Feature photo by Sander Sammy
Anti-intellectualism is as American as hot dogs. Our founding as a nation, as a culture in North America, is justified and legitimized with an appeal to the absence of knowledge and understanding. The Doctrine of Discovery – of places and people unknown before – is a law invented to justify European conquest of other lands around the world. Its obscene logic prefigured a whole governing system for rewarding ignorance with utter dominion, from European colonization to the United States’ galumphing land grab from sea to shining sea.
The Doctrine of Discovery was cooked up by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 with some supernatural hocus pocus conjured out of thin air. He cast a spell over the next 600 years. Rome divided the western hemisphere that Columbus stumbled upon between Spain ( Alexander VI’s home country) and Portugal, claiming the whole of it now belonged to two Christian monarchs. You may remember the lecherous and conniving pontiff Alexander VI from the 2011 TV series, “The Borgias.” He was portrayed by actor Jeremy Irons, aka Rodrigo Borgia, who took the name Alexander after successfully capturing the papacy.
The Doctrine of Discovery, by its very name, admits to utter ignorance of the world and its human inhabitants.
As a reward for that ignorance, it granted the powerful elite from two ideologically and theologically aligned countries full authority, emanating from Alexander’s claimed insider connections to God, to subdue the already established civilizations and settlements in the Americas and steal everything out from under them.
That’s a horrible premise for bloodthirsty conquest and a loathsome basis for law. Wouldn’t you say?
Stupidity Gets Normalized as Virtue
The Doctrine of Discovery became a Eurocentric model for rewarding unenlightened ignorance with the right to rape, pillage, and own previously unknown people and lands. It’s a template for rationalizing impunity, and it persists as legal precedent to this day. Lands and people unfamiliar to European explorers were declared subordinate and inferior to them BECAUSE they were previously unknown. From this admission of prior ignorance arose a rationalization for conquest, and the rest is a history of terror, genocide, ecocide, and the conjuring of legal justifications for all of it.
It’s not a legal theory that was abandoned once conquest by colonization was a done deal. It became the underlying rationale for a new society in the Americas, institutionalized as a totalitarian motif of stupidity. Acknowledged ignorance was used to justify the Federalists’ counter-revolution when at the secret conclave in Philadelphia that crafted the U.S. Constitution.
James Madison said this on Tuesday, June 12th, 1787:
“. . . if the opinions of the people were to be our guide, it would be difficult to say what course we ought to take. No member of the convention could say what the opinions of his Constituents were at this time. . . We ought to consider what was right & necessary in itself for the attainment of a proper Government.”James Madison
They didn’t know because they didn’t ask, so they wrote a constitution that elevated the land and slave-holding male gentry represented in the room above poor white men, all blacks, all women, and all Indians, none of whom were invited. Ignorance as license was the rule that founded the nation, and it may explain many of this country’s intractable social problems. Wouldn’t you say?
Rights are Wrongs in the Eyes of the Ignorant
The Founding Patriarchs of the Federalist mode made ignorance of human and community needs the law of the land and it gave those lawgivers legal license to nullify community self-determination, just as the pope had done to all the people of the western hemisphere. Local governments and even the synthetic, empire-serving version, municipal corporations, go noticeably unmentioned in the constitution. Ironically, it is frequently and erroneously claimed that the constitution reflects the spirit of the American Revolution. In this regard, the constitution is very unlike the revolutionary Declaration of Independence, which justified secession from the British Empire. In the first grievance against the empire enumerated in it, the complaint says that the king regularly preempted community-made laws that the people had judged necessary and proper.
You’d think that by winning the Revolutionary War the colonists would have earned the right to local self-determination, but you’d be wrong. The U.S. constitution was the Federalist’s version of institutionalized governance through practiced ignorance. It never mentions local government, although its framers knew full well the community-based cause for which the revolutionaries fought. Unsurprisingly, American law ignores what its makers prefer never was.
In this case, they create laws that suppress community autonomy because their aims are the same as King George’s: wringing every last bit of value out of the people and resources of the continent. Their tools: preemption of local laws. Dillon’s Rule. The revocation of rights hard-won through revolution. In other words, counter-revolution.
Modern examples of this gestalt of dominion through ignorance of other people’s rights abound. Today’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a case in point. To avoid fulfilling its mission of prohibiting industrial devastation of the natural world and human communities, the EPA routinely avoids documenting toxic threats with a policy of not studying them, and then claiming there is no documentation of harm and, therefore, no justification for prohibiting industrial practices whose harmfulness is “unknown.” It is a study in ignorance as a license.
The tenacity of so-called climate denial is also anchored to its certainty of uncertainty by the same logic: so long as there is doubt, that ignorance gives fossil fuel profiteers the unassailable license to pump megatons of greenhouse gasses into Earth’s atmosphere. If it’s plausibly deniable, even if it takes dissembling and years of withholding facts, the manufactured uncertainty creates the necessary condition of generalizable ignorance to allow destruction for profit to continue.
Despite knowing decades in advance that the waste products of burning fossil fuels would dangerously alter Earth’s climate, the industry has taken as its template the cigarette industries’ withholding knowledge of dangers associated with smoking, using the same foundational logic: ignorance gives one a license to inflict harm.
And now our leaders feign ignorance right along with fossil fuel industry honchos, as they approve licensing for vast new oil and gas extraction plans. It makes you wonder what is ever actually discovered through all this cultivated ignorance.
Although executed carelessly, the ex-president’s best defense for hoarding classified documents follows the same pattern: ignorance as a license. “I thought it was legal under the Presidential Records Act.” But since it is a plea of ignorance that would profit only one beneficiary and not facilitate the growth of the empire, the ploy may not be authorized in the end. But you can’t fault his narcissism. It’s as American as hot dogs, and just as good for you.
How can ignorance justify or even legalize sociopathic behavior? Plausible deniability is the key. Gaslighting as a modus operandi does the trick. Ignorance is transformed from a handicap into a virtue. Ignorance becomes license and license normalizes idiocy. But that’s a piss poor rationale on which to build a society. Wouldn’t you say?