Ages of Ignorance

Dear Charles Simic,

I’ve just read your piece “Age of Ignorance” in The New York Review of Books. My wife says it sounds a lot like me–arrogant, that is. She’s right. And I do agree with much of what you say, and could easily find myself saying much the same thing. I count myself as a progressive as, I assume, you do. We are close together on many issues, I am sure. On the other hand, I know that you’ve got it terribly, terribly wrong.

This is a difficult piece for me to write, for not only are we on the same “side,” but you are a much more experienced teacher than I am, have seen more of the horrors the world has to offer than I have, and are skilled as a writer in ways far beyond me. But, from your essay, you are also a great deal more ignorant than I–about a large part of America, that is… the very part of it you write of in your essay. The very people you call ignorant. And you are blind to your own conceit.

Though I no longer live among them, having been whisked to the other side by my own parents, themselves “refugees” from what is now called ‘red-state America,’ these people you write of as so ignorant are my extended family, and I grew up with them as much as away from them.

What you see as their ignorance, I see as something else indeed.

The people you are calling ignorant have been called that for generations. No, for centuries. Culturally, they are descended from groups of people who had long been pushed to the edges of what their oppressors called “civilization.” They were used by the “civilized” as a barrier against the “barbarian,” and sometimes have even been called “borderers” for their role. This role was first seen in the Scottish lowlands, then in Ulster Plantation, then in the English colonies where they found themselves between the Native Americans and the coastal settlers, and then (finally) when they were manipulated into the role of oppressor of the African-Americans by an establishment that saw nothing wrong with oppressing and manipulating them, certainly not when it kept its own distrust of black folk somewhat hidden. They have fought and bled, always at someone’s behest and, in their eyes, they have gained little from it.

Just as they hated the English who manipulated them into fighting the Highland Scots, the Irish, and even the Native Americans, they now hate what they see as the ‘liberal establishment’ that is, in their eyes, oppressing them… and that mocks them constantly (as you have done), giving them no respect and no real place in its universe of the worthy–but that uses them to keep its gated communities safe.

They know what will bug the establishment–me, you. They know what will enrage us, make us crazy. And, as they also know they can’t please us, they are going to do their best to get the opposite response–especially as they feel powerless against us. In some ways, they are putting you on, just as slaves did their masters (see the volume of slave narratives Gilbert Osofsky edited, Puttin’ On Ole Massa). They see your disdain for “their vast ignorance about things they should have already been familiar with” and realize they can never please you–so they don’t try, but fool you by pretending to the stereotype that you have of them already.

You write:”In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him.” That’s not true, and you know it, for you have read Mark Twain, who points his finger constantly at nonsense paid attention to more than a century ago–and you have surely heard of Father Charles Couglin, the direct ancestor of Rush Limbaugh. And these people who, you claim, ignore the past know it, too. They also know that you, too, are ignoring the past or, at least, are twisting it to your benefit and in ways that make them look foolish.

They know that, by your rules, they aren’t as smart as you are. But they also know that, because you make the rules, they are losers at this game unless they become Mini-You’s. Unless they become part of the liberal establishment–as you have become. As, to a much lesser degree, I have become.

Anyone can be made to look stupid. They believe you are going to make them look stupid, no matter what they do–so why should they try to appear otherwise? Want to understand Sarah Palin? That’s it, in a nutshell.

Much of America doesn’t want to be what you define as an “educated, well-informed population” for the simple reason that they don’t want you defining them. They’ve been defined as dumb by you (and by me) for generations, for centuries. Failing to fight the stereotype successfully, they’ve embraced it. Do you think Appalachians would ever have embraced the ‘hillbilly’ image on their own? No. They embrace it for the same reason some black Americans now embrace what has come to be called ‘the n-word.’

My wife is right: We are intellectual snobs, you and I… and much of the ‘east coast liberal elite.’ We think we know better than anyone else does.

But do we? Is our arrogance any more justified than that of Rick Santorum, who beliefs are every bit as firm as our own?

Whose ignorance is it, anyway?

Maybe we ought to consider that it could be our own as much as anyone’s.

I’m sorry. I didn’t really want to turn this into a rant, but you hit a nerve. We are arrogant, we “intellectuals,” but I chafe at mine, for I do recognize that I, as Bob Dylan writes in “My Back Pages,” “become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Just like the Elmer Gantry’s of the right, our own preaching can be just as sanctimonious, just as self-destructive.

The truth of that gnaws at me.

Aaron Barlow

One thought on “Ages of Ignorance

  1. I think you made some good points in trying to rationalize and contextualize some of the seemingly anti-intellectual cultural manifestations associated with rural conservatives.

    However, the elephant in the room remains unaddressed: why can't more people understand that democracy REQUIRES a literate and politically-engaged citizenry? People can't just tune out intellectualy and expect that problems are going to magically solve themselves. We now truly live in an age of interconnected, complex global problems: anthropogenic global warming, unsustainable economic systems, environmental pollution, massive natural resource and species extinctions, unaccountable corporations, corrupt financialized political systems, globalization problems, oh and by the way, a new global superclass of wealthy elites that seem totally oblivious to the immorality of extreme income inequality and how THEY have failed. These problems require solutions and one must be able to think in order to recognize good solutions, let alone the perpetual political power problem of poor vs. extreme wealth.

    I recognize and appreciate the fact that much of the right-wing backlash against not just American liberal values and our (pathetic) welfare state programs, but Western social democracy in general, is due more to feelings of small-town isolation and widespread distrust of political elites than a lack of general intelligence. But regardless, people who want a better life not just for themselves but for future generations as well need to focus on this goal. An 'age of ignorance' makes this egalitarian democratic ideal future all the less likely.

    The bottom-line is: are enough Americans intellectually capable of focusing on and politically acting on the scientifically-informed policies that would give all people the best chance at living lives worth living?


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