A couple of years ago I went on a road trip with a young woman of my acquaintance. She was in her mid-thirties, had grown up in a small town near Sacramento, and had completed High School. Like a lot of people she was eager to self-improve, consuming magazine articles and Internet vlogs on the health benefits of juicing, cycling with her children at weekends, and so forth. A single mother, she was devoted to her children and also spent considerable time trying to keep an eye on her alcoholic self-destructive father. In short, she was a decent and well-meaning person and in many ways quite representative of the average US citizen.
Yet the way in which she was most representative was her astonishing ignorance of nearly every basic fact across nearly every subject imaginable. As we drove across the empty vastness of the western States we talked and talked and it became shockingly clear that her mental universe was essentially Medieval. She was unaware of the fact that evolution is not just someone’s arbitrary “theory” but is strongly supported by all available evidence across a wide range of disciplines, from paleontology through genetics. She did not know that the words “universe” and “galaxy” are not synonyms, and she was under the impression that no one knows whether or not other suns might have planets orbiting them. She did not know anything of the astronomy and cosmology that has conclusively shown we live in an expanding universe that commenced 11.8 billion years ago with a period of rapid inflation that left its indelible mark on the Cosmic Microwave Background.
Not surprisingly, her total ignorance of contemporary facts was also striking. Assertions made by the Republican Party were, for her, utterances of Absolute Truth and it had never occurred to her that there might be real-world facts she could check for herself. In her mind, illegal rapists and murderers from “those Mexican countries” really were swarming across the border in their hundreds of thousands and in her mind her taxpayer dollars really were being squandered on millions of undeserving “welfare queens” across the nation. These things were true because she’d heard them on television. It was that simple.
This woman was of average intelligence. She had not grown up in a cult but merely in a modest town located in the richest State in a wealthy nation. Yet her ignorance was nearly absolute. To all intents and purposes her mental universe was more akin to that of the Venerable Bede than to any western European. Although she had her smartphone and her Netflix subscription and her automobile, these were merely everyday magic because she had no inkling of how anything works. She’d vaguely heard of someone called Einstein, assumed he was still alive, didn’t know why he was famous, but was sure people believed what he said mostly because somehow he was important. He was a scientist, right?
She lived in a world of surfaces and it had never dawned on her that it might be possible to peek underneath to see how things really function. She was, in other words, perfect fodder for any political Party that knows how to exploit the foolish and ignorant and it was no surprise that she always voted Republican regardless of who happened to be on the ticket. Because Republican values were good and Democrats wanted to destroy the nation. She knew this to be true because she’d heard it on Fox News.
I recently spent two years criss-crossing the southern States, often referred to as “the Bible Belt,” and interacting with many hundreds of ordinary decent US citizens. Sadly, the aforementioned young woman was a paragon of knowledge in comparison to most of those I listened to as I traveled through the Backward States of America. In Arizona one man earnestly explained to me how only god could have been clever enough to put all the pieces of the Grand Canyon in exactly the right places, as though this geological feature were a giant Lego construction. Another in Texas assured me that Trump was god’s choice for President because “someone has to save us from the godless Mexicans.” I heard a woman in Tennessee explain that of course the Apollo moon landing was faked; she knew this for a fact because those men in the pictures were wearing helmets to hide their faces, thus proving they were ashamed of the trick they were playing on everyone.
The depressing litany of ignorance and stupidity was literally enough to fill a thick book. No one I interacted with appeared in any way cognizant of the modern world despite using so many of its conveniences. The only sources of “information” in the lives of these people was Fox News (motto: “Proudly Lying to the Simple-Minded Since 1996”), their preacher, and whatever evangelical Christian television or radio station they were permanently tuned to.
What does it matter that an enormous number of citizens are in effect entirely ignorant of reality? Surely it’s harmless; who really needs to understand cosmology or genetics anyway? Who needs history, which really is just the Pilgrims coming to the New World and making everything great?
The problem, of course, is that total ignorance means a total lack of comprehension regarding how things really are and how things really work. If your entire world is based on the assumption that the guy on the TV screen “knows stuff” and that “stuff” must be true because the guy is on TV, then your decision-making criteria are (to be charitable) not well founded. If it never occurs to you that there might be facts out there in the real world you could investigate before swallowing uncritically whatever you’re told, you’ll continue to fall for the most pathetically obvious lies. And if you’re incapable of even rudimentary consistency-checking then you’ll be unable to detect when two claims made by the same “authority figure” are in direct opposition to each other. In short, you’ll be mere fodder for those who are cynically manipulating you.
The USA is beyond help. It is so deeply dysfunctional in so many ways that there is zero chance of it becoming anything other than increasingly backward and increasingly theocratic and increasingly authoritarian. Most US citizens are entirely unaware that their nation is an outlier in nearly every aspect of life compared to the rest of the OECD (an acronym very few Americans would even recognize). They don’t know they have an insanely high level of gun violence, that they are profoundly ignorant, that their social systems are the least adequate of all the wealthy nations, and that their religiosity is on par with third-world countries. They don’t know their so-called “health care” system is a catastrophe except for the wealthy, and they don’t know their quality of life index scores well below that of nearly every moderately wealthy nation. They are likewise clueless about how the Republican Party votes 86% of the time for laws that favor the rich and harm the rest, because they’ve been told for decades that the Republican Party is “for the average hard-working guy” and it would never occur to any of them to check their Party’s actual voting record. For the average US citizen, especially those in the Backward States, life in the USA is how things are everywhere except for the fact that the USA is the Greatest Nation on Earth. They know this to be true because they’ve heard it many, many times.
The great value of the USA is as a warning to other developed nations. The UK in particular seems tremendously keen on aping the USA in as many ways as possible (except for its spirit of entrepreneurialism, which would upset the British terribly). British people binge-watch US television shows, they mimic its popular culture, and they dream of visiting Las Vegas. British politicians watch the US political scene and discover how easy it is to succeed by lying to the ignorant and simple-minded. British companies gradually learn how to improve profits by adopting US work-is-everything moeurs. The BBC copies US network models so it never provides context by means of which to evaluate the spurious claims of demagogues and instead bends over backward to provide “human interest” and to run endless stories about ephemeral popular culture.
The USA is based on a relentless dumbing-down of its population and the UK appears desperate to follow in its footsteps. This is a grave mistake. Post-Brexit the UK will be a very sorry place indeed, with rising unemployment, ever-increasing racial tensions, a return to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and dejection among the young for whom so many avenues of advancement will be closed. So the UK is probably also beyond help. But the other European nations don’t need to tread the same path. They can learn from the mistakes of the USA and the UK. They can emphasize real education in which critical thinking and problem-solving are more important than rote learning historical dates of kings and emperors. They can legislate to prevent the European equivalents of Fox News and Breibart and the too-many vile “shock jocks” that have utterly debased discourse in the USA and are likely to have the same impact in the UK. European nations can provide real information to their citizens upon which decisions can be based, rather than leaving them to rely on the bluster of demagogues and fanatics.
If Europe does not learn the lessons so vividly provided by the USA, Western civilization is over and the next Dark Ages will be upon us.