No Joke: Ignorance may be blissful, but it can be a killer

I am a fan of political satire shows such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

Like Jonathan Swift, these modern social commentators recognize that one poignant way to comment on the many absurdities in national and global politics is through humor.

Stephen Colbert, the host of “The Colbert Report,” recently interviewed a congressman in his ongoing series, “Better Know a District.” In it, Colbert puts tongue-in-cheek questions to members of Congress, generally causing them to laugh nervously, squirm in their chairs and fumble for the most politically benign response.

One of the many notable interviews included Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, a politician noted for co-sponsoring a bill to display the Ten Commandments in both the House and Senate chambers. However, when Colbert asked Westmoreland if he could name the Ten Commandments, he could think of only three.

Unfortunately, Westmoreland’s lack of biblical knowledge is indicative of the general American population. A recent USA Today article noted that 60 percent of Americans cannot name at least five of the Ten Commandments, and half of high school seniors polled believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.

Theology experts quoted in the article claim that our collective “religious illiteracy” has the potential to be the most dangerous weapon in our ideological arsenal.

“We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world,” says Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. “We can’t outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.”

Rev. Joan Brown, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, fears that our lack of knowledge has an impoverishing effect. “You can’t draw on the resources of faith if you only have an emotional understanding,” she says, “not a sense of the texts and teachings.”

These only are a few symptoms. In a 2006 poll of young Americans aged 18 to 24, 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map. Sixty-three percent could not find Iraq or Saudi Arabia, and three-fourths were unable to locate Israel or Iran. Following the devastation of hurricane Katrina, one-third still could not find Louisiana on an American map.

It’s one thing to be ignorant. It’s another to speak and act with conviction based upon this ignorance. I would not begrudge anyone a lack of information, but I believe we should be held accountable for decisions we make – as well as people and legislation for which we vote – without the necessary information.

There’s a reason why fascist political regimes ban books and imprison intellectuals. Such information is the most powerful armament of a population. Without it, we are beholden to the very demagogues, pundits and agenda-driven religious leaders who are left holding the keys.

In effect, our willing ignorance is tantamount to handing these keys of power over to those who will seize them. The results can be chilling. One need only look back to the effects of the Crusades to witness the devastating effects of a complicit relationship between politicians and religious heads, unchecked by the general public.

It is assumed that our congressmen and women, presidents, judges, and ministers are equipped with the necessary information to make decisions in our stead, always with the best interests of their contingency at heart. But whom are we fooling?

Today, we are enmeshed in what many would call an ideological war with religiously fueled extremists in the Middle East. It can be argued, however, that on the whole we don’t know what and who it is we’re fighting. What’s worse, we don’t seem to be particularly clear what it is we stand for here at home.

It may be entertaining to watch our political and religious figureheads squirm in the hot seat, but the deeper symptoms to which it points hardly are a laughing matter.

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