Tue, 05/13/2008—I want to be clear here from the start: there is a difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Stupidity is a lack of intelligence. But even here, there are subsets. Some ignorance results from a lack of access to knowledge, while some is the result of a laziness or unwillingness to learn. Some stupidity is the result of some genetic or nutritional deficiency or perhaps of some abuse or lack of care or attention during early childhood, while some is the result of mental laziness or a willful desire not to think.
Having lived in Asia and traveled widely in the remoter areas of rural China, and in Laos and other desperately poor countries, I have had an opportunity to see people who are truly ignorant about many things, but who are anything but stupid. In a remote part of Anhui Province, back in the spring of 1992, for example, I visited a small village that had been completely inundated and destroyed a year earlier by an epic flood, which completely destroyed their rice fields and washed away their mud brick, dirt-floored homes. They had, in less than a year, rebuilt the town, and were preparing to plant a new rice crop. They were also, using nothing but their hands and wheelbarrows, building a massive levee that would keep the river at bay the next time around. The villagers had never seen an American in their lives, had no televisions or phones, and in most cases had never been farther than the next village, but they knew how to survive disasters that would have killed the average American.
They were also intensely interested in learning whatever they could from two visitors from halfway around the world. The whole village quickly crowded around me and my traveling companion, another American, peppering us with questions about America. We were invited into the home of a village elder, and served a delicious meal, which we ate among wandering chickens and rabbits in a dirt-floored room, as half the village peeked in through the window openings. Significantly, the thing they were proudest of, and which they brought us to see, was their new school.
I mention this because I am trying to imagine how the average American community would respond to a surprise visit by a couple of Chinese peasants from that village. I suspect that far from surrounding them and peppering them with questions about China, there would be calls to the local police to pick up to wandering vagrants. Instead of trying to communicate, and perhaps learn lessons about how to make gardens grow during a drought, local Americans would be studiously avoiding the visitors. An invitation to have dinner in a local home seems particularly unlikely.
When I lived in a small town in upstate New York for a few years back in the 1980s, I found myself briefly the president of the local little public library, which was wholly supported by donations. One year, we tried to get a donation of $1000 from the local Lions Club, which had an annual carnival and donated the proceeds to worthy projects (ours was an expansion of the building to accommodate books which at the time were sitting in piled up boxes for lack of shelf space). The president of the Lions, a local businessman, responded to our request saying, “What do we need a library for? I haven’t read a book in years!” (My fellow library board member, a local businesswoman herself, responded, “I’m no surprised to hear that, but I am surprised that you’d be willing to say it publicly.”) I also remember overhearing, in the local supermarket checkout line, a cashier talking to her friend. She said, “I wish my daughter would drop out of high school and get a job. I mean, she’s 16 already, and what does she need a high school diploma for? She can work a cash register without one.”
All this brings me to Hillary Clinton’s proud assertion that she is the candidate of the uneducated white worker. It is of course, precisely why she’s likely to win the West Virginia primary today by a lopsided 75:25 or maybe a 60:40 margin. One news program I watched about the West Virginia primary yesterday included an interview with a Clinton supporter, in that state, an older woman who said she couldn’t vote for Obama “because he’s a Muslim.” The reporter responded, “Well, for the record, you know he says he’s a Christian.” The woman replied, “Well I don’t believe him.” In West Virginia, one in four residents doesn’t have a high school diploma. That compares to one in five nationally. I’m guessing this woman was one of that one in four. Only one in seven West Virginians holds a bachelor’s degree, compared with one in four nationally.
Now taken by itself, this isn’t to say West Virginians are stupid, or at least any stupider than the average American. (And don’t get me wrong. I love West Virginia-- particularly its brilliant musical heritage and the musicians and artists of the region who carry on those traditions, and its gutsy labor union history, which played such a key role in the development of the American labor movement.) In large part, it is rather a reflection on the state’s relatively low average income, a legacy of historically low expenditures on education, and a general lack of opportunity. Moreover, I’m certain that many of those West Virginians who never completed high school are smarter than your average college grad, in the same way that the Chinese peasants I met in rural Anhui were smarter than many much better educated Americans. But I’m also certain that a lot of West Virginians without high school diplomas, like other Americans without an education, are woefully ignorant, and vulnerable to manipulation by candidates who appeal to their baser instincts and fears, as Clinton has been doing in her sinking campaign. It is why states like West Virginia have, election after election, backed candidates like George Bush whose policies manifestly work against their own interests.
A depressingly large number of Americans, not just in West Virginia, but also across the land from Maine to California, including my own state of Pennsylvania, fall into this willfully stupid category. They are content to get their information from television programs that offer no facts—just propaganda and ratings-boosting rants. They don’t read newspapers. They reject facts that conflict with their prejudices. They’ll believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. They’ll believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11. They’ll believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago. They’ll believe the moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio.
Certainly one cohort of voters that is keeping the leaky Clinton dirigible airborne is women, particularly older women, for whom her candidacy is a feminist milestone. That is understandable. But the other cohort, which Clinton has referred to as “working, hard working, white Americans,” and as “whites...who had not completed college,” is hardly something she or any candidate should be bragging about.
And yet that is what she is doing: bragging that she’s got a lock on the stupid, racist white vote.
She should be leaving that for John McCain.
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