THE HARVEST OF IGNORANCE
"Do not be too severe upon the errors of the people, but reclaim them by enlightening them."--THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1787
IT WILL BE instructive, even though depressing, to turn from the ignorance of our least favored group to the danger growing out of ignorance on the part of the American people generally. A lack of information on foreign affairs is not confined solely to the sub-eighth graders.
The unenlightened populace is the dupe of demagogues. Father Coughlin, the microphone messiah of the 1930's, had a listening audience of nearly four million, most of whom were drawn from the more ignorant lower- income group. His violent anti-British and proisolationist fulminations contributed to the final defeat of the World Court in 1935 and to the purblind neutrality legislation of the late 1930's.
Suspender-snapping politicians, like Governor Talmadge of Georgia, batten on the ignorant mob. "The man with the hoe is too prone to follow the politician with the hokum," observed the Wall Street Journal in 1926. Someone has said that if the politician will but fashion a better claptrap, the vulgar herd will beat a path to his door. The demagogue succeeds in America because too many of the ignorant want to be led by the nose, and because in this uncertain world they demand certainties. These he provides, and he is on his way to position and power.
The vast majority of the American people want to spare themselves the pain of heavy thinking, and they demand simple solutions. Some years ago a professor of economics delivered a scholarly address to a popular audience on economic problems and foreign affairs. The applause that rewarded his discourse was anemic but respectful. The next speaker rose and said: "Professor Dry-as-Dust has given us a learned address, but I think he missed the essential point--what the world wants is brotherly love." The applause was deafening. Emerson was not far from the mark when he observed: "The great majority of men seem to be minors." Yet these minors, who are perpetually minors, are called upon to exercise the responsibilities of adults.
The ill-informed masses are also dupes of the sloganeer. The slogan in a democracy is a treacherous device not only because it makes for herd thinking but because it is a substitute for hard thinking. Smooth, alliterative slogans, like "Fifty-four forty or fight," are shouted most loudly by those with the biggest mouths and the smallest brains. We tend to think that by shouting a slogan we solve the problems that gave rise to it; we have the pleasant feeling of generating a maximum of statesmanship with a minimum of mental effort.