“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” – James Madison
A retired United States Supreme Court Justice, David Souter, when asked what in retirement kept him awake in his native New England log cabin home, replied: “pervasive civic ignorance”.
Speaking in 2012, in an eerily prescient comment at the University of New Hampshire that on reflection was harbinger of the Age of Trump, he said: “What I worry about is, when problems are not addressed and the people do not know who is responsible … some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.
“That is how the Roman Republic fell.
“That is the way democracy dies.”
With crackling perspicacity, the appointed-for-life justice of the US high court who decided instead to retire at the relatively early age of 70, captured the zeitgeist of a subsequent age – the present.
We live in an era in which Western democracies seem to lumber along with the weight of proud know-nothings.
From the UK’s descent into proto-neo-fascism called ‘Brexit’ in polite company to American betrayal of the Kurdish people – whose bloodletting freed the world of five years of brutality, menace and mayhem led by a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate founded on crude theological distortions of the Koran – the policies of presumed great nations and presumptive theocracies are united in their reverence for ignorance.
Ignorance is bliss; ‘Tis folly to be wise nowadays. Many prefer the mind-numbing creature comforts of social media, sitcoms, gaming, reality TV and pornography. Indeed, the pornographic, the prurient, the gory and the unsubtle are celebrated by our modern culture.
And in an age where more people have more access to more information than at any time in human history, we battle Flat Earth believers, anti-immunisation advocates, Holocaust deniers and those who simply fake it until they can make it.
In our own patch of the global woods, thousands of our fellow citizens prefer to believe what they cannot prove and decry what is probably true.
This is not an attack on faith; far from it. Belief in the divine has been an essential aspect of human life for millennia. Even the Enlightenment of the late 17th and early-to-mid 18th centuries could not erase faith.
But in the temporal world, where the rule of law and statecraft and diplomacy reside, the consensus that facts must rule them all appears to have a grip as tenuous as if it were the Middle Ages when only monks had access to the Word of a God who spoke only Latin.
Our call-in programmes remain ever-swirling vortices of ignorance. What began as a bright and shining object of democracy at work has long descended into an anaerobic organism where logic, facts and fairness go to die.
With the singular exception of a Sunday excursion into a matter of topical interest, in which guests are sought for their actual knowledge and experience, the call-in shows on both the main general-interest radio stations may occasionally zing with the saltiness of a creolized Chinese meal, loaded with MSG, but which ultimately leaves the listener wondering what was actually consumed and why hunger has returned so soon.
Thirty years ago, both the commercial and public broadcasters of the land devoted time to in-depth treatment of current affairs. Their producers prided themselves on generating more light than heat with such programmes as the long-running Point at Issue, Analysis and Hot Seat, to say nothing of ad hoc discussions and issue-based, long-term documentaries.
For one of the half-dozen ‘university town’s of the English-speaking Caribbean, it is as noteworthy as it is lamentable that its breakfast fare on radio consists still of an amalgam of death notices, ribs and drabs of news, greetings and requests, and endless commercials posing as factual programmes.
Even in the digital age, where ideas and opinions are portable and shareable, there is even more need for our fragile democracies to a coalesce around facts. The technology may define consumption but not the need for curated news, analysis and comment.
Our broadcasters and content producers owe the people more than a dumbed-down diet of pablum. The business model and the profit motive may not approve but a marketplace of ideas that is bereft of ideas and irreverent of facts can only offer what robs old Justice Souter of his sleep – pervasive civic ignorance.
It is a vacuum that may yet be filled with a strongman – or strongwoman – who feels more entitled to their own set of facts than the people are to their own opinions.
We cannot predict, however, what darkness may yet await us who eschew the light of knowledge.