The intellectual life of our nation is being swept up in a tidal wave of stupid lies. Having discovered that the average American will believe almost anything, so long as it casts their tribe in a favorable light, grifters and charlatans are pressing their diseased imaginations to the limits of the possible. Oscar Wilde called it “organized ignorance”.
When I speak of “intellectual life”, I don’t mean the sort of elite conversation one might overhear in a faculty lounge (if such places still exist). Rather, I have in mind the intentional falsehoods emanating from legislatures, pulpits and courtrooms.
My education and life experience inclines me to this perspective.
I have a Ph.D. in church history and theology (more on that in a moment), I spent twenty years as a pastor, seven additional years as a hospice chaplain and am now serving a Baptist deacon.
I have also spent over twenty years as executive director of Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform non-profit. On nine separate occasions, our work helped to reverse wrongful convictions. Three of the cases we brought to wider attention (the Tulia drug sting, the Jena 6 fiasco, and the case of Curtis Flowers, received national media attention.
In more recent years, I have helped my wife, Nancy, and later, my daughter, Lydia, in their attempts to unseat Matt Krause, a rising star in the political wing of the Christian right. In order to jumpstart an ambitious run for District Attorney, Krause circulated a list of 850 books that, in his view, should be pulled from school libraries because they might make certain children uncomfortable. Krause believes that the nation’s founding fathers were all born-again evangelicals and insists that–science be damned–the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Krause wins by reinforcing the intentional ignorance of the electorate. He is organized ignorance in action.
Whether I am poking around in popular religion, the political arena or perusing trial transcripts, I keep stubbing my toe on organized ignorance. Preachers, prosecutors and politicians all use the same forms of tribal manipulation to curry favor with the same cluster of middle class white folks. They have been amazingly successful and have, in the process, ripped great holes in the fragile fabric of the nation.
Let me begin with a photograph. I want you to give it your careful attention before I continue:
I am intimately acquainted with the lecture hall portrayed in this photograph. I sat in this very room in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky as a student in the mid-1970s. I remember hearing Dr. Frank Stagg explain from Holy Scripture why women are called and gifted for pastoral ministry. In the late 1980s, I sat in this room once again, this time as a doctoral student grading papers for Dr. Bill Leonard. A third of the women in the room were women, many of them enrolled in the M.Div. program. Some of these women now occupy influential positions in Baptist life.
But things have changed. The guy with the goofy grin is Dr. Hershael York, a Southern Seminary professor tasked with teaching minister’s wives how to teach the Bible to other women. It would be improper, Dr. York believes, for these little ladies to teach men. Nor can they enroll in biblical and theological seminary courses. York is smiling because he is delighted with this great step forward.
While I was finishing up my dissertation, Southern Seminary was taken hostage by organized ignorance. First, the handful of women professors were sacked. Next, professors who believed that God calls women to preach and teach were fired. Then, women were barred from Bible and theology classes. Finally, men like Hershael York were hired.
A few things jump out at me when I look closely at the women in the picture above. First, only two of them are wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic. But just look at those faces. These are gifted women. Intelligence and faith dance in their eyes. I am sure their essays will be every bit as good as the papers I graded back in the day (my best students were invariably women).
Tragically, they are all held fast by a web of organized ignorance. Should they even hint that God has called them to preach and teach both men and women their husbands’ careers would be placed in grave danger. The wasted potential is enough to make you weep.
At a January 30th rally in Conroe, Texas, Donald Trump promised that, if elected, he would pardon the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The same mix of religion, politics and vindictive justice witnessed at the Capitol Coup (Confederate flags, crosses and a gallows) were on display in Conroe. Ken Paxton, the repeatedly indicted Texas Attorney General repeated the big lie that the election had been stolen.
If Matt Krause (the book-banning politician my wife and daughter tried to defeat) hopes to beat Paxton in the primary, he will have to run to his right. Paxton may be in prison by that time (the evidence against him is damning and plentiful), but people with a firm grip on power rarely go to prison.
But Trump and company didn’t invent organized ignorance; they have simply learned to exploit it.
This isn’t a question of partisan politics. I am a political partisan. I hope you are as well. If you have no political convictions you need to get some. And quickly. The big lie, the idea that the 2020 presidential was stolen by Democrats, is objectively false. Not a single responsible authority says otherwise. Those who repeat this patent falsehood or men and women of degraded character. They know better, but they don’t care. If the rubes want to hear it, these folks will say it. And keep saying it. And punish those within their own party who disagree.
This is not politics as usual. This is the intentional, programmatic, creation and manipulation of ignorance. Sure, you’ve heard that before. But we can’t stop stating the obvious just because it is old news. Conmen like Trump win by grinding down the opposition. A third of the electorate falls for the lie. Another third is unsure what to believe. That’s all it takes to swing an election.
We frequently hear about the foibles of preachers and politicians, two professions that have fallen precipitously in public regard in recent years, but the prosecutors receive much less attention. I have chosen, therefore, to make legal processionals the central focus of my essay.
This week I posted a Washington Post article about the plight of “lifers” on Facebook. Young men, convicted of violent crimes as young men, the article reported, are rarely released on parole even when parole boards give them a thumbs-up. This has been a particular problem in Maryland where a series of governors, liberal and conservative, have refused to pardon or parole anyone for any reason. I think one person liked my post. This isn’t the kind of stuff that educated liberals generally care about. But I haven’t been able to get the article out of my mind because of a simple fact buried in the heart of the feature-length piece.
Two people told police that he had shot a man named Douglas M. Jones dead at Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues in Baltimore. The witnesses recanted their statements during the trial, alleging that detectives at the Baltimore Police Department had pressured them to make up the story and that they hadn’t been at the crime scene at all. But this didn’t change the verdict. Darryl Taylor, a jury decided, was guilty of first-degree murder.Washington Post, “They were sentenced to life in prison. Who should decide if they get a second chance?”
Let me spell that out for you. “The evidence will prove,” the prosecutor told the jury, “that Darryl Taylor is the killer.” The “evidence” is ground to powder on the witness stand. And, guess what, the jury convicts anyway
I am currently working on the case of David Black, a young man back in 1996 when he was accused of firing shots at his friend after an argument and inadvertently killing an innocent pedestrian. This happened in Washington DC, about three blocks from the National Mall.
Black says he was at a family birthday party at the time of the incident. He was accused by two eyewitnesses who claimed to have been in a K Street apartment building at the time of the incident. Neither witness accused Black of being the shooter when they were first questioned. But one witness was facing seven felony indictments. In fact, he stood accused of burglarizing the very apartment building from which he allegedly saw the crime on the very day of the shooting. In exchange for corroborating the government’s case, he was moved from a prison to a halfway house. The reluctant witness immediately bolted and had to be hunted down by the authorities so he could testify against the defendant.
Asked if he was ready to testify on the first day of the trial, the reluctant witness said, “I guess so, I got not choice.”
The second witness had even less credibility. She told the police she hadn’t seen anything. Finally, she signed a statement saying she had seen David Black shoot at a man who went by June Bug.
When the trial began, the witness went into hiding and had to be tracked down. She then told an investigator that she had signed onto the state’s theory of the crime because she knew it was the only way they would let her go home. But at trial, reminded of the penalty for perjury, the beleagured witness recanted her recantation.
In the end, the prosecutor in the David Black trial managed to get his witnesses to repeat the magic words. June Bug (the man Black is accused of trying to kill) says he wasn’t at the scene. To his amazement, he wasn’t asked to testify.
Neither witness in this case had a shred of credibility under oath, but they reluctantly played along with the prosecution. But in the case of Darryl Taylor, the two eyewitnesses on which the state’s entire case depended, told the jury they had been badgered into perjuring themselves.
And the jury convicted anyway!
When a jury acquits in the absence of evidence, or a major political party lines up behind an obvious lie, or a religious group demotes women to inferior status, we are dealing with the same phenomenon. Organized ignorance.
Jury trials almost always end badly for defendants, especially Black defendants. In the Jim Crow South, white defendants accused of harming Black victims were almost always acquitted, and, decades after the civil rights revolution, whiteness still greatly enhances the chances of acquittal. In her disturbing book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Kathleen Belew shows how hard it has been for the DOJ to bring members of white racist militias to justice. Again and again, she shows, they have been acquitted by predominantly white juries. In the Fort Smith Sedition Trial in 1988, for instance, an Arkansas jury acquitted fourteen members of white power militias. Two jurors identified so strongly with the defendants that they later married them (you can’t make this stuff up).
According to the American concept of criminal justice, however, racial prejudice either doesn’t exist, or it is too elusive and mystifying to be detected. Prosecutors work overtime to eliminate Black people from the jury pool, especially if the defendant is Black; but you rarely see defense attorneys asking questions about race during voir dire. This is largely because white people hate the slightest implication of white racism. It just encourages pro-prosecution sentiment within the jury.
Trials involving low-status Blacks defendants and high-status white victims, quickly devolve into orgies of respectability. Jurors easily identify with victims from their own tribe. Thus, even if the prosecution’s star witnesses recant their testimony, as in the Darryl Taylor trial, juries tend to convict. Forced to choose between the safe team (white, respectable, middle class folks like me) and the dangerous team (Black, uneducated, unemployed or marginally employed poor people like the defendant) jurors are placed in a difficult position. Voters and congregants confront a similar choice.
James Baldwin addressed the problem of organized ignorance squarely away back in 1972.
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, 1972
There is, in other words, a kind of wisdom that walks the mean streets of America; and there is a species of idiocy that struts boldly through the corridors of power. Blind faith is tribal, and it makes us stupid.
And make no mistake, when the American middle class clings desperately to its status, it is capable of extraordinary foolishness. A recent Ipsos poll finds that 76% of the American public takes a dim view of President Joe Biden’s stated intention of selecting a Black female to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat. We learn that 95% of Republicans oppose this plan compared to 54% of Democrats. What we are really being told is that conservative white people don’t want a Black woman on the court while white liberals are divided on the matter. But if we follow Baldwin’s maxim, our first question will be directed to Black women.
In a letter to president Biden last week, over 100 Black professional women let us know what they think. “Nominating a Black woman with the necessary compassion, sense of justice, and brilliant legal mind,” the letter said, “will bolster the integrity of the Supreme Court by bringing about a balance that ensures the court is more representative of all Americans.”
Black women note that, of the 115 jurists who have been named to the court since 1789, precisely none have been Black women. Rectifying this problem is, therefore, a matter of simple justice. The nation should be thrilled to right an obvious, and embarrassing, wrong. There is no good argument against this moral logic. Opposing Biden’s plan is simply stupid.
This doesn’t mean that the white people on the wrong side of the issue are lacking in intelligence. Many of them are quite intelligent. They could see through the flim-flam of a used car salesman in an instant. But ask them to identify with the hopes and aspirations of someone outside their tribe and they get really, really stupid. Which is what Baldwin was getting at when he said that “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor-theologian hanged in the dying days of the World War II on the direct order of Adolf Hitler, would have agreed with Baldwin. The Nazis weren’t just evil, he said, they were also stupid.
Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The fool is self-satisfied, Bonhoeffer believed, because the fool has abandoned independent thought. the problem was therefore more sociological than psychological. The problem is mass-stupidity.
Today, we are surrounded by mass-stupidity on a massive scale. It poisons our legal system, our politics and our religion. Nor can these venues be separated; they partake of the same reality.
When most white people in America willingly support a malignant narcissist; when they choose to believe, contrary to all evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen; when millions flock to the bizarre folly of QAnon, we are dealing with mass-stupidity.
I wish I could tell you that our current malaise is unprecedented; tragically, it is all too human. Christianity, the religion that, in America, is held hostage to mass-stupidity, began as a remedy to precisely that problem. We can no longer be defined by race or clan or gender or social status, the gospel tells us, for all are one in Christ Jesus. But, as Baldwin and Bonhoeffer discovered, when organized stupidity gets its hands on real power nothing can loosen its grip.
I also wish I had a simple, snappy solution to offer. But if Baldwin and Bonhoeffer were out of bullets, I am unlikely to do better. But one thing I know for a certainty: if we misdiagnose this problem we’ll never find a solution. In our courts, in our churches and in the bastions of political power we are dealing with organized ignorance on an alarming scale. We are facing a crisis of confidence and credibility as a consequence The mere passage of time will change nothing. Will heal nothing. Only the truth, stated boldly, repeatedly and without apology, can set us free.
- The Science of False Confessions
- What Jonathan Haidt and Yascha Mounk get wrong about the culture war
- Conservatives say no to the human rights revolution
- Can the Never Trump Coalition hold together?
- Organized ignorance is poisoning America
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