The biggest criticism of democracy is that people are too ignorant and stupid to know how to govern. So sayeth the wealthy elite who insist that only they, the natural aristocracy, can rule and that they are the leaders, and we are the followers. The dynastical scions of the landed gentry will puff out their chests and point to their Ivy League credentials and gold plated resumes as irrefutable proof that the ordinary person is too stupid to have a say in how things go.
Which is precisely how we wound up with the 17 years (and still counting) war in Afghanistan, the greatest crime against humanity in the 21st century - the illegal invasion of Iraq (and all the war crimes that came with it), and the Great Financial Crisis where a handful of bankers and financial execs crashed the world economy and got lavishly paid off. The track record for these self-professed philosopher kings is remarkably poor, yet they still insist on yodeling that same tune.
The real question isn’t if people are too stupid to know how to rule, it’s why are these people stupid in the first place. If the failure of democracy is that my ignorance is equal to your expertise then surely the first order of business is to address the ignorance, instead of fetishizing the expertise. After all ignorance simply means a lack of knowledge – we live in an era where almost everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket that can access the greatest repository of information that has existed.
You would be truly astounded at how much you can learn with a wifi connection and a bit of free time – everything from books to online courses to leaked intelligence manuals and blueprints are online these days. The fact that there are so many university graduates shows there is an interest in learning – even if it’s the dreaded liberal arts with degrees in Performative Non-Binary Mongolian Throat Singing or the Postmodernism of Scottish Neo-Noir Cyberpunk people clearly want to learn things they are interested in.
People are curious up until it is beaten out of them by institutions and testing and jobs. The fact that there are massive amounts of detailed analyses on some of the most obscure and minute topics (my own projectile word vomiting included) and people will take time out of their day to sit and read shows that there is a desire to learn things. So the question isn’t necessarily that the people (e.g. non middle/upper class) are stupid or ignorant and therefore must be paternally guided, it’s that they are taught to be ignorant. People are taught to leave the ‘intellectual’ (a term that seems to encompass everyone from Einstein to Rick and Morty viewers) topics of policies that affect their lives to the noble few and carry on working that 9 -5.
Just trust us, the few given enormous wealth and power, to magically act in your interest and everything will be okay. Repeat after me: democracy is mob rule, the tyranny of the majority. Now vote for me because I took a selfie with a Gamma- I mean ‘indigenous’ child (brilliant, did I say that right? Put it up on the Twitter).
Historically one of the biggest monopolies has always been knowledge and that tradition continues today. We all know that an education from Harvard is better than one from West Virginia, which is why the former costs 43 thousand a year and the latter costs 8 thousand a year. Which is why you will never hear someone shut up about attending Harvard while you will have to use hot tongs to coerce them into confessing that they attended West Virginia University.
Growing up parents and teachers are continually telling us the importance of getting into a ‘good school’ as a pathway into the middle class so the question is why is it so heavily guarded? Why are there so many barriers – requisite testing scores (unless you are a ‘legacy’ candidate, or your parents make a generous ‘donation’), letters of recommendation, essays and pre-entrance tests, interviews, finances – that are designed to weed out as many people (disproportionately from the working class since they are unable to access resources like tutors, test preparation, have parents who understand the application system, etc) as possible. If democracy is flawed from all these stupid commoners, then isn’t the greatest investment to ensure that as many people as possible are educated to the highest possible standard.
If there is truly a belief in the ‘natural aristocracy’ that separates the wheat from the chaff, then shouldn’t these elite and prestigious institutions accept everyone who is capable of doing the work to ensure that everyone is at least given a fair go? Finances shouldn’t matter at all if these institutions exist to promote democracy, especially since Harvard receives billions in federal grants (enough money to ensure that every single student can attend tuition free, which is instead diverted into ‘investment funds’, while public universities face budget cuts ) and doesn’t pay taxes.
Shouldn’t we adopt the Finnish school system and outlaw private schools to focus all funds and resources into producing the most robust and effective educational system available – one that consistently produces top scores across international metrics despite eliminating testing (until your final year) and minimizing homework. Shouldn’t we be paying our teachers more, treating them with the respect they deserve, and incentivizing the best and brightest to carry the torch? Finland boasts one of the lowest crime rates, unemployment rates, and has one of the most literate and educated populations in the world. You never see people burning the Finnish flag chanting DEATH TO FINLAND because you make remarkably few enemies buying books instead of bombs.
The naysayers will shake their Milton Friedman doll and chant that there isn’t enough space, there isn’t enough money, the free market will provide (while conveniently overlooking the disaster wrought by free market charter schools in America and Latin America). But tell me if we truly believe that democracy is the best and greatest form of political governance, so much so that we export it by force to the rest of the world, isn’t there enough money to achieve this goal? If a country as astoundingly poor as Cuba (ravaged by the American embargo and numerous military attempts) can produce more doctors per capita than the richest country on the planet – while providing free and universal education and healthcare for everyone, what exactly are we capable of with the resources at our disposal? The issue clearly isn’t that of limited resources but priorities.
With the mountain of ransacked resources looted from the rest of the world at gunpoint can we not at least invest this money to produce a highly educated society that enables the realization of the democratic ideals we love to talk about? There is reams of data showing the earning potential difference between a university graduate and a non-graduate, the improvement in public well being in having a more educated (and more wealthy) citizenry. We have billions to pour into the stupidest and most wasteful policies that directly harm the welfare of everyone – the war on terror, the war on drugs - where is the war on ignorance?
We can build international space stations and particle accelerators but we can’t build effective and universal schools. A society that spends more money on the inane vanity of material goods than on educating its people, that spends more money on the destruction of war than on the creation of peace, is one that is utterly insane. So you have to ask why – people don’t just repeatedly make insane decisions in society after society across the breadth of time.
Cui bono – who benefits?
The people who benefit from having a stupid and ignorant population are the ones who aren’t, because they can control access to knowledge and its benefits to consolidate their power. The Catholic Church is one of the greatest examples of this – their services are all in Latin, as is the bible, the illiterate population is told that God has bestowed upon the king (and his nobility and church ministers) the right to rule, and that they are to obey and give them a percentage of what they earn.
After all, the peasants can’t read Latin to dispute this proto-capitalism:
“For the love of money is the root of all evil” – Timothy 6:10,
“And Jesus went into the temples of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” - Matthew 21: 12-13
They’ll just have to trust us. We are the enlightened few who are so clever and virtuous so it is your place to serve, and in return you’ll go to heaven where you will be rewarded. Sound familiar?
We are the innovators and job creators who are so hard working and intelligent so it is your place to tighten your belts and give us tax cuts, and in return it will trickle down and you will be rewarded with more jobs.
Marx refers to this as the superstructure – the cultural, religious, philosophical, political and educational systems that help enshrine the status quo and justify it to the base (the masses who work and those who own the means of production).
The original Martin Luther King with his 95 theses challenged this monopoly on knowledge by translating the bible into vernacular German, so that everyone could read for themselves and decide for themselves what the word of God meant instead of leaving it to others. The name Protestant refers to this act of defiance against the authority of the Pope. This triggered a wave of revolutions because people began to question the lies they were continually told and realized just how badly they had been cheated.
Scotland in the eighteenth century had the highest literacy rate in the United Kingdom because Scottish Presbyterianism (an offshoot of the Protestant faith) strictly emphasized that everyone should learn to read so they could read the bible. Because what is important is not your relationship with the church, it is your relationship with God, and that can only exist if you can read his words. We call ourselves a Christian nation, built on the mythology of the Protestant work ethic, yet we fail to exercise this most fundamental principle in our politics.
Knowledge is carefully guarded because it allows you to see the superstructure and question the status quo. It is no coincidence that some of the most successful revolutionaries were highly educated – Mao Tse Tung (studied as a scholar and a teacher), Ho Chi Minh (Ho the enlightened), Che Guevara (trained doctor), Malcolm X (read and studied extensively in prison), Dr Martin Luther King (the title gives it away), Huey P. Newton (PhD in Social Philosophy).
That is why there is such a concerted effort to destroy the humanities and replace it with the glorified job training of Commerce™ and ‘Business Studies’ (sociopathy with math). That is why public school funding is continually slashed under the guise of austerity and ‘school choice’ (choice for those who can afford it that is) while private schools carefully control their reputation with selective entry and suspensions. That is why we have to take massive loans to go to the universities our parents went to for free because that financial pressure forces you to choose ‘useful’ degrees or places you in debt peonage.
The average law or medical graduate in the US has 170,000 in debt – assuming compound interest rates and their baseline salary out of university they will have completely paid off their loan when they are in their 50s. Now in an environment where housing costs have gone up as much as 20,000% on top of shrinking wages that barely keep up with inflation (let alone production) at what point are you ‘free’.
Everyone is so individually busy trying to keep their head above water that it lets employers under pay you and treat you as disposable. The teeming masses of unemployed are the reserve army they can draw upon if you don’t obey and click your heels like they tell you to. In many ways we have been reduced to slaves without collars, serfs without the noblesse oblige. Even traditional factory workers had unions and a sense of community and we are deprived of that in the unstable gig economy of being a ‘private contractor’.
The age old struggle emerges – the landlord against the landless – and it is always the landlords who insist that democracy is mob rule and that people are too stupid to have a say in how things go. Funny how a political system that in theory ensures one person equals one vote is considered bad by the few who own the things we all need.
It seems remarkably coincidental that these people clamor loudly for standardized testing and teaching to the test – more homework, more assessment, more data - for public schools, while their children all attend private schools that use completely different educational systems.
I know this private system remarkably well; I’m a product of it as someone who graduated with honors through the International Baccalaureate (considered the most rigorous high school system in the world) from the seventh oldest international school in the world. I’ve also attended decile 2 public schools with thirty kids to a class where we are explicitly taught to reach NCEA (Not Certified to Educate Anyone) standards, where any Pasifika student who performs at a normal level is given condescending letter about how well they are doing [you know for one of them] and how there are programs just for them to be able to go to university.
The difference in quality between the schools for the children of factory workers and the schools for the children of factory owners isn’t so much a difference between night and day as it is between 0 and 1. There is an infinite expanse of differences with one system designed explicitly to inculcate obedience and rote learning, and one system being designed to foster curiosity and leadership skills, where you are taught to ask questions and come to your own conclusions. This is by design.
Those who can afford it, get the very best to ensure they stay at the top, while those who can’t are funneled into the machinery of public schooling that is more concerned about its funding than its students – with teachers stretched too thin and too shackled by bureaucracy to do their job as well as they’d like to.
This isn’t a system that perpetuates democracy so much as a system that ensures a permanent oligarchy of a ruling clique (the old boys network of Eton and Harrow graduates in the U.K., the French aristocrats of the Grande Ecoles, the ‘Harvard man’ from the Ivy Leagues) who can co-opt and control those that gain entry into their ranks.
Only a tiny fraction of our society is given the opportunities and resources to be able to succeed through this carefully guarded educational system, and these are the ones who will then turn around and say that everyone else is too stupid to have a say. That democracy is doomed because the poorly educated masses (angry and resentful after decades of betrayal from these elites) will then be manipulated by demagogues and ideologues without ever pausing to see their complicity.
If we genuinely believe in democracy then the single highest priority for our society – whether left or right – is to ensure the creation and permanent maintenance of the best educational systems available to ensure that everyone understands how a democracy functions and their role in it. That regardless of the conditions you are born into that you are guaranteed a universal system of education to teach you all the necessary skills to compete in an international world.. To be able to cultivate curiosity, a desire and love of learning, and the ability to follow things through to the end independently, because these are the building blocks that can be applied to any field or discipline. Because we all collectively benefit from having a more educated population.
It has to be universal to ensure that there can never be any attempt by future governments to remove, defund, or damage, this fundamental right because an attack on any one group is an attack on all. Because we waste more money and time on ferreting around to see who is eligible and who isn’t than on actually implementing these programs, and create legions of middle men who care more about their own financial stake in the system than its goals.
It has to be public to ensure that everyone, regardless of their wealth, has a stake in ensuring that they succeed – the rich who love to scream austerity at the poor will be remarkably silent when the fates of their own children are also at stake. Educational Ministers and Secretaries can no longer play dice with the futures of other peoples’ children without risking their own. It has to be public so that people of all walks of life can interact together and come to see each other, not as disparate groups of others that they never see yet claim to know everything about, but as people just like themselves who are born into different circumstances. If we want to produce future leaders who in the ideals of Plato are enlightened philosopher kings, we want them to actually know the people they will one day lead.
Otherwise we can rid ourselves of the hypocrisy of democracy and call it what it is – an oligarchy, ruled for the benefit of the wealthy few at the expense of the many. Of landed lords in their gilded estates and landless serfs who are desperate and disposable. That if we want to decry democracy as mob rule because ordinary people are stupid and ignorant, we should decry the wasteful system that produces a stupid and ignorant majority and look for a better way.
Because democracy dies in darkness and we keep putting out the lights.
 http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/03/29/critics-to-ivy-leagues-taxpayer-gravy-train-needs-to-end.html - right wing source
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/yale-university-connecticut-state-budget-cuts - left wing source
 https://elpais.com/elpais/2017/02/10/inenglish/1486729823_171276.html - showcases some of the flaws that emerge from lack of funding and medical supplies (the American Embargo disproportionately affects the sick and children by denying them access to life saving medication)
 Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.