The End of Aggressive Ignorance?

Susan J. Douglas

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How surreal is life right now? Between a right-wing, government-loathing president insisting on bringing socialism to Wall Street, a Chatty Cathy doll (Remember those? You pulled a cord and they said the same five things) running for vice president, polls showing that still – still! – people give McCain the edge on national security issues. And the TV pundits, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, claim that the first presidential debate was a tie.” You start to feel like you’ve shot down that rabbit hole with Alice and may never get out. I mean, really, the country seems to have gone crazy.

Everyday Americans saw a lot of McCain and Palin in September, swooning over Paw and the self-styled Daisy Mae.

Nevertheless, there is a war being waged now, in the waning days of the Bush administration and the campaign, against the triumph of aggressive ignorance, a fabulous term I’m stealing from my nephew. 

Aggressive ignorance defiantly shoves its utter lack of knowledge in your face and brays: Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!” Team Bush has repeatedly asserted that it didn’t need to know much of anything – about Iraq, hurricane relief, science, global climate change or the corruptions of the financial sector, and that we shouldn’t know anything about these things either.

McCain and Palin – the Dumb and Dumber ticket – have elevated aggressive ignorance to new levels. McCain, with his bone-headed assertions about the strength of the economy, not knowing Sunnis from Shiites, maintaining he hadn’t read the proposed bailout legislation he was swooping into Washington to vote on, and Sarah Palin with … well, where to start? 

Already her insistence that you can see Russia from Alaska” establishes her foreign policy bona fides, and her conjuring the image of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s head flying over her home state have become howlers. 

Who have been the white knights in the battle against aggressive ignorance, aside from Obama, who himself is banking on the hunch that maybe people have had enough of Jackass politics? Well, not necessarily who you might think. And it’s been mostly women (although, so far, not Hillary). 

It took Katie Couric, the nightly CBS News anchor widely dismissed as having the least gravitas (and the lowest ratings), to expose Palin as the syntactically challenged, gibberish-spouting dunce that she is. 

But Couric isn’t the only gyno-American who isn’t having any of this. CNN’s Campbell Brown, in a statement that didn’t get nearly enough attention given the bailout psycho-drama, charged the McCain campaign with sexism for sequestering Palin from the news media as if she were a fragile flower too weak and delicate to take the heat of reporters’ questions. 

Can you imagine what would have happened if Dan Quayle (whom Palin is starting to make look like Disraeli) had been similarly locked in the powder room? 

And Saturday Night Live” alum Tina Fey has been pitch perfect in her assault on Palin’s perky ignorance.

And then there’s David Letterman, outraged that McCain would think he was so dumb that he would not discover that McCain had cancelled on him, claiming he had to rush back to Congress, only to be down the block getting powder-puffed for an interview with CBS colleague Couric.

And what about everyday Americans? Yes, we saw a lot of them in September, swarming to McCain-Palin events, swooning over Paw and the self-styled Daisy Mae.

But after the first presidential debate, many (especially women) repudiated the pundits who repeatedly claimed the debate was a draw,” or that Obama had not really won. 

McCain looked, simultaneously, like he was a nervous wreck and on Xanax. He barely answered most of the questions. He could barely pronounce Ahmadinejad,” the name of Iran’s leader. When he flashed that rodent-like smile, he was truly scary. He lectured Obama about not knowing the difference between a tactic and a strategy, and then suggested that the surge” was the latter instead of the former. And when Obama recited the list of everything he’d gotten wrong about Iraq, Obama whupped him.

So it was heartening the next morning to get up and see that, unlike the pundits, every poll showed viewers giving the victory to Obama. 

Aggressive ignorance has been in the driver’s seat for a long time and we’re so used to it we can’t remember what intelligence, information and common sense might be like in the White House. But the indications are, at least as of this writing, that we’ve had enough. 

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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