“Don’t know much about history…”

Don’t know much about history

Don’t know much biology

Don’t know much about a science book,

Don’t know much about the French I took…

Sam Cooke, “What A Wonderful World”

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Talk about living in the past. The Democrats want to talk about Watergate? I mean this happened before I was born! This is a total waste of time.

Senator Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican

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President Donald Trump: Well let’s just see who’s right.

Reporter: But do you know —

Trump: You just watch it… Ultimately, I’m always right.

The president’s response when asked about his tweet saying Russia was taking much of its military out of Venezuela, which Russian subsequently denied. 

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Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Watergate

Senator Hawley is only 39, so he has no personal memory of Watergate. But, being young and not having lived through an event is no excuse for historical ignorance. Not just ignorance on Hawley’s part, but an unwillingness to learn from history characterized his recent appearance on Fox News. Hawley called this week’s congressional appearance by former White House counsel John Dean, who provided key testimony about President Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate coverup, “ridiculous” and “theater to distract” from President Donald Trump’s accomplishments. 

Hawley apparently is ignorant of only the things about which he wants to be ignorant. Earlier in June, he joined Trump for the 75th commemoration of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Hawley said the anniversary made him wonder, “What are we gonna do in our day and in our time to carry forward their legacy to protect freedom in our country and around the world.” History carries lessons, after all — but only when it is convenient to learn from them.

In most respects, Hawley’s disdain for history is a trivial matter. But, it highlights a disturbing trend among conservatives in America: A contempt for facts and truth. This is a long-term development on the right, which I have discussed before, but the campaign and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump has exacerbated it. Trump brags that he does not read and that he gets his information from watching cable television. He also claims he has “a very good brain.” Trump may be the least informed person to sit in the Oval Office, but his lack of knowledge does not deter him. “I’m always right,” he says. The better way to put it: The president is often wrong, but never in doubt.

Many Republicans still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim

As are many of those who support him. As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans thought the Affordable Care Act included “death panels.” More than half of GOP primary voters in the last presidential election still believed President Barack Obama was a Muslim. These numbers may shock, but they should not surprise. After all, a high-ranking Trump adviser referred to “alternative facts,” and a Trump lawyer said on television, “Truth isn’t truth.” If some Americans have different facts and if the truth is not ascertainable, then, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” (With a nod to the Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup.)

Apparently, the lying eyes, at least for almost 20 percent of Trump voters who — while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at Trump’s 2016 inauguration and Obama’s in 2012 — insisted that the audience at Trump’s was larger. They believed it, I suppose, because former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said it was so. Just another alternative fact! Nearly half of all Trump voters polled after the 2016 election appeared ready to believe Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex trafficking ring run out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria.

Sam Cooke

To return to the great Sam Cooke, it is not only history that gets short shrift these days. Many Americans “don’t know much about biology… [or] a science book.” Only a quarter of self-proclaimed Trump voters believe human activity has caused climate change, and nearly half of Republicans doubt whether humans have evolved over time (perhaps, Trump’s ascension proves their skepticism correct). Unwillingness to believe the experts seriously impacts public policy as demonstrated by the Trump administration rolling back many of the Obama-era regulations geared to reducing carbon emissions and the president pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord. And, ignorance of science has marked the recent debates in many conservative-leaning states over restricting abortion. 

Why are conservatives so misinformed? Lack of education and an unwillingness to trust more than one news source is part of it. Also, conservatives mistrust scientists and other “experts” because of clever propaganda, such as, in the instance of climate change, the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to obscure the facts about climate change. Similarly, many schools in conservative regions teach evolution as just another theory. All of this signifies the importance of “fake news,” either that found in erroneous promotional information peddled by industry and educational institutions or the “fake news” accusation by Trump that leads his supporters to disbelieve everything they see or read in the mainstream media. 

The problem goes even deeper. On the right, Trump and his supporters embody the strain of anti-intellectualism that runs throughout American history. Anti-intellectualism does not mean ignorance, but rather a distrust of learning and knowledge. Ignorance is merely not knowing something. Anti-intellectualism signifies a refusal to learn about the unknown and a certainty about matters that are unverifiable. 

Like the president, many conservatives know little and doubt nothing.

Posted June 14, 2019

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