Somewhere along the line in America, a virtue has been made of ignorance, particularly within the political sphere. The timing could not have been worse.
If it is a reaction to perceived "elitism" than it is misguided, as the United States has always regarded itself among the world's elite nations when it comes to education, medical research and scientific innovation. At least until recently. As the world becomes increasingly complex in every way, this is a bad time for the US to take pride in dumbing down.
A bellwether event in the emergence of this new ignorance was the Republican vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, who took obvious pride in how little she knew about history, world events and other high-falutin' matters that troubled the likes of Barack Obama. Happily, she has faded into deserved obscurity, but the trend that Ms. Palin either triggered or more likely came to symbolize is very much in evidence as the 2016 election year approaches.
The best evidence this campaign season comes courtesy of Republican presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, although supposedly reasonable candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have begun throwing reason to the wind in an apparent bid to appeal to likely primary voters. In the case of Mr. Trump, ignorant remarks go beyond simple falsehoods (Syrian refugees "flooding" America) to utterly preposterous contentions.
Even if it were desirable, for example, to deport an estimated 12 million Americans in the country illegally, the logistics and cost have rounding up so many people and presumably herding them into boxcars makes this plan of Mr. Trump impossible. At the very least, during presidential campaigns, candidates should be debating the possible. Otherwise, we're all just playing fantasy politics.
With remarkable frankness, two foreign policy advisers to Dr. Carson expressed their frustration to The New York Times at trying to educate the candidate in the intricacies of world affairs. Like most Republicans on the national scene, Dr. Carson's tough talk tends to melt into vagueness when he addresses issues like ISIS, and when he has been specific he has often been demonstrably wrong, such as in his assertion that China has sent troops into Syria.
"Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East," complained Duane R. Carridge, a former CIA agent and Reagan administration foreign policy official who is advising Dr. Carson and debunked his assertion about China and Syria. Another adviser, Armstrong Williams, has set up with meetings with Dr. Carson and foreign policy experts, one of whom, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told The Times that Carson's "instincts are all right, but this is a database in which he's very unfamiliar."
The world is a complicated place, the Middle East in particular. President George W. Bush may actually have known the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — it has been speculated otherwise — when he invaded Iraq, but his administration certainly acted like it didn't know the difference or at least didn't think the distinction mattered. Either way, the Bush White House was wrong, and its ignorance helped unleash some of the forces that fuel Middle Eastern turmoil today.
One can disagree with the Middle Eastern policies of President Obama (setting aside the closet Muslim nonsense) but there is no denying he knows the players and the situation. The game goes for Democratic presidential front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Republican presidential candidates must know their facts as well, and the media must insist on it, even if that means being accused of liberal gotcha' journalism by White House wanna-bes who resent tough questions. Ultimately, however, it is up to voters to insist that their candidates be realistic and informed, as opposed to blissfully ignorant about a complicated and dangerous world.