I don’t know Albert T. Harrison, though he may well be a neighbor: we both live in Alexandria, Virginia. He is probably a good and decent man, in fact, I’m pretty certain of it, and it pains me to take him to task for what he wrote to, and was subsequently published in, the Washington Post’s weekly “Free for All” page. His letter is already on the web, however, and I’m sure other good, and, like Albert, willfully ignorant Americans are reading it and nodding their heads. His is an unethical, irresponsible, cowardly and dangerous position, and it has too many supporters already.
I’m sorry, Mr. Harrison, but you force my hand.
This week, scientists determined with near certainty that rumors of cannibalism in the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, were true. The remains of a 14-year-old girl from an excavation at the site of the settlement showed unmistakable signs of deliberate butchering. From the Post story:
“About 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl, most likely a maidservant but possibly the daughter of a colonist, was one of the casualties…James Horn, head of research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery ‘adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.’ Further, it’s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others. ‘I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ‘unique.’ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,’ Horn said.”
Mr. Harrison complained about the story, writing,
“There are some things I would rather not know. Many of us probably would prefer to dream that the Jamestown settlers were heroic at all times, despite the difficulties. I can remember the propaganda during World War II that made us feel that our culture was totally right and the ‘enemy’ was totally wrong. I guess the “seekers of truth” should be respected, regardless of where the truth leads. But why was The Post compelled to emphasize that depressing research with such a large headline and picture on the front page?”
There’s a lot wrong with this letter. I am going to resist the strong temptation to explore Mr. Harrison’s reasons for putting scare quotes around ‘enemy’ when it refers to the Japanese empire and the Nazis fighting us and the rest of the world in WW II, or to ask what exactly it is that he thinks Adolf Hitler was “right” about. It is this sentence that concerns me most:
“There are some things I would rather not know.”
If Mr. Harrison was expressing the sentiment that some knowledge is disillusioning and upsetting, making one wish it wasn’t true, I would have no quibble with that. That is not his meaning, however, for he questions the Post’s presenting the Jamestown story in a manner that forced him to notice it. He wants to be ignorant of the truth about Jamestown, and apparently many other matters as well. He “guesses” that the seekers of truth should be respected, but also thinks citizens should be able to control their exposure to facts so they can maintain their comforting, convenient and erroneous illusions, and that the news media should facilitate their ignorance.
Ignorance. The damage and destruction cause by that persistent human condition is incalculable, and Mr. Harrison wants to foster it. In “The Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Present pulls back his robes to reveal two shrunken, monstrous children clutching at his legs. Scrooge is horrified, and asks who, or what they are. The Ghost replies,
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Desiring, celebrating, seeking and encouraging ignorance, especially in a democratic republic, where every citizen shares the duty and responsibility of informed self-government, is deeply irresponsible, unethical conduct. Only knowledge, including knowledge that destroys dreams, renders illusions untenable, and forces the abandonment of passionately held beliefs, can lead to wisdom, and ethical choices. The news media should not facilitate willful ignorance, but rather do a more competent job obliterating. The selectively ignorant are a blight on every aspect of our society, as many decision-makers, policy-makers and opinion-makers all across the political and ideological spectrum are accurately described by that phrase, while others ruthlessly exploit members of the selectively ignorant in the public to further their objectives. In a democracy one has a right to be ignorant, but an ethical duty not to be. In society, we can only make the best decisions and engage in collaborative conduct that benefits and strengthens our communities by basing them on truth, not comforting fiction.
Knowing that the settlers at Jamestown resorted to cannibalism doesn’t merely challenge the simple-minded assumption that they were “heroic at all times.” It also reveals an important and profound example of the real life ethical challenges in survival situations. Perhaps the settlers had the choice of resorting to cannibalism or having the whole settlement perish. What would the failure of the Jamestown settlement have meant to the exploration of the New World? How profoundly might it have altered the course of human history? Is violating society’s strongest taboos justifiable if it is the only alternative to the destruction of civilization? Is it courage or lack of integrity when we make such a choice? There may well be more such choices ahead.
Those who are determined in their bigotry against gays and other minorities don’t want to know facts that prove that they are mistaken and cruel. Fundamentalist Christians do not want to read about discoveries in genetics, astronomy and other sciences that challenge their faith. Republicans don’t want to know about the calculations that prove major tax increases are unavoidable, and Democrats don’t want to face the truth about the unsustainability of entitlements under their current structure. Many of us don’t want to know what is happening in Syria, Iran, South Korea, Israel, and Guantanamo. Millions of “low information voters” were courted and manipulated by both parties in the 2012 elections, and it could be argued that such voters are decisive in every election, meaning that our nation is ruled by ignorance. We can see the results of this, all around us, every day.
“There are some things I would rather not know.” Well, Mr. Harrison, you have a duty to know them anyway, because you are part of this society and this country, and we are only as wise, productive, just, responsible and safe as our collective knowledge and understanding of the world permits. You may wish you didn’t have to know them, but you do. We all do. We have an ethical duty not the be ignorant.