Out in real America, I strongly suspect that there’s a class of people that never got the whole story about Shirley Sherrod. They heard that she was a racist against white people and that she works for Obama. That’s all they know, and that’s all they will know. For them, that’s enough. The media has moved on, which plausibly it should, and anyway, there are only so many hours in the day.
Though the story’s long over — a whole three days ago — I think it might still be worth plumbing the depths of ignorance about current events and considering how that ignorance works politically. It’s just possible, for example, that energizing the ignorant in the Sherrod affair was altogether worth it. The collateral damage was overwhelmingly among people who weren’t in Andrew Breitbart’s corner anyway. On a cost-benefit analysis, the whole thing might even be counted a smashing success.
Similar examples abound. Ignorance has become a feature where it used to be a bug. Formerly it was the job of the media to correct ignorance, insofar as it was possible (and, truthfully, it wasn’t very possible). Now though it’s increasingly the job of the media to manage ignorance. To make a space for the ignorant, and to ensure that those kept in managed ignorance get just enough news, and never more than they need to remain exactly where they are.
We were probably due for some measure of managed ignorance, what with the already stupefying mix of rational ignorance, the cable news cycle, cognitive dissonance, and in-group loyalty that shapes public opinion today. But still, consider: We found WMD in Iraq. We only tortured really, really bad people, we did it only in non-fatal ways, and they provided us worthwhile information. Same-sex marriage is going to force churches to do things they don’t believe in. There will be death panels deciding your grandma’s fate. Climategate destroyed global warming science forever.
All are untrue, but there are those who believe every one of them, and these people’s opinions about where to go from here don’t count any less just because they’re based on untruth. Those who propagate such beliefs know them to be untrue, and they know it’s not worth the average person’s time, cognitive investment, and loss of group loyalty to discover otherwise.
Yes, these examples all show conservatives as the beneficiaries of managed ignorance. I’ve tried hard to resist the conclusion, but conservatives seem to bank on it a lot more than liberals. More than anything else, it’s this style of politics that turns me away from the Republicans. I’d pick “well-informed on basic facts but ideologically divergent” over “mis-informed on basic facts and ideologically divergent” every single time. Not that I’d enjoy the choice. But what other alternatives are there?