Saturday, April 15, 2017


When I came to the rez in the Sixties, one of the worst and most common rebukes was “don’t be ignorant.”  It wasn’t just an accusation of “not knowing”, but carried the connotation of being wilfully in defiance of proper behavior.  It was a missionary’s rebuke, meant to stigmatize one system in order to impose another, the previously unknown one.  Being ignorant was being a “blanket Indian” who refused to learn.  The the implication is of ignoring those who seek to instruct you for your own good.

So now that I’ve introduced religion, I’ll confide that a common reminder among clergy who preach is the little emblem AWPP, which some people actually put at certain spots of their sermon manuscript's margins.  It stands for “argument weak, pound pulpit.”  In other words, it acknowledges that vehemence can compensate for not knowing.  At its most cynical, it means forcing belief by intimidating those who don’t agree.  Almost as cynical is the idea that preaching is a performance and people really like the ones that are passionate, almost violent, certainly “convinced” because that’s when they catch the impulse and can believe that they themselves are believers.  A wavering voice, a questioning mode, and people find themselves uncertain.

And yet, the wisest among us say that the only really true thing that we know — CAN know — is that we know very little.  The person who knows nothing . . . knows something.  Admitting this is the first “truth” of the Mysterium Tremendum, which is the wellspring of religion, something felt rather than reasoned out.

That’s one aspect.  Looked at another way, the most basic key to human survival in community is knowing how to act on the terms of the group.  The Blackfeet were among the tribes most careful about how things ought to be properly done.  Social memes could mean survival: things like the obligation to feed travelers and mend their moccasins for them.  What some military white men interpreted as stoic silence was simply waiting to figure out the situation so as to respond gracefully.  In the end any mismatch of ideas touched off mismatches of temperament that destroyed any consensus.

Let’s momentarily change species.  A curious observation about cats is that they are attracted to emotion.  If there is a quarrel in a household that includes a cat, it will often come and add its voice, yowling and wailing.  No sense is necessary, no words.  It’s the passion that speaks and it’s contagious.  More and more our politics sound like feline expression.  In short, a cat fight.  Some people run towards fighting as they would towards a fire or car crash.

The ability of vids to string together moments of emphatic words reveals their sameness, their incentiveness, their similarity to chants in athletic contests.  Or boot camp.  Lately we see a lot of these montages of Trump, whose style lends itself to repetitive logos and exhortations.  If they had been presented before the election, things might have turned out differently.  What seems impressive once, seems staged puppetry after twenty repetitions.

This is a time in which there is a huge gap between what we really do know and what we need to know about each other and the world in order to survive and protect each other.  The impulse is to set terms without having enough evidence to close the gap, and therefore trying to force safety with acts or threats that destabilize the situation.  Do not taunt North Korea.

Confusion is a kind of ignorance that many can’t tolerate because it is full of fear.  Rules, cops, curfews, incarcerations are opportunities to abuse.  Usually they are in contexts where no one really knows what’s happening or what should be done.  Keepers of order just want control at that moment.

So they come on stronger, mask their feelings even more, and fabulize the situation to construct a story about what’s happening.  The more juiced they are, the more potential for trouble, the more stigma is involved, the more like over-obedient soldiers in a war they become.  And the more they begin to convince themselves they’re right.

This is the origin of religious war.

Worse, addressing ignorance means one might learn things one doesn’t want to know: we all die, we’re all sinners, we all fall short, no one is better than everyone else.  Some people are ugly; some are assholes; some are too brain-damaged to  learn anything.  They are organically ignorant.  Not necessarily militant.

Tom Nichols wrote “The Death of Expertise” about people who refuse to believe experts and think they can control reality.  “Tom Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion. He is a senior contributor at The Federalist and the author of seven books.”  Sounding like a credentialed expert, he advises us to “chill.”  But this is his Wikipedia bio and that source has been discredited many times.

The very fact of being dissenters, standing alone, is confirmation for some people that they must be right.  There have been too many films about heroes who turned out to be right, saving the platoon, saving their children, saving civilization as we know it.  This is grandiose narcissism, often toxic even if it’s not malevolent.  

Our Germanic lockstep education system, pocked with laissez faire and experimental ego-building for little kids, is no help at all.  Our technological access to web-crawlers and social media -- with comments and a peculiar sub-text called “chat” that runs in a crawl next to news stories -- get crazy with smart aleck mockery and name-calling.  People are quoted only so as to contradict each other.  When I go to You Tube, the first thing I do is shut off the chat.  

There are certain New Guinea tribes who traditionally waged war by standing on their respective mountain ridges and hurling insults at each other.  Even the high-brow sites slip into the pattern, except with fancier vocabulary.  Smart people like Rachel Maddow get mocked and critics order,  “Wipe that smirk off your face,” as though it were personal.  As though they were primary school teachers correcting a child.  

It’s clear these listeners have invented some kind of rivalry that demands an attempt to dominate a stronger person, maybe slap her.  It’s not irrelevant that she doesn’t conform to standard gender roles: clothing, haircut, lack of a male partner.  When I was an animal control officer, a sub-category of sheriff wearing a uniform and a badge, I’d get this posturing because people were scared of what I could do to them and hoped they could run me off.  The AC officers among us who in response tried to be militant authorities were often threatened and sometimes bitten.

Some of this is generational.  Many men near retirement were educated to never be wrong and if they WERE wrong, not to admit it.  This was considered a mark of leadership, maybe left over from wars.  They remember wars.  We have no chance of forgetting so long as ignorance makes us fight.  We need to build into our lives the idea that peace and safety come from knowledge, which shifts through time and context.  This is a new idea to a lot of people.

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