In Fight Over 1619 Project and Nikole Hannah-Jones, White Ignorance Has Been Bliss—and Power

Of note, particularly the historical reminders and context:

Hell hath no fury like a white conservative confronted with the unvarnished history of slavery and racism in America.

For nearly two solid years, right-wing reactionaries have been apoplectic over the 1619 Project, a journalistic exploration of the indelible impact of Black enslavement on these United States put together by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The same angry mob has also attacked a heretofore obscure, four-decades-old analytical methodology for understanding the institutionalism of white supremacy and anti-Black racism called Critical Race Theory.

The white conservative rage has been prolific, producing two House bills seeking to ban CRT and other “anti-American and racist theories” along with legislation in about a dozen states. The Trump administration put out its own 1776 Report, meant to “correct” the 1619 Project—which the American Historical Association called “simplistic” and full of “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” Now the mob is vilifying Pulitzer Prize-winner Hannah-Jones, getting the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to cravenly retract a tenured position offer, replacing it with a five-year professor of practice contract.

All of these efforts obviously aim to re-center the white supremacist historical fable that roughly 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow were unfortunate—but inconsequential—events in an America of full equality of opportunity, where any difference between the races could only be a result of Black laziness and white superiority. That fairy tale speaks volumes about how desperately reliant white supremacy is on maintaining white ignorance. You just can’t have one without the other. It’s that embrace of ignorance that lets these racists ignore the long tradition of mandated white ignorance they’re now trying to extend into the future.

“White ignorance,” according to NYU philosopher Charles W. Mills, is an “inverted epistemology,” a deep dedication to and investment in non-knowingthat explains white supremacy’s highly curatorial (and often oppositional) approach to memory, history and the truth. While white ignorance is related to the anti-intellectualism that defines the white Republican brand, it should be regarded as yet more specific. According to Mills, white ignorance demands a purposeful misunderstanding of reality—both present and historical—and then treats that fictitious world-view as the singular, de-politicized, unbiased, “objective” truth. “One has to learn to see the world wrongly,” under the terms of white ignorance, Mills writes, “but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority.”

To challenge that epistemic authority with uncomfortable but verifiable facts about race and racism guarantees the wrath of those who are otherwise quick to claim “facts don’t care about your feelings.” The 1619 Project has required tweaks and corrections. But the wholesale discounting of the initiative by white conservatives, who ignored the sloppy, error-filled 1776 Report, is more than a classic display of hypocrisy. It’s a testament to how deeply critical white ignorance is to white supremacy.

In reality—not the manicured “reality” of white supremacist historical delusion, but bonafide existence—historical fact has always hurt the feelings of white supremacists. In response, they have consistently used self-serving lies of omission to make themselves feel better. Were they less averse to historical truth, today’s white conservatives might already know this.

They’d perhaps be aware that the United Daughters of the Confederacy—the white Southern ladies group that put up most Confederate monuments, including one explicitly lauding the Ku Klux Klan—released a 1919 manifesto in all but name demanding “all authorities charged with the selection of textbooks for colleges, schools and all scholastic institutions” across the South only accept books depicting the Confederacy glowingly. Conversely, those books that correctly identified Confederate soldiers as traitors or rebels, rightly located slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, depicted the figure of the “slaveholder as cruel or unjust to his slaves,” or “glories Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis,” were to be rejected. The UDC ordered school librarians to deface books that were insufficiently praiseful of the Confederacy by scrawling “Unjust to the South” on the title page. Well into the 1970s, these rules dictated the history lessons taught to Southern children, both Black and white. The group’s rewriting of history to make slavery benign, Black resistance invisible, and white terror no biggie—also known as the ahistorical Lost Cause myth—is being re-engineered for this moment.

Modern complaints about so-called “cancel culture” and political correctness are also linked to white ignorance, allowing the know-nothings who wield it to deny the harms of whiteness while turning themselves into victims of overly aggressive Black declarations of personhood. Across the 1940s and ’50s, the NAACP campaigned to purge racist language from history books, targeting passages that extolled the KKK and references to enslaved Black folks as happy “Sambos.” In response, the Washington Post dismissed their concerns as “humorless touchiness,” an old-timey way of calling them snowflakes. One WaPo editorial stated that to “insist that Negroes be given equal rights with other citizens is one thing. To insist that their particular sensibilities entitle them to exercise a kind of censorship is quite another.”

It took the longest student strike in U.S. history, held in 1968 at San Francisco State College, to finally get collegiate ethnic studies, which have been under attack ever since. To wit, in 2010, Arizona legally banned Mexican American Studies until a judge forced the state to overturn the unconstitutional policy, while the perennial fight over textbook history in Texas led to textbooks that in 2015 featured a section titled “Patterns of Immigration,” stating “the Atlantic slave trade from the 1500s to the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” In addition to a bill to prohibit the teaching of the 1619 Project currently making its way through the Texas legislature, conservatives in the state are trying to ensure minimal mention of slavery or anti-Mexican discrimination in textbooks and pushing legislation to create an 1836 Project to “promote patriotic education.”

“Do you want our Texas kids to be taught that the system of government in the United States and Texas is nothing but a cover-up for white supremacy?” State legislator Steve Toth reportedly asked his Congressional colleagues.

And here, Toth is doing what white conservatives actually do with surprising frequency, which is screaming the supposedly quiet part. It’s an admission that by merely telling the whole story and including all the facts, the long and carefully maintained narrative of white innocence—a kind of perpetual white alibi—is disrupted. White ignorance is basically just a “refusal to recognize the long history of structural discrimination that has left whites with the differential resources they have today” creating a fake “equal status and a common history in which all have shared, with white privilege being conceptually erased.” The intentional know-nothingness of white ignorance “serves to neutralize demands for antidiscrimination initiatives or for a redistribution of resources.” Instead, it holds that “the real racists are the Blacks who continue to insist on the importance of race.”

So we have Florida Gov. Ron Desantis declaring the 1619 Project is “basically teaching kids to hate our country and to hate each other based on race,” and Tom Cotton, who performatively introduced a bill last year to ban the 1619 Project in schools, complaining the initiative paints the U.S. as “a systemically racist country” instead of “a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal.” Earlier this month, during a press conference for the Stop Critical Race Theory Act, co-sponsor Dan Bishop called the academic theory “a smokescreen for racism” and a “divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche.” Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who of course was also there added, “These are the things that we overcame in the civil rights era and I’m so proud that we did.”

White conservatives only get real into anti-racism lip service when the reality of white racism threatens to blow up their spot. That’s surely why in April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona labeling the 1619 Project “activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.”

“My view—and I think most Americans think—dates like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Civil War are sort of the basic tenets of American history,” McConnell said in remarks earlier this month. “There are a lot of exotic notions about what are the most important points in American history. I simply disagree with the notion that the New York Times laid out there that the year was one of those years. I think that issue that we all are concerned about—racial discrimination—it was our original sin. We’ve been working for 200-and-some-odd years to get past it. We’re still working on it, and I just simply don’t think that’s part of the core underpinning of what American civic education ought to be about.”

That sure is a long-winded way of advising folks to stick to the white supremacist storyline. McConnell is unwittingly offering an example of how, as Charles Eagles writes, “the powerful can make decisions that actually “strive for a goal of stupidity,” rather than for genuine education. Under the guise of protecting children, imposing an engineered ignorance protects the privileged by preserving the status quo and by releasing leaders from responsibility… Too much knowledge could lead to troubling questions and a loss of control of the classroom, and the elite feared the unknown results.”

The price for not adhering to those rules is that white conservatives (give it up for The Real Kings of Cancel Culture, everybody!) will do all they can to have you blackballed, legally banned, discredited and defamed. Jay Schalin, of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a right-wing think tank that led the charge against Hannah-Jones, maligned the 1619 Project as mere “political agitation”—inadvertently suggesting he already knows the horrors of American slavery and racism are reasons to be furious. Schalin and his co-conspirators, to protect white ignorance, went after Hannah-Jones. It all brings to mind yet more ignored history, cited by Mills, about how the terms of enslavement included that “Blacks were generally denied the right to testify against whites, because they were not seen as credible witnesses, so when the only (willing) witnesses to white crimes were Black, these crimes would not be brought to light… Moreover, in many cases, even if witnesses would have been given some kind of grudging hearing, they were terrorized into silence by the fear of white retaliation.”

Silence was the end goal then, and it’s the goal now, as a means of preserving white ignorance—which is to say plausible deniability. But the work of Hannah-Jones and folks like Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of CRT (and so much more) are undoing myths that are difficult to perfectly assemble without the cracks showing.

“If Black testimony could be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be false,” Mills notes, “it could also be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be true.”

Source: In Fight Over 1619 Project and Nikole Hannah-Jones, White Ignorance Has Been Bliss—and Power

Krauss: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

Good question and discussion:

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion.

How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students?

Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about US society. It was that they were rather “innumerate,” as the mathematician John Allen Paulos had labeled it in a book he wrote in the 1980s. They had no concept whatsoever of what a million actually represented. For them, a million and a billion were merely both too large to comprehend.

It remains a badge of honor for many who like to describe themselves as highly cultured or artistic to describe themselves as mathematically challenged, or to say that their brains aren’t wired for mathematics. Because many of those they hold in high esteem have made similar claims, there is no real social penalty to them for doing so.

When it comes to science rather than mathematics, it isn’t so simple. Proudly proclaiming scientific illiteracy is not de rigueur. Instead another refrain has recently become popular among politicians and public figures: “I am not a scientist, but…” Equally prominent, is the statement “I believe in science” (as if there is a choice) which is then followed by some scientific gibberish.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.” The line between being scientifically or empirically controversial vs being politically controversial has been blurred to the point of erasure. In Washington, and many other seats of government throughout the world, belief trumps reality.

Different aspects of the problem were on display recently during the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett. When asked by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy about her views on climate change, she said: “You know, I’m certainly not a scientist,” and added, “I have read things about climate change—I would not say I have firm views on it.” Later, following questions from Kamala Harris about whether she acknowledged a relationship between smoking and cancer, and whether the coronavirus is infectious, both of which she answered in the affirmative, she was asked, “And do you believe that climate change is happening and is threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?” Coney Barrett responded, “I will not do that. I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial…”

It would have been appropriate for Justice Coney Barrett to argue in both cases that the confirmation hearing was not an appropriate place to discuss her scientific expertise but rather her legal expertise. However, that is different than claiming, as she did, to have insufficient knowledge of the issue to possess any viewpoint at all.

In this, and all areas where scientific evidence is both public and sufficiently overwhelming, public figures who even feign ignorance for reasons of political expediency should be called out. In her second exchange, having established her bona fides regarding the science of smoking or the coronavirus, an appropriate response from Justice Coney Barrett to Harris’s last question might have been to answer that yes, climate change is a scientifically established fact, but that she was not going to be roped into commenting on related controversial public policy questions.

By the same token Senator Harris’s last question reflects a pseudo-religious “I believe in science but I don’t need to think about what it actually means” mantra. Climate change, which is happening, presents numerous potential threats, but not to the air we breathe, as if it were akin to industrial pollutants.

I raise this point, which may seem like mere semantics, because we have to encourage intelligent and literate discourse from both sides of the aisle. Inappropriate claims like this by politicians who want to be on the right side of science but who can’t be bothered to think about what it implies don’t help. Rather they encourage rational skeptics and irrational deniers alike to reject the actual science by dismissing the statements of those who claim to defend it. Similarly, it also helps encourage a distrust of scientists.

I wrote my new book, which presents the fundamental science behind climate change, in part to specifically respond to this sorry state of affairs. Outrageous denials, or outrageous doom and gloom predictions equally subvert the ultimate goal, which is to develop rational public policy. Gaining a perspective of the fundamental science, which I would argue is not beyond the grasp of a Supreme Court Justice, or a United States Senator soon to be Vice-President, is a precursor to proposing rational policies to address one of the most significant global challenges of the 21st century.

I should underscore that when I discuss scientific illiteracy, I am not focusing on how many scientific facts people may remember. I rather mean the process of science: empirical testing and retesting, logical analysis, and drawing conclusions derived from facts and not hopes. The impact of increased CO2 on heat absorption in the atmosphere is something that can be tested, as can the expansion coefficient of water as heat is added, one of the key factors affecting measured sea level rise. Accepting the reality of these is not something that should disqualify you from, or assure you of, a government appointment.

An equally pernicious misunderstanding of the scientific process involves confusions about uncertainty, as we are witnessing with the current pandemic. Epidemiology is a very difficult part of science because it often relies on sparse data that is very hard to accumulate. Like all aspects of science, the conclusions one draws are only as good as the data one has. Yet, politicians and the public alike have often accepted sweeping claims about the perceived lethality or transmissibility of COVID-19 well before appropriate data has been available. Donald Trump was at one extreme, but others who exploited for political reasons early predictions that millions would die usually did not qualify their remarks with either a reasonable estimate of uncertainties, or with the proviso that this dire prediction was for a world where no ameliorative actions were taken.

It is possible, and indeed I expect likely, that we will not have firm knowledge about the details of its lethality or transmissibility for years, or at least until after the current pandemic is over. And even then, uncertainties will remain. This issue has recently taken on a more personal aspect for me, as I write this while convalescing from what appears to be COVID-19. (Thanks to the vagaries of the US healthcare system, and the recent surge of cases, the results of my test will take seven days to arrive, by which time I am hoping to be well on the way to recovery.)

When it comes to public perceptions of medical or scientific prowess, I blame in part science fiction programs on television or in feature films that give the illusion that faced with a technical problem, sufficiently talented scientists and engineers can both ascertain the cause and create a solution in hours instead of years or decades. That is just not the way science often works. Most important scientific developments are not revolutionary. More often than not they are baby steps taken along a long road of discovery. The recent announcement of two new COVID vaccine efficacies has been remarkable, so that perhaps by the end of 2021 most people will be vaccinated. But while two years is lightning speed in this area, many people remain surprised that it has taken this long.

Fewer people may proudly proclaim their scientific illiteracy than their innumeracy, but our cultural role models nevertheless often openly express their lack of comfort with questions that you shouldn’t have to be a scientist to understand or appreciate. I saw it when I taught at Yale, and I saw it in the Senate confirmation room. It is considered quaint to say something like, “my mind just doesn’t work that way” when it comes to science, as an excuse to stop thinking. But we wouldn’t accept that statement so easily if the question related to Shakespeare’s contributions to literature, or the historical impact of the Holocaust.

The Enlightenment was well-named because it led to a greater understanding of ourselves, our society, and our environment, and was accompanied by the rise of the scientific method. Acting for the common good requires subjecting our own ideas to empirical scrutiny, being open to considering and empirically testing the ideas of others, and letting empirical data be the arbiter of reality. The most compelling reason that all of us, most importantly our public figures, should take science seriously, and honestly, was expressed best by Jacob Bronowski, a personal hero who exemplified the union of the two cultures of science and humanities:

Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simple by taking sides.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and president of The Origins Project Foundation. He was Chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 2007–2018. His newest book, due out in January, is The Physics of Climate Change. 

Source: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

The Case for Teaching Ignorance – The New York Times

Good advice to all of us, whether policy makers or not, on uncertainty and the need to understand the limits of available evidence:

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance this summer, uses this analogy: The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.

Mapping the coast of the island of knowledge, to continue the metaphor, requires a grasp of the psychology of ambiguity. The ever-expanding shoreline, where questions are born of answers, is terrain characterized by vague and conflicting information. The resulting state of uncertainty, psychologists have shown, intensifies our emotions: not only exhilaration and surprise, but also confusion and frustration.

The borderland between known and unknown is also where we strive against our preconceptions to acknowledge and investigate anomalous data, a struggle Thomas S. Kuhn described in his 1962 classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” The center of the island, by contrast, is safe and comforting, which may explain why businesses struggle to stay innovative. When things go well, companies “drop out of learning mode,” Gary P. Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me. They flee uncertainty and head for the island’s interior.

The Case for Teaching Ignorance – The New York Times.

The Franco-American Flophouse: Tribes and Truth

Great addition by Victoria Ferauge to the four points of Rosling (see How Not to Be Ignorant of the World):

I would add one that I call for want of a better term Tribes Never Tell the Truth.

We are social creatures and every human group family, tribe, clan, class, country, nation, state we belong to has a story about itself and about the people and places beyond its boundaries and borders. Arjun Appadurai put it quite well when he pointed out that “No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius.”

These stories contain facts mixed with myths to form powerful narratives and we cannot help but evaluate the input we get from the world against the storyline of whatever group we identify with. Even the most independent of thinkers can find himself struggling mightily to incorporate information that challenges what he thinks he already knows about the world.   Those who are quick to recognize this about religion or nationalism should acknowledge that there are quasi-religious narratives lurking under the surface of their “rationality”.

As Mircea Eliade said:”Mythical behaviour can be recognized in the obsession with success that is so characteristic of modern society and that expresses an obscure wish to transcend the limits of the human condition;  in the exodus to Suburbia, in which we can detect the nostalgia for primordial perfection;  in the paraphenalia and emotional intensity that characterize what has been called the cult of the sacred automobile.”

These stories are another impediment to seeing the world clearly because challenging them and finding them wanting gets us kicked out of a club we desperately wish to belong to.  Most groups even ones comprised of “free thinkers” do not tolerate even small deviations from the common story.  Is it not true that perceived apostates are treated even more harshly then those who are clearly in the camp of the enemy?  Every group has its own Inquisition, ready to ferret out those who “belong without believing.”

So I would add this heuristic to the list – one that was beautifully expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens –  “How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? How sure am I of my own views? Dont take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK, because you’re in the safely moral majority.”

The Franco-American Flophouse: Tribes and Truth.

Ignorance is cheap – but parliamentary knowledge costs – Globe Editorial

Globe editorial on ignorance and the Government’s (or at least of some of its MPs) wish to be less open and transparent:

Mr. Wallace posed his own written question asking for the estimated cost to the government of answering Order Paper questions. The answer he got, based on a formula that is dubious at best, was $1.2-million for 253 questions. “Are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?” Mr. Wallace asked.

Well, let’s think about that. What value do Canadians place on knowing: the percentage of Employment Canada benefits applications that are rejected and how many people have to wait longer than 28 days for a response; which government department is responsible for monitoring the transporation of fissile radioactive material inside our borders; how much money Ottawa has spent developing software since 2011 and what the software actually does; and the amount the government spent on travel expenses while negotiating the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union.

These are just some of the opposition questions currently on the Order Paper, and all of them deserve an answer. Mr. Wallace’s suggestion that MPs should ask fewer questions, because ignorance is cheap, is pretty much one of the dumbest things a parliamentarian has come up with in recent memory.

And as most of us know from personal and professional experience, ignorance is expensive given the implications of bad and faulty decisions.

Ignorance is cheap – but parliamentary knowledge costs – The Globe and Mail.