue state polarity that marks political discourse in America today. 
  • The refusal of those in power to share power with the powerless. Mindism is used by those in power to justify this refusal. In its most rabid form, mindism appears as an outright contempt or fear of public opinion.
  • Why so many Americans have given up on politics, as seen in the steady decline in voter turnouts since the rise of network TV and televised attack ads in the 1960's.
  • Why America is technologically so connected yet politically so disconnected. The absence of connectedness between citizens and government at local, state and national levels is a direct consequence of the idea that most Americans are unfit to participate in formulating the government decisions that affect their lives. 
  • Why America has yet to use miracle of modern interactive communications technologies to create a functional system of political discourse, one that gives to all members of any sized community an ongoing, informed voice on government decisions that affect their lives.
  • Why Americans have lost faith in all institutions. Mindism, in its most destructive form, is destructive of polity. It fosters mutual and mistrust among citizens and between citizens and government. Citizens and government no longer feel responsive or accountable to each other.
And guess what. Here's the worst, and saddest part. The American people, conditioned for decades by their political media and their political leaders to accept a dysfunctional culture of political outrage and ignorance, have themselves fallen prey to the erroneous belief that they are incapable of informed input into the government decisions that affect their lives.

It's this quasi-populist sense of mindism that most gives credibility to the charge that something is killing America. The financial chart below illustrates what happens to a great city when ordinary citizens are kept voiceless in the political decisions that affect their lives.
Chicago on the verge . . .                   (courtesy WND)
I happen to live in a city and state - Chicago and Illinois - which by all accounts are on the verge of bankruptcy caused in part by decades of fiscal mismanagement and political self-dealing.

The vast majority of Chicago's 2.9 million residents are largely ignorant of the causes of this crisis. Chicago's mainstream media, especially TV news programs, are partly responsible for their ignorance. But there's a second, almost universally neglected yet entirely obvious cause of this crisis. It's the failure of city and state to come to terms with youth violence - much of it a matter of heavily armed, drug-dealing street gangs - that since the 1960's has destroyed literally hundreds of thousands of lives in Chicago alone and eroded the city's property tax rolls by sending hundreds of thousands of other Chicagoans to the safety of the suburbs.

Here is where the massive benefits of correcting mindism come in. Fifty years of failed top-down solutions to youth violence on the part of politicians, public safety and public health professionals have failed to tap into the indispensable bottom-up input, ideas and energies of ordinary Chicagoans, especially the at-risk children and and adults whose understanding of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods is critical to a solution. These leaders, and the city's media as well, could make these Chicagoans part of the solution instead of part of the problem. But they are largely ignoring this crucial resource.

I'm a career teacher. Since the 1960's I've sought to inform and empower young people, especially those who are most at risk of youth violence. By nature I'm a cheerful, optimistic guy. An idealist, if you like. I like Thomas Jefferson's idea of government of, by, and for the people. And his idea of a democracy sustained by a free press and an educated citizenry. But today it's clear that too many Americans are undereducated and the press is free only to the man who owns one, as A. J. Liebling put it. (OK, so we have the citizen-empowering Internet, but what unifying uses are we making of it?)

So I reject mindism. I work for the day when interactive public forums in Chicago will bring out the best, and not the worst, in Chicagoans and City Hall by inviting, informing and empowering all citizens - especially young Chicagoans - to participate in defining and solving Chicago's youth violence problem and its fiscal crisis as well. These would be forums in which kids like my son Joe can talk frankly with adults about what's really happening in their schools and neighborhoods.

There's no good reason why America as well can't use modern communications technologies to connect and exploit democracy's greatest asset: the native intelligence and natural talents of its people, particularly the young people who are its future.

Dylann Roof - how he might have turned out if only . . .
I see Dylann Roof as one of these young people. Surely there was a time when this bright youngster could have chosen a different path in life. The presence of a single mentor or teacher or relative or friend or therapist could have saved him and the lives of the nine Black churchgoers he took. When all the facts are in, Roof will likely fit the familiar mass murderer profile of a lonely, isolated and intelligent kid who was rejected by others and could find no way to discover his own humanity or that of others. 

Roof's homicidal racism is itself an extreme form of mindism and of the culture of ignorance of which David Niose speaks. To do what he did, Roof had to be addicted to the notion Blacks are incapable of informed input into the government decisions that affect their lives. A reason-affirming, citizen-empowering civic media could have shown him otherwise. That's what we're building in Chicago.


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