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Monday, February 8, 2016


Agnotology 101: A Lenten Exercise

Chances are few that  the ideas to which "autarky" and "agnotology" refer will be discussed any time soon in social networks, in schools and colleges, in ordinary conversations about quarterbacks and Super Bowl 50.  The reasons are not far to seek.  Consulting references beyond online dictionaries is not a widespread habit in the United States, unless control of words is an explicit item in one's job description.  Even in that situation, an American will look for shortcuts. The primary  reason for ignoring autarky, agnotology, and other so-called "big" words, however, is the threat of discontent.  Knowledge about culturally induced ignorance and deceptive isolationist politics would promote massive discontent.  We can tolerate unhappiness and dissent among a relatively small number of Americans.  Democratic access to informed unhappiness about the severe limits of liberty in daily life ist verboten!

Consider how such access would nurture panic among users of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  American students might be infected by the joy of learning and begin to make annoying demands of those who teach in and  for America.  People who take it as an article of faith that anti-intellectualism is a reliable sign of one's patriotism might gradually become heretics. And capitalism might parade stark nude on Wall Street.

We hear occasionally that sticks and stones can break bones but words shall never harm. The proverb lacks credibility.  Guns and drones annihilate bone-houses (a good Anglo-Saxon term for the body); words can harm with great effect.  It is a shock to hear that American government cooperates with international cartels to ensure that cognitive dissonance keeps the machinery of democracy running smoothly.  Mass media, national security policies, militant doves and hawks,  and the entertainments that pretend to be news assiduously keep the majority of Americans in peaceful states of unknowing. Our nation is the epitome of the brave new world.

Common sense allows one to intuit as much without being the least conversant with such WAKE UP books as Jeffry A. Frieden's Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), or Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008). Words are dangerous.  They are used to construct knowledge that condemns the majority of the world's population to degrees of wretchedness.  Laugh if you must, but "agnotology" and "autarky" are not words to rebuke and scorn.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            February 8, 2016

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