The Rise of Thoughtlessness

I’ll start with a few lines from a poem by Wendell Berry, one of the nation’s best authors (recently interviewed by Bill Moyers), a writer who is also a draft-horse using farmer in Kentucky. The lines are the first stanza of an untitled poem from Berry’s recent book, Leavings:

If we have become a people incapable

of thought, then the brute-thought

of mere power and mere greed

will think for us.

We don’t have to go far to find examples of the sort of “brute-thought” or thoughtlessness Berry warns us of.

Local “talk radio” makes a profit peddling such thoughtlessness, a brand of political analysis we could call anti-public intellectualism or, more accurately, public anti-intellectualism. And we now have a website, “Right Wisconsin”,    which is said to be “powered by Charlie Sykes” but was created and funded by the Journal Broadcast Group, part of the mainstream media corporation, Journal Communications, which also owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The website claims that Sykes offers “intelligent commentary and analysis.” But up on the site today are two photographs of the Democratic candidate for governor, Mary Burke, and some sexist analysis about an extreme makeover.  No judge of intelligence, it seems.

The Journal Sentinel is the Milwaukee area’s only major daily newspaper, and as such it likely feels the need to provide space for columnists and op-ed writers who cater to the generally conservative and well-off suburban readers. The Journal Sentinel is, of course, not alone in this seeking of “balance” and “fairness;” most mainstream media organizations– print or digital– do not want the “liberal media” label, even though most professional journalists tend to be rather rational and sympathetic due to the higher education (“critical thinking skills”) journalists receive. Yet, it’s been a long time since the executives of most mainstream media have been a really liberal or progressive bunch of people.

The business of journalism has lately trumped the intelligence of journalism. Fox News is the epitome of this conservative trend, so much so that it is a full-time job for one media watchdog to debunk the constant stream of propaganda. The Journal Sentinel is no Fox News, nor is it merely a conservative mouthpiece, despite endorsing Gov. Walker twice. Its editorials are often intelligent and thoughtful denouncements of power and greed. And yet the newspaper seems determined to promote the sort of “tea party” thoughtlessness in the interest of . . . well, what exactly?

Take, for instance, two pieces that appeared in last Sunday’s JS Crossroads section.

In his column, newly hired JS columnist Christian Schneider tries to justify what some Republicans in the House of Representatives are doing (demanding a delay to improved health care under the ACA by refusing to fund the government) by looking at past shutdowns (not really applicable) and reminding readers of what Wisconsin Democrats in the State Legislature did (go to Illinois to protest a rather heavy-handed, anti-state public employee bill, a bill that had not yet passed. No one lost necessary services when the Democrats fled.) Schneider also accuses Senate Democrats of “demagoguery” for refusing to fund (the NIH) what Republicans have cut funding for in the past and denied access to (along with everything else) by shutting down the government in the first place. Such “logic” is worthy of a conservative “blogger”, but we should expect more from a newspaper columnist.

Bernie Ziebart writes about how “addicted” we have become to government programs by beginning with a mythical America, a  “land of opportunity” for all where we all were “free to fail.” Perhaps some white, Protestant males did indeed discover a land of opportunity, but America was also a land of power and greed right from the beginning, as Native Americans, African slaves, indentured servants, Catholics, Jews, women and some children certainly suffered here for quite some time, either through plain starvation, poverty, plantation slavery and disease or through the “brute-thought” of our industrial system, racial and religious prejudice, patriarchal injustice and labor exploitation. This is simply history. The role of government in the United States has been, at its best, to recognize injustice and legislate against it. Ziebart’s “rugged individualism” was best espoused by Jeffersonian agrarianism, but Jefferson was not naïve enough to think that a democratic government should have no regulating role. And it was Jefferson who advocated for a limited public school system, not to hook Americans on government but to provide for, at no cost, a thinking and thoughtful populace, at least for young white males. Even Jefferson’s idea of democracy was not broad enough.

Thomas Jefferson did not believe it was possible to be both ignorant and free, and the rise of “tea party” conservatism, despite all its talk of freedom, is a symptom of a growing ignorance that is degrading our system of government, as well as our system of education and American journalism. So it’s time for our democratic institutions to raise their standards of thought and truth, go back to school, and put the stuff and nonsense in its place. Democracy does not mean we must accept and give credence to stupidity and greed; it means we should speak out clearly against unchecked power and greed, expect our various governments to speak and act in kind, while treating all Americans (and everyone else) humanely.

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