I had a bit of an epiphany the other night. Few would deny (aside from the ignorant themselves) that deep ignorance is taking hold in this country at a truly frightening rate. This ignorance covers a vast swath of issues and it’s getting more difficult by the day to find subject areas that are unaffected by it. As I was reading some laughably foolish anti-vaccer rant, it occurred to me that all forms of this ignorance stem from the same problem: utter lack of historical perspective. Given the American public’s fifteen minute memory, this should come as no surprise. Remember when Ebola was going to kill us all – people were ranting all over social media about the impending apocalypse, need for immediate border closings, and Faux News was calling for the impeachment of the president over it? Me neither. Oh wait, was that just last summer? I got it confused with this time in 1995, never mind, I mean 1990... no wait, make that 1976. Every time as if it’s the first time ever. Why? Because when you have no memory, all events are unprecedented.
After thinking about this phenomenon for some time, there wasn’t a single ignorance movement in the US that I couldn’t relate back to a lack of knowledge of history. The anti-vaccers seem to have no knowledge of the 350+ million people killed by smallpox or the fact that polio used to affect 350,000 people annually and now affects less than 1,000. It’s easy to be anti-vaccines when, in your fantastical world, those diseases never did any harm and maybe never even existed. People constantly parroting the “terrorists hate us for our freedoms” and “Muslims are violent, evil people” lines are oblivious to over a century of Western imperialism and the West’s own terrorism. They seem to have totally forgotten about the Crusades and the Inquisition, and all manner of other Christian lead terrorist actions. While decrying ISIS beheadings they ignore US torture than happened just a few short years ago. They bemoan troops killed by the Taliban, not even realizing they were killed by weapons we supplied the Taliban with. It’s easy to see third-world peasants and Muslims as the aggressors when you’ve forgotten about everything that lead up to the conflicts we’re in today. Then of course there’s some of my favorite ignorant people: the champions of deregulation. They’re demanding the gutting of Dodd-Frank because their memories have failed them on the 2009 financial crisis and its lead up that was caused by the destruction of Glass-Steagall. Hell, most of them probably don’t even remember Glass-Steagall existing. They want the EPA closed down and the FDA shuttered. Why? Because they have no idea what life was like when people were choking on black clouds of pollution in cities, waterways were brown with sewage, food poisoning was a routine occurrence, cholera was the cool thing to have, and people had no information on the content of their food or drugs. In their small minds with memories that only extend as far back as today’s breakfast, none of this ever occurred. If you can’t even remember why regulation was put in place to begin with, of course you’re going to see it as superfluous and want it removed. We also can’t forget the close cousin of the deregulation fool: the “free market” fool. These are the people beating the drums for the removal of all workers’ protections and a return to feudal times. These people have no idea that this country’s organized labor movement (not the benevolence of corporations) is what gave us things like overtime pay, paid vacation, paid sick leave, maternity leave, equal hiring, child labor laws, minimum wage, healthcare benefits, unemployment insurance, social security, and pretty much anything else benefiting workers. We would have none of the labor laws we take for granted today if it were not for strong unions and the workers’ right movement petitioning the government for change. Yet these anti-labor people want the government out of business. They want to break “evil” unions. They want to undo everything the American worker fought hard for. Why? Because they don’t have even the slightest clue that the American worker fought for it. They have no concept of history. They have no idea what working in a 1920s factory or mill was like. They forget that huge, government stimulus packages are why we have an interstate highway system and hydroelectric dams. They think because things are this way today, surely they were this way always. Trickle down economics was tried and failed – but they don’t know this because they don’t know or understand anything that happened prior to fifteen minutes ago. When so many people’s minds are blank slates like this, the ground is ripe for the seeds of rewritten history to be sown – which is exactly what we see happening today, championed by the leaders of the ignorance movement.
This all left me with the conclusion that the best way to reverse this country’s rapidly growing ignorance problem is not to educate people on current events (as I had previously believed), but to educate them on history. Current events are meaningless if they are not put in historical context. People must understand how we arrived at where we are. They need to understand why things are the way they are today and what life was like in years past (in some cases even reminders of forgotten events that occurred in their own lifetimes). Only then will the spread of ignorance slow and, hopefully, reverse.