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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The science of creating ignorance and the Republican dilemma

by John MacBeath Watkins

Agnotology, or the science of creating ignorance, is now firmly entrenched in our politics. The Republican Party, which has become associated with the use of this science, is facing a dilemma as a result.

Once they had used it to undermine the legitimacy of other elites, they discovered that they had also undermined the legitimacy of the Republican Party elite. They have created so much ignorance and distrust, they are not trusted to be informed about what is best for their constituents.

The name of this science dates from 1995, but its use in public discourse started in the 1960s.

It started with the tobacco industry, after the Surgeon General's Report tying tobacco use to cancer. The industry responded by trying to undermine the science behind the report.

First, they said that the research had been done on mice, and did not indicate that humans would suffer similar problems. Then, they engaged in a program of sponsoring studies to put against the science the Surgeon General used. Some of it was to show that other things cause cancer as well, so why blame cigarettes? Some were shaky science to put against more solid studies to argue that "some scientists say one thing, some say another."

A 1969 memo called the Smoking and Health Proposal, written by an executive of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, said “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

If the notion of "establishing a controversy" after the science has been settled seems familiar, it's because this is the tactic used by climate change deniers to argue that "the science isn't settled" on climate change.

Agnotology entered the political realm when a corporate lawyer who had represented the tobacco industry laid out the game plan for business interests to take control of public discourse.

Lewis Powell, who Ronald Reagan later appointed to the Supreme Court, wrote the memo at the request of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1970.

In it, he suggested a series of steps to take, including founding think tanks, funding seats on university faculties, and using radio and television to spread their message.

Powell suggested a sort of ideological siege of academia by establishing a staff of friendly faculty, speakers, speaker's bureau, and attacking views they didn't like that were expressed in textbooks. 

He had a special place for business schools:

The Chamber should enjoy a particular rapport with the increasingly influential graduate schools of business. Much that has been suggested above applies to such schools.Should not the Chamber also request specific courses in such schools dealing with the entire scope of the problem addressed by this memorandum? This is now essential training for the executives of the future.

In short, business schools were to indoctrinate future business leaders. He also thought there was a neglected opportunity in the courts:

American business and the enterprise system have been affected as much by the courts as by the executive and legislative branches of government. Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.

Appointing Powell to the Supreme Court can be viewed as one way business took action on this proposal.

Most of what Powell proposed was to change what people thought they knew about their world.

Flash forward to the present. The Republican Party, funded to a surprisingly large extent by the fossil fuel industry, contended for years that climate change was a hoax, that the president of the United States wasn't a citizen, that the Affordable Care Act was a socialist job-killer, that President Obama was a Muslim, & etc.

Every half-baked conspiracy theory could get a hearing from the party elite as long as it stirred up the base and got more Republicans elected.

But a strange thing happened. One of the conspiracy theorists was a rich man with a need for attention. Donald Trump entered Republican circles through his adherence to the Birther conspiracy theory -- the outlandish notion that our president was born not in the United States, but in Kenya. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, even courted his endorsement.

The idea was clearly racist, an attempt to delegitimize our first African American president. But party leaders never disowned the theory, or that of President Obama being a Muslim. Instead of ridiculing the conspiracy theories and trying to win based on reality, they allowed the mechanism Lewis Powell had called for -- the radio, news, and now the internet conservative echo chamber -- to spread these theories far and wide.

Believing this nonsense became a tribal marker for conservatives, adhered to even by seemingly intelligent people who should have known better.

When Donald Trump came for the Republican Party elites, they had no other elites trusted to speak up for them. The party base of whites without a college degree had no faith in any of the elites, including that of their own party. They had been asked to believe in lies so often that the nature or even possibility of truth seemed to be illusory, as if all that continued to exist was the Republican Party's reptile brain, threat sensitive and emotional, raging against unfairness with no clear notion of how they had been betrayed, but aware that in their lifetimes, they were one group for whom things had gotten worse. For them, there was no longer any real truth, just whose side you were on.

The party had taught them not to blame the rich, but to blame the people they competed for directly for jobs and prestige -- immigrants, people of other races -- and the people they might have turned to for information -- those intellectuals they had been told time after time not to trust.

And now, the Republican Party faces the dilemma they have created. The party's base no longer trusts any elite, even their own. They can no longer tell the rank and file, "this guy's a nut, he can't win and shouldn't be nominated." They have unwittingly abdicated the party's role as the gatekeeper who gets them to select a viable candidate.

The people who thought they were running the party aren't in control any more. They can see the cliff, but they can't reach the wheel, can't press the brake. They know that to save the party, they must get control again, but they have created too much ignorance in the service of temporary goals.

The base is acting as if it believed all the convenient lies, all the conspiracy theories that were just supposed to be used to manipulate them. They don't even care if they lose, they just want a voice to shout their rage at their supposed enemies.

They are the beast who shouted hate at the heart of the world.


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