(About a 6 minute read)
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” — Martin Luther King, jr.
In high school, I had a math teacher — who I blogged about here — who was something of a political outlaw back in his day.
He was a member of the John Birch society. A political organization founded by a millionaire that espoused, among other things, the notion Eisenhower had been a communist agent of the Soviet Union, and that had even attacked the nation’s parent-teacher associations as somehow subversive of American values.
The Birchers had been cast out of mainstream American politics by William F. Buckley, the most influential right-wing political thinker and pundit of the time (They would not return to the mainstream until our own age, in 2010). Buckley considered them dangerous fools and radicals.
My teacher would sometimes spend a quarter or half hour of class time lecturing us — not on math — but on the evils of communism or where to go when the Soviet tanks rolled into our town (as he was certain they would soon enough do, the country going to hell under Nixon’s liberal policies).
Like so many people who have fervently held political ideologies, he was a boring man, constantly outraged about one thing or another. He was also far more ignorant and stupid about politics than he ever suspected. That is, his intimate knowledge of an ideology had led him to believe he actually knew a few things — which he did not. He knew what was “right” and what was “wrong”, but very few genuine facts.
Of course, he had the brains to have been a sensible man, but something in him — who knows what — had defused his brains before they could ever ignite into political intelligence. I never questioned his competence as a math teacher, and I was so apathetic about politics at the time that I didn’t grasp how dumb he was until decades later.
In my view today, my teacher was a failure as an American citizen. Not because he held stupid ideas, though. But because he refused to assess his stupid ideas with as much intelligence as he could muster.
In short, he was a slacker, living off the better political sense of other people. Had his own ideas been fully implemented, the result would have been a tyranny in short order. He was smart enough to see that — if he only had used his head. Instead, he died a free man largely because others picked up his slack for him acted in better ways than he did.
When I hear people talk about the fact that with great freedom comes great responsibility, they are usually talking about such relatively trivial responsibilities as voting. That is today almost the only thing our politicians and pundits seem capable of thinking about when it comes to lecturing us on the responsibilities of citizenship.
I myself sometimes wonder if some of them, at least, do not have an ulterior motive for focusing on voting. Voting is one of the least impactful things you can do in politics. And it is certainly the least threatening to the political elites on both sides of the aisle. It simply doesn’t rank up there with, say, genuinely getting active, supporting a political candidate by going door to door for them, joining with others to organize a protest march, etc.
But voting does have a way of suckering people into believing they have a significant say in the political process and that, therefore, the system is a good one. In that sense, it is of value and importance to the elites that the citizens vote.
I vote, but in my opinion that is not the end of my responsibilities as a citizen. I also have other duties and obligations, and — over the years — I have come to see my primary duty as using my head as best I can to sort through the political information I receive in order to make accurate sense of what’s really going on. Only after that (or at least simultaneous with it) do I feel I should act as an informed citizen.
Now, I am not advocating here that everyone adopt my view of a citizen’s duties. I am merely trying to describe what that view is. Everyone has their own way of making a contribution.
Perhaps significantly, I do not feel I have any greater obligation to my fellow citizens than to do the best I can. It would seem silly to me to hold myself to a higher standard than that.
By “sorting through the political information available to me”, I mean finding the most accurate news sources I can. Sources like Reuters and the BBC, along with less well known and more specialized sources, such as certain ones for economic news and analysis.
Unless it’s an election year, I typically don’t do a whole lot of work trying to read everything. Rather, I look for the unusual but telling pieces. And I tend to spend more time thinking about what I’ve read than I do reading it. To me, that’s the most important part.
I do not believe anyone can be well informed unless they apply reasonably good critical thinking skills to analyzing what they have read or studied. These skills are not hard to acquire, but they are key to making accurate sense of anything.
In my opinion, critical thinking is incompatible with the wholesale adoption of any political ideology of either the left or the right.
You can either take an ideological view of things, or you can take a reasoned, critical view of things, but you cannot take both. As Nietzsche said, “The will to a system is the will to a lie”. Ideologies either try to fit all facts into their framework — even when they don’t fit — or they ignore or manufacture facts that do fit. All of that is intellectually dishonest.
There is nothing wrong with finding inspiration in ideologies, nor anything wrong with adopting bits and pieces of them, but to wholesale swallow one is the death of honesty — to say nothing of becoming someone’s fool.
So far as I can see, I owe what I do both to myself and to my fellow citizens. After all, we can’t all be slackers like my long ago math teacher.
This post was inspired by a short piece on Tylor Mintz’s blog which can be found here.