Nothing to Celebrate

Some Limits on Freedom

Ok, it’s been an exhausting year of almost non-stop social chaos in this country. I’m sure there are plenty of retrospectives of the events of the past twelve months (and much trivia) you could watch and read this weekend but I’m not going to look for them.

I’m also not going to write one. I just have a few thoughts about all this crap, mostly recycled from three previous rants. Feel free to ignore them.

The origins of this mess we’re in go back farther than one year, of course, and I continue to assign primary responsibility to the dead weight of indifference expressed by a significant number of American citizens in 2016. I can only hope that enough of those who opted out of voting, or worse, voted as a “message” to some unknown entity, are now paying attention.

I’m sure many more people are now at least awake, as expressed by the so-called resistance of the past year. However, as I ranted previously, resistance is not futile, but it’s also not enough. Pushing back does not move the country forward. At best, it maintains the status quo. Most likely, resistance will only keep us from sliding too far back into that past you hear so much about. The one that was “great” for some, but not for most.

One positive will be the many new faces who will be running for office this year. However, they, as well as the more familiar ones who want to stay in office, need to do more than put up a lot of scary ads saying “I’m not with him/them”.

They need to explain, clearly and forcefully, their vision for positive change and how it can be achieved. Engage us with how we can progress and improve society, as opposed to returning the “normal” that obviously wasn’t working for large parts of the county.

Finally, much of what has been written and said by our so-called leaders over the past twelve months, also brought to mind an essay written almost twenty years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.1

His point in the column (published in Newsweek, an actual paper magazine), is that, although many in American society loudly exclaim that the people have a “right to know”, they rarely are referring to having accurate and meaningful information. Instead they ridicule and devalue knowledge.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov ends the essay with this idea:

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval and social rewards for learning.

Asimov’s refusal to accept willful ignorance would make a wonderful message for any candidate, for office at any level, to include at the center of their campaign.

The image is of a t-shirt for sale in The Newseum. If you are visiting Washington DC, plan to spend half a day in this wonderful alternative to that other museum of American history.

1 The whole essay is a little dated, as you might expect, but worth reading.

The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read, hear, or watch when time allows during the coming week.

Read: Isaac Asimov wrote 500 books in his lifetime, both fiction and non-fiction, in addition to hundreds of essays, letters, and other works. So, what was his secret for such a prolific body of creative work? A writer for Quartz found six “tactics and strategies” in Asimov’s autobiography that would be easy for anyone to use. (about 5 minutes)

Read: Every four years, the Olympic Games are a huge spectacle spotlighting one major city in the world. A city that likely has spent huge amounts of money building venues to house the athletes and the events. But what happens after everyone leaves. It’s not pretty, and one writer believes we’ve reached The End of the Olympics As We Know It. (about 8 minutes)

Read and View: Speaking of abandoned places, National Geographic offers a collection of photos from the apocalypse, but smaller. They are miniature scenes by two artists from Brooklyn (where else?) depicting what common place locations might look like long after humans have left. I know it’s weird to like this stuff but the images are very compelling. (about 10 minutes)

Listen: You probably don’t think much about bees unless you get stung by one. But they are an essential part of the ecosystem around the food we eat. The story about how millions of bees from Louisiana help produce California almonds is a great Planet Money segment. If you teach middle or high school science, play this one for your students. (22:54)

Watch: Everyone gets spam email. A few people actually respond, usually with unfortunate results. However, British writer and comedian James Veitch is one who responds and turns his encounters into great social commentary. This is a TED talk from last year in which he details his very funny ongoing exchange with a Nigerian “Kamanda”. (10:20)

Watch: Austin Kleon is an interesting artist and writer, author of the wonderful book Steal Like an Artist (I bought it just based on that title :-). He is also a big fan and advocate for journaling and keeping notebooks. In this video of a bookstore talk to promote a journal related to the Steal book, he explains his process in between showing notebook examples from other fanatics. (31:30)

A Cult of Idiots

From Charles Pierce’s1 book Idiot America, which I’ve be listening to in the car this week.

The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects–for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

It was published five years ago, when I first read it, and reminded me at the time of Issac Asimov’s classic essay from thirty years prior called A Cult of Ignorance.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

It’s a sad statement that the trend toward willful ignorance in this country is little changed, and has indeed become much worse, from Asimov’s observations in 1980 to those of Pierce in 2009 to today.

Despite, possibly because of, greater access to information than ever before.

Asimov on Education

Growing up, I read a lot of the works of Isaac Asimov, and not just the science fiction. Asimov was a true renaissance man, writing and presenting on a wide variety of non-fiction topics – history, culture, math, religion, and more – limited only by what he found interesting.

The Open Culture blog recently posted one part of an interview with Bill Moyers from 1989, before the web, long before iPads, in which he discusses the impact that computers will have on learning and our education system.

Asimov is blunt and to the point with his view of how schools are not organized to benefit kids.

Now a days what people call learning is forced on you. And everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. And everyone is different. For some it goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wrong direction.

A few minutes later, Moyers comments on Asimov’s assessment of American schools when he remarks that “[l]ike prison, the reward of school is getting out”.

So has anything changed in twenty three years? Possibly it’s become worse as the curriculum is being locked into preparation for standardized testing.

Anyway, in the rest of this short section, it’s interesting to hear Asimov’s predictions of how computers, which then were then still large boxes sitting on desks and hard wired to a network (if they were networked at all) through a dial-up modem, would fundamentally alter how people learned.

He gets a few details wrong, but most of his thoughts are quite accurate and very optimistic.