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The Universal Notebook
America’s celebration of ignorance
Maine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough has a new book out, a collection of speeches entitled “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.” McCullough was being interviewed on Maine Public Radio last week when Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks asked him if he was discouraged about the “celebration of ignorance” that has swept over America.
“I’m not discouraged,” McCullough responded. “I’m outraged.”
McCullough, who, prior to the election termed Donald Trump “a monstrous clown,” went on to excoriate the current climate of anti-intellectual brutishness by saying, “To think that it’s sort of cool to be dishonest or vulgar or crude is a sharp turn and decline in civilization of a kind that we must not and will not take.”
While searching online for the Maine Calling interview, I found another recent Time interview in which McCullough expanded on his indictment of the know-nothing Trump, saying, “To me, it’s as if we’ve put someone in the pilot seat who has never flown a plane or even read about how you do it.”
To me, it’s as if our pilot has never flown, never read about how to fly and can’t read.
The profound ignorance of Donald Trump about all things other than (perhaps) business underscores the fact that an ability to make money has nothing to do with intelligence and is no qualification whatsoever for leadership. Heck, Paul LePage should have taught us that much.
Yet here we are in an era of willful ignorance in which conservatives have no compunction at all about counseling others to just ignore the news, ignore the facts, ignore the experts. Believe what you want to believe. One opinion is as good as the next. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. What, me worry?
The evil genius of the right is its ability to discredit, in the minds of the weak and gullible anyway, higher education, science, professional journalism, the intelligence community and the judicial system – in short, all of the fact-finders and truth-seekers that might point out the errors of Trump’s ways. That’s also why the conservative political agenda calls for defunding National Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health and, most insidiously of all, repealing the First Amendment right of freedom of the press.
If it sounds as though I see Trump as a wannabe dictator, it’s because I do. This is a man who praises brutal autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. He likes strongmen and sharp cookies. And he does not like being criticized. That’s why he labels anything that displeases him “fake news” and sends his flunkies out to present “alternative facts.”
Would Trump really try to repeal the First Amendment? Probably not. No more than Hillary Clinton would have tried to repeal the Second Amendment. But Trump very well may try to loosen libel laws so he can sue newspapers that print the truth about him.
Make no mistake about it, America is in a deep, dark hole at the moment. Bigots have been emboldened and validated by Trump’s election. The religious right feels empowered to attack public education because one of their own is Secretary of Education. Industry is pleased to be able to ignore environmental protection regulations and the science of climate change because Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator doesn’t believe in protecting the environment and climate change, after all, is just a Chinese hoax peddled by Big Environment in order to keep the grant money flowing. At least that’s what the foolish would like to think.
I would like to think the American people will come to their senses and make a course correction, but that may be asking too much of people who would seemingly rather embrace a comfortable lie than contend with an unpleasant truth. Meanwhile, all that is best in American culture – public education, national parks and monuments, history, science, the arts, a free press, the spirit of self-sacrifice – is under attack by the dark forces of white middle class self-pity and Trumpian self-importance.
“A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is much too much in our time,” David McCullough said in a 1998 speech entitled The Lessons of History that is included in “American Spirit.”
“To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions. … History teaches that character counts. Character above all.”
If so, I pity poor Mr. Trump.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.