The Logic of Willful Ignorance

You don’t need to be a political junkie to be a good citizen.

David Sirota

New citizens wave US flags before being sworn in during a Naturalization Ceremony on Liberty Island in October 2011. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent study from Xavier University tells us what many already know: that many Americans have wholly tuned out of politics to the point where they can’t even correctly answer the most basic questions about our government. Indeed, as researchers discovered, one in three native-born citizens can’t pass the civics portion of the naturalization test we force legal immigrants to pass when they want to become full citizens.

No doubt, it’s tempting to look at the data and simply agree with retiring U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who last month made headlines declaring that people have gotten dumber.” However, there’s a flaw in such a conclusion — namely, it wrongly assumes that knowing the test’s information is proof of brains or even good citizenship.

Peruse the test-prep flashcards at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service’s website, and you’ll see what I mean. After reading them, ask yourself whether you believe that, at the day-to-day level, someone really must know all the history referenced in order to be a smart person or functioning citizen.

Even as a history enthusiast, I don’t buy it. Yes, it probably should be required that everyone know something about slavery and the Civil War so that we all understand the cultural topography of modern America. But should the prerequisite for the label of good citizen” or smart” be knowing who was president during World War I, what the original 13 colonies were or who wrote the federalist papers? Hardly. There are certainly plenty of good American citizens and geniuses who don’t know those facts simply because they aren’t relevant to daily life.

Of course, when it comes to the questions about how our constitution and government work, you could argue that it’s a bit different. Theoretically, these are facts you need to know to be an informed participant in a democracy. As the logic goes, without knowing what the constitution (supposedly) does, it’s hard to know your rights. Similarly, without being able to identify the politicians wielding power on your behalf, it’s almost impossible to judge whether they are representing your interests. Thus, you might conclude that the Americans who don’t know major amendments or can’t name their senators are abhorrently stupid.

But again, that conclusion supposes that there’s not a counter logic at work — when there almost certainly is. It’s one in which many Americans have consciously decided that it’s not worth knowing that information, because they’ve logically concluded that the information no longer matters in this country.

Remember — 21st century America is a place where elections are bought and paid for by huge money, where presidents of both parties ignore the basic tenets of the constitution, where the lifetime-appointed judiciary spends much of its time helping Big Business tilt the law against the population, and where the major parties resemble each other on most policies. Knowing that, why should we expect smart citizens to commit the naturalization test’s facts to memory, when such facts are often irrelevant to day-to-day reality?

This isn’t to defend stupidity. It is merely an explanation of the rise of an unfortunate-but-understandable form of willful ignorance — the kind whereby many Americans so accurately perceive the fraud being perpetrated on them that they have decided to simply tune out.

Sure, such a decision inevitably makes a person less informed about the political world’s kabuki theater. But while you may disagree with that choice, it alone doesn’t prove a person is a bad citizen or dumb. That latter label should be left to those political junkies, pundits and professional politicians who ignore inconvenient truths about our broken political system and doggedly pretend that America is still a functioning democracy.

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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