The Ignorant Citizen’s Ethical Duty Not To Make Others As Stupid As He Is

Here is the problem, of which the worst of the Tea Party movement is only the latest in a long line of examples.

We want typical citizens to participate in the democratic process. It is critical that they do. But the Framers recognized that participation in self-government needs to be responsible, and that responsible democratic government requires knowledge, common sense, and wisdom. They also recognized that the majority of any population doesn’t possess that; this is why they originally limited the right to vote.

Okay, that was a big mistake: if you are going to have free society, everyone should have a say in it. Still, a citizen has an obligation to be civically literate before he or she starts trying to tell everyone else the best way to run the town, the state or the country, and civic literacy, as anyone can tell by reading the comments on any news or public affairs website (except this one, of course), civic literacy, not to mention common sense, is in short supply. People either don’t value civic literacy, or more likely, don’t recognize when they don’t have it.

I don’t know what to do about that. All I ask is that ignorant political activists acknowledge an ethical obligation not to try to make the rest of the country as dumb as they are. Is this too much to ask?

Perhaps. In Tennessee, a Tea Party groups is pushing a list of demands that includes “teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

Sounds good. And how ought that “truth” be taught, pray tell?

Hal Rounds, spokesman for the group, has explained that there was “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the Founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.” Uh, but Hal: many of the Founders did “intrude” on the Indians, did own slaves and were hypocrites in one way of the others (as are we all.)

Never mind that. The Tea Party organizations insist that “no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

Yes, these folks apparently skipped English classes as well as History.

“The thing we need to focus on about the Founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” is how Hal explained it.


People like Hal do minimal damage when they just cast votes; fortunately, the Law of Large Numbers and the wisdom of crowds will often take over. But when ordinary people start organizing they have to realize that making laws requires more study, education, perspective and thought than just voting for the people who make laws, and advocating policies calculated to make future generations as ignorant as they are guarantees the failure of democracy. Hal and his friends have to do a lot of homework before they can avoid what the Founders, slave-holding hypocrites that they were, still wisely regarded as self-government malpractice. Maybe if aspiring political activists do their civic duty and become less ignorant themselves, they won’t attempt to make our children more ignorant.

It’s worth a try.

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