Walter Rodgers

Class warfare? What about the ignorance gap?

Occupy Wall Street protesters point out a ballooning US wage gap. It shouldn't distract us from another great cleavage: the ignorance gap. That’s the difference between those willing to listen and consider and those who refuse to do either. And it plays out in politics with grave consequences.

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Those who describe the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations as evidence that the United States is on the cusp of looming “class warfare” may have a point – up to a point.

Low wages versus ballooning chief executive officer pay. The “99 percent” versus the wealthiest “1 percent.” Joblessness for the masses versus bonuses for the bankers.

But the class divide has always existed. Long ago, America’s wealthy pulled up the drawbridge in their East Coast compounds of Bar Harbor, Maine; the Hamptons in Long Island, N.Y.; and Palm Beach, Fla. After several generations of prosperity, America’s middle class followed the rich, barricading itself in gated and golf communities.

The class clash should not distract us from another great cleavage – the ignorance gap. That’s the difference between the learned and unlearned: those willing to listen and consider and those who refuse to do either. Ultimately, it plays out in American politics and decisionmaking – with potentially grave consequences.

Americans may spend more time consuming news than they did a decade ago (this thanks to digital delivery), but are they ingesting any real understanding? Are they looking much beyond weather, traffic, and breaking news – or their own political stripe of reportage? Meanwhile, the next generation of leaders is growing up on bite-sized tweets and text messages.

The world is an ever more complicated and interconnected place, from the imbroglio in Afghanistan to the euro crisis. Yet during the midterm elections of 2010, exit polls showed that foreign issues were an election concern to only 8 percent of voters.

Closer to home, 54 percent of Americans say the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) of late 2008 did not help prevent a more severe economic crisis. The program, drawn up by the previous administration, tried to thaw frozen credit markets by giving loans to troubled financial institutions. Economists on the left and right agree it helped save the US from the abyss. More basically, millions of Americans believe Medicare is not a government program.

Over dinner recently, my host and I debated climate change. He adamantly insisted that higher levels of carbon dioxide emissions do not harm the planet because, he said, “rain washes carbon into the soil where it is all absorbed by plants.”

The fact that 70 percent of the planet is water, not soil, and that increased amounts of carbon dioxide are slowly acidifying the oceans, was of no interest to him, although no lesser authority than the National Geographic Society now worries whether oysters, mussels, and coral reefs will survive the next 100 years of acidification.

It was not my place to berate my host. But the truth is, Americans live in a complex society that takes great individual effort to understand it. Many of us simply prefer to deny that which we neither understand nor want to consider. (Despite established science that global warming is happening, only 57 percent of Americans believed in 2010 that this was true, down from 71 percent in 2008, according to studies from Yale and George Mason universities.)

Yet it is the refusal to admit that we may be uninformed or wrong that fuels popular movements like the tea party. TARP is bad. Cutting is the only way to deficit reduction. The unlearned have taken Congress by storm, determined to tear down government because it’s too complex for their ken.

The learned are at least willing to consider that which makes them feel uncomfortable, whereas the unlearned too often reject science and reason by taking shelter in ideological dogma.

As in class warfare, these same tensions have long been with us. They may even be healthy as long as dogmatists are willing to say, “I may be wrong, but this is what I believe.”

A quiz: Which Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry, said the following? “All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution.”

Either could have uttered this, but it was three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan speaking in 1927. The unending debate between evolutionists and the creationists survives to become the American version of the medieval conundrum, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Our mulish refusal to consider a contrary idea extends beyond religion and into politics with uncanny déjà vu. Last year, 55 percent of likely voters believed President Obama to be a socialist, according to a Democracy Corps poll. Yet the right’s railing against socialism in a previous generation manifested itself in the anticommunist bullying of Joseph McCarthy, a senator who falsely accused many innocent Americans.

Today, with communism moribund, McCarthy’s ideological heirs war against socialism and Mr. Obama with the zeal their progenitors employed to wipe out the vestiges of the welfare state and the New Deal. They pursue Obama, branding him a socialist and a Muslim.

Democracy needs skeptics of all stripes. We need to discard the notion that we can abide with fixed ideas. In his classic work “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom wrote: “The true believer is the real danger.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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