Opinionista Jeff Rudin 1 October 2014

The paradox(es) of ignorance in the age of mass information

Among the paradoxes of our age is widespread ignorance amidst information abundance. A paradox within this paradox is that, even when information is available, it frequently seems to have little if any place in people’s opinions and understandings. Yet trying to explain these worldwide paradoxes gives rise to yet another one.

Three issues provide recent instances of concurrent ignorance in the age of information overload.

·Firstly, until a commercial aeroplane was shot down, on 17 July, over the Ukraine, that country, like most others, was largely unknown. Probably because most of the unfortunate 298 passengers were from Europe, mainly Holland, the Ukraine suddenly became the ‘story’.

Who shot down the plane? This was the only issue. With no evidence whatsoever, the governments of the US and EU succeeded in convincing most people in their own countries – and much of the rest of the world as well – that Russia was guilty: Russia had either directly fired or supplied the rocket that ‘pro-Russian separatists’ had used in a hitherto virtually unknown civil war. The mass outrage in the wake of the tragedy of the downed plane was nonetheless sufficient to legitimate the ever-increasing sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, the EU and other governments.

Nearly two months later, on 9 September, the official Dutch air accident investigators presented their first report. They were unable even to establish that the plane had been shot down by a surface-based missile, let alone by whom, for it could have been by the Ukrainian army itself; the evidence allowed for nothing more than that “high-energy objects” had “penetrated the aircraft from outside”.

It is almost certain that most people – including most South Africans – are unaware of this finding and that the assumption of Russia’s unequivocal guilt remains unquestioned even by the few people who know of the Dutch Report.

It is similarly almost certain that most people still know nothing more about what is still happening in the Ukraine other than that Russia has either invaded that country or is arming the ‘pro-Russian separatists’. It is likewise doubtful that it would make much difference if they were to know that:

  • the democratically elected Ukrainian government was illegally overthrown by extreme nationalists, including openly fascist groups, in February this year;

  • the new government, quickly supported by the US and EU, sought to ban the Russian language, even though it was the long established mother tongue of most of the people living in the eastern Ukraine (the whole of the Ukraine having been part of Russia for a long time);

  • pro-Russian separatists’ are mainly these Russian-speaking Ukrainians who either don’t accept the overthrow of the elected government or seek to be re-included in Russia, as a protection from the current Ukrainian government;

  • people of the eastern Ukraine have been subject to constant bombing and shelling by the new government, with large-scale loss of life, injuries and destruction.

Bombing and shelling brings us to the second of the three illustrations. While the media’s breathless ‘whodunnit’ gripped much of the world’s attention about who had shot down the plane over the Ukraine, those hapless Palestinians imprisoned in the whole of Gaza were being ruthlessly bombed and invaded for the third time in seven years, with women and children being the large majority of the then-several hundred dead. There was no doubt about the identity of the Gaza invaders or their main military suppliers and primary political defenders at the UN: Israel and the US respectively.

The horrors of Gaza, along with the Israeli war crimes, were daily presented in disturbing detail to be seen by those who watch TV news. Most viewers would probably have been shocked by what they saw; most viewers would also have passively accepted the analysis (largely implicit) in the limited contextual information provided. Thus:

  • Israel was threatened by Arabs/Muslims who openly denied Israel’s right to exist (contrary to constant repetition, this is not even Hamas’s position);

  • Israel was legitimately protecting itself from thousands of rockets fired from Gaza and was destroying tunnels into Israel used by terrorists to kill innocent Israeli civilians (not mentioned was Israel’s illegal 47-year-old occupation of much of Palestine or why these tunnels existed in the first place);

  • The conflict was a religious struggle between Jews and Muslims;

  • Western governments supported Israel because Israel’s struggle was in part a struggle against Arab/Muslim fundamentalism.

Although the information to make better sense – or, at least, different sense – of what was happening is readily available, the majority of people evidently did not seek it; indeed, in all probability, they didn’t even think of the possibility or need to do so.

The US bombing of yet another new enemy – ISIS or the Islamic State, in (virtually) unknown regions of the long forgotten Iraq and Syria – provides the third and last example of the concurrence of large-scale ignorance and instant electronic information. Despite the blatant double standards of US-led sanctions against Russia for its interference in the Ukraine, the US based its own illegal interference on the not misplaced expectation that most people would just unquestioningly accept that they are somehow directly and immediately threatened by yet another group of crazy Muslim fundamentalists and that bombing was OK, for it meant killing without ‘our boys’ having to die. Initially, this mass passivity allowed the US, for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, to bomb Iraq – a country supposedly made safe and democratic by previous US bombings of recent infamy.

The subsequent barbaric beheading of US journalists, filmed and made public by ISIS itself, allowed the US & EU to abrogate to themselves the right, albeit without any basis in international law, to bomb both Iraq and Syria and to arm and finance their transient favourites in both countries. (To prevent the naked abuse of military power and anarchy amongst nations, international law gives a country the right to invade another one only if (a) there is a credible and immediate probability of being attacked, or (b) if the government of the invaded country invites the intervention. ISIS is not a country. Moreover, even if the government of Iraq – or what passes for one – has invited the bombing, the Syrian government has done no such thing.)

For the US to get away with bombing ISIS requires much more than mere popular passivity. It additionally requires an almost bafflingly short memory. On 24 September 2014, for instance, the UN Security Council adopted a US drafted resolution, making it mandatory on all 193 member countries of the UN to take comprehensive action against jihadist recruits, or what it calls ‘Foreign Terrorist Fighters’. Apart from ‘terrorist’ not being defined, the first of these jihadists just happens to have been created, trained and equipped by the US itself in order to counter the Soviet influence in Afghanistan in 1979. These jihadists became the Mujahideen, in whose ranks was one Osama bin Laden(remember him?) who went on to lead the mother of all terrorists groups, al-Qaeda! The US was soon to declare this Mujahideen of its own creation such a threat to the world that it and Britain illegally invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to liberate the Afghanis from their erstwhile liberators. The US is still there.

The same US and the same Britain that used the fabrication of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as their pretext for their illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the death of 700,000 Iraqi men, women and children rely on our collective short memories. Accordingly, they expected our unquestioning acceptance of why they are now again openly – and again illegally – interfering in the affairs of the same country they claimed to have made peaceful and democratic more than 10 years ago with the fall of ‘Hitlerite’ Saddam Hussein. And we have not disappointed them.

How is one to understand all of this?

Among the many possible explanations, two stand out for me.

Firstly, the overwhelming and shared failure of our global education systems to facilitate both independent thought and a questioning orientation to everything, especially authority that, in democracies, is supposed to be transparent and accountable.

Secondly, the profoundly limited decision-making reality of most working people who, besides the circumscribed choice of where they work, have little if any say in what they do or how they do it while at work. A deep-seated passivity along with impoverished expectations of decision-making inclusivity is the outcome of these material life experiences.

As if an understanding of the paradoxes weren’t difficult enough, the general picture of worldwide populations characterised by ignorance, passivity, gullibility and acquiescence is further compounded – by sport! As Noam Chomsky, the celebrated critique of US politics, observes, sport points to an entirely different phenomenon. When it comes to sport, reality is turned on its head: People, in very large numbers, are exceedingly knowledgeable, analytic, opinionated and questioning of authority. Indeed, infuriatingly so, according to Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal, the English football team:

What is difficult to manage today is that everybody knows absolutely everything and everybody judges… You have plenty of tacticians in the world who have managed zero games. … We live in a world where everybody has an opinion and we have to live with that.

How is one to understand the additional paradox represented by sport? My short answer to this huge question boils down to the class nature of our societies. Simply put, the working class knows its place: It effectively accepts, via a vast complex of mediations, banishment from all the big issues of political economy.

Feudal and then capitalist ruling classes, in all countries worldwide, resolutely resisted extending the franchise. To a lesser extent, they were also cautious about educating the lower classes. Their seemingly justified fears were that their privileges would be threatened if other classes were not only educated but also allowed to vote. These fears have proved to be misplaced: the ‘masses’ reserve all their critical faculties for sport, while leaving the business of running economies, countries and world to others.

Like the vote and access to education, access to instant knowledge has not disturbed the right to rule by people whose mystique relies on the very class differences that keep subordinate classes in their proper place. DM

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