Many years ago, (1971 to be specific) there was a television commercial about a Native American viewing the mess that we had turned the environment into, which ended with a closeup of a single tear silently running down his face. Although this ad has been criticized for portraying a “magical Indian” trope and parodied because the supposed native American was actually an Italian American, I still recall it. As someone who devoted my working career to teaching about critical thinking, Africa, African Americans, and looking beyond the accepted or received wisdom of others, I can think of no better image that captures how I feel. The distrust of authority is not something new, but the aversion to science, facts, and concern for others, didn’t seem as rampant as it does now. The political divisions between parties, politicians and individuals did not seem as irreconcilable. Mainstream media presentations did not seem to miss the point as much, did not seem to be as misleading. It might just be that I am getting old. I have lived in and studied many cultures and in all of them the elders consistently thought that their society was going to hell in a handbasket. Or, it could be that something different is really happening.

The most distressing statistic I’ve seen is that 50% of Americans only read at a sixth grade level. I worry about the “dumbing down” of our society which makes the emergence of power-hungry authoritarians a real threat to democracy not only here in the U.S. but also, abroad. Indeed, the founders of the United States tried to walk a fine line between the “democracy” of a massively uneducated constituency and a “republic” that would keep in check the authoritarian tendencies of the educated elite. For example, that is why we have three separate branches of government that can “check” each other, and a bicameral legislative system with a democratic House of Representative where representation is based on population and a Senate where it is not. With its more frequent elections the House is supposed to “represent” the interests of the people, while the six-year term of the senators is supposed to keep the “rabble” in check. This distrust of the people is why we have an Electoral College instead of direct election of the president by the people. The problem is that the system has been turned upside down by the political ambitions of the elite, the influx of corporate control over politicians through political contributions, and the ability of politicians to sway the masses through technological advances in media from the radio to television to the internet. Now misinformation allows ambitious politicians and con men like Trump to deny reality, lie, steal votes and money, and solidify their control through gerrymandering, control over the education system, and voter suppression.

Although the United States has always had an ideology of universal rights on paper (e.g. all men are created equal) but this universalism has always played second fiddle to the symphony of particularism based on class, ethnicity, localism, gender and of course race. We are currently seeing a dramatic rise in the ability of this particularism to overshadow the universality. Politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis are hoping to ride this wave into the presidency much as Trump did. TheĀ  dissatisfaction that late capitalism has created among the middle class has been deflected onto “immigrants,” “people of color,” “LBGT folks,” as if attacking these folks could make middle class and rural white lives better. I have to wonder how the the problem has gotten so much worse lately. I am not saying it has caused the problem, but lack of education and poor reading level is exacerbating the problem and preventing a cure.

I am heartened by the fact that polls show the younger generation resistant to the blandishments of the authoritarians and most of Trump’s support, for example, among older people. Yet there is much that is disheartening too. The wide spread of these ideas, the entrenched political structures that are built on them, the increased violence that accompanies it, and the lack of Republican voices against blatant lies, all sadden me.

The point of that old “Crying Indian” commercial is that since people created the problem, people can ameliorate it. That is my only consolation as that metaphorical tear rolls down my face.

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