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Palaima: What ignorance has cost us

Austin American-Statesman Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ignorance is not always bliss. Just ask police Lt. Wayne DeMoss who was denied promotion recently for failing to recognize City Manager Marc Ott at the funeral of a former police captain. What do you think about that decision?

I received a MacArthur Genius Award yet I routinely blank on the names of deans, provosts, colleagues and students. I even trip up on my wife's name.

We all, I think, have had memory lapses on somber occasions like funerals, when our minds should be on more important things than a city official's need for name recognition.

What we should want to know is whether a single decision DeMoss made or a single action he took in his 22 years of service depended on his knowing the name of Austin's city manager?

Ignorance can also be a relative thing. In his recent book "Just How Stupid Are We?", Rick Shenkman asks a serious question about the level of ignorance in our or any democracy. How can democracy work, if we as "the people," the demos in the very name the ancient Athenians used for the democracy they invented in 507 BCE, know so little about important issues affecting our lives and the future of our nation?

How many judges have you voted for knowing nothing other than their names and party affiliation? What do we know about our rights and responsibilities as citizens? According to recent surveys that Shenkman cites, only 40 percent of American citizens can name the three branches of government and only 34 percent know that Congress declares war.

How do we explain our lack of political smarts? Does our ignorance really matter?

In some cases, we the people cannot be blamed. We would know that Congress declares war, if our elected representatives in Congress actually lived up to their constitutional responsibility to declare war. From the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to our undeclared war in Vietnam to the resolution on presidential use of military force that led to the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presidents have sent our soldiers off to fight in foreign lands.

In other cases, we forget what we have learned about civics in high school or college, because we live in a society where democracy is remarkably stable. According to Shenkman, only one in a thousand of us can name the five rights we are guaranteed by the First Amendment. I could not.

But I guarantee you if we were denied the right to assemble or to express ourselves openly or to read any newspaper we pleased or to turn to Fox News or MSNBC, we would soon be activating our knowledge of the Constitution.

Are all the Iranians flooding the streets of Tehran well-informed about their government? I doubt whether they would poll any better on basic civics questions. But they do know when an election has been rigged, and they have responded bravely en masse.

If the stakes had been higher here in 2000, if Al Gore had been less like Al Gore and if we had then the hindsight we now have, some of us would have taken to the streets.

We were not ignorant. We just could not foresee what having a president named George W. Bush would cost us.

Palaima ( is a professor of classics at the University of Texas.

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