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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.

By Walter Rodgers / October 20, 2011

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.

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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.


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