Know-Nothing Follies, American Style

Some time in the 1980s while I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, my home town, a student turned in an essay about Pink Floyd, a group my students knew I liked.

The student’s essay raved about Pink Floyd — as a person, not a group. The irony of this, of course, was totally lost on the student. [1]

Throughout my 30-plus years teaching, I have encountered dozens of smug, cavalier know-nothings like that student. Too uninformed to even be able to conceive that their ignorance is entirely transparent.

Know-nothings often surround themselves with know-nothings, and the resulting echo chamber is truly stunning. They find themselves clever, and cool; they are ultimately self-perpetuating, and self-sustaining.

Young males often fall into this trap as a pursuit of coolness to hide their insecurities; young women are drawn to feigned know-nothingness as a ploy to attract guys, also a defense against insecurity.

Many if not most grow out of the know-nothing-as-cool/attractive phase.

But enough don’t that the know-nothings have now elected the master of know-nothing president, and that know-nothing president has surrounded himself with know-nothings to run the country.

The great irony of the culture of know-nothingness is that these people are compelled to appear knowledgable while having no capacity for knowledge.

The evidence is easy to confirm:

  • Trump completely oblivious to who Frederick Douglass is.
  • SOE Betsy DeVos’s Tweet misspelling W.E.B. Du Bois, and then misspelling again in the apology.
  • Trump’s inauguration poster using “to” for “too.”
  • The GOP Tweeting a false quote attributed to Lincoln.

These examples from our political elites have their roots in right-wing radio where Rush Limbaugh often holds forth quoting Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit” (clueless that this is the comment of a buffoon, not a pearl of wisdom) and repeatedly calling Ayn Rand “Anne.”

Here are the remnants of know-nothings to add to the culture of lies and the flippant serial plagiarism that characterize Trump and company.

And as a result of this flurry of know-nothingness, post-truth, and fake news, many have begun to turn to literature, from George Orwell to Margaret Atwood.

While I appreciate the focus on dystopian science fiction that addresses the power of manipulating words, facts, and truth — see Orwell and Atwood — many are glossing over the importance of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which dramatizes the normalizing of the know-nothing culture that now controls our country.

I highly recommend Amusing Ourselves to Death: Huxley vs Orwell, a careful side-by-side graphic comparison of the work by these two authors from Neil Postman who argued in favor of Huxley’s warnings being more apt.

Huxley, the graphic notes, envisioned a people distracted by pleasure, reality TV replacing the urge to read or to seek knowledge.

Huxley recognized the bankruptcy of over-stimulated consumers, bathed in the glow of screen after screen and the incessant access to information.

Huxley feared how truth and fake news would blur in the collective consciousness of a people who just want to have fun — orgy-porgy.

Huxley drew on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titling his novel in a way that is ominous and satirical since Miranda is deluded by her idealism: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!”

Imagine, then, that the know-nothing student in my class trying to curry favor without making any real effort had been the son of a racist millionaire who left him a huge inheritance and a cushy leg up on a career as a huckster.

He could have been well on his way to the presidency.

[1] Note: “The name is derived from the given names of two blues musicians whose Piedmont blues records Barrett had in his collection, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.”

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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