Who Are the Knuckleheads?

Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff

“So who gives a rats ass what some nuckleheaded mr. know it all prof thinks. Look at where he works and this should tell you all you need to know.”

That’s an exact reproduction of the first online comment on my last column. It’s no problem for me. I can deal with mean-spirited, ignorant comments. But I think it reflects more than a bad reaction to what I write.

The words of that comment about me are the mean-spirited part. Since the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many other people in Tucson, there has been a renewed discussion of the need for civility in our political conversations. That is not a new topic. Many people who have been observing American politics for decades have been shocked at the angry tone of political talk in the past few years. It can be seen in our Open Line, on websites, and in the halls of Congress. I don’t know what sort of comments liberal readers make about columnists whose ideas they don’t like, but the above is nothing out of the ordinary for conservatives to say.

It’s the rest of that comment that is ignorant: just knowing where I work, at Illinois College, is sufficient reason for some people, more than just this one commenter, to dismiss anything I might say. In fact, most of what I wrote last week were facts about taxes in various states taken from a conservative organization. But ignorance is better than expertise, if the experts say things which make one uncomfortable.

Everyone forms their own opinions, and it is natural to find something wrong in someone else’s opinion, especially about politics. The rejection of “know-it-all professors” goes much further than that, and much further than professors. If certain facts of our world make someone uncomfortable, then they too can be rejected. I don’t like your opinions, so I won’t pay any attention to the facts that led you to those opinions. I’ll just pick my own “facts” which fit my opinions, or make some up.

The rejection of fact is clearest in scientific subjects, like evolution and global warming. Again, I am not speaking about interpretations. I happen to be convinced by the broad agreement among virtually all experts all over the world that humans have caused global warming over the past two centuries. That is an interpretation of gigantic piles of scientific evidence, although even among those agreeing scientists and explorers, there are differences of opinion.

I am speaking here of facts, like that the climate actually is getting warmer. It is easy to find people who claim it isn’t so, it can’t be so, it’s not true. They just reject the facts, because they don’t like them. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just reported that average global temperatures for 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year since 1880, when record-keeping began. The 9 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. But no accumulation of facts is enough to convince the warming deniers.

There are lots of ways to reject facts. You can dismiss the reporter: I don’t like that guy’s politics, so his facts can’t possibly be true. You can dismiss the source: I know there isn’t such a thing as global warning, so if NASA or the scientists at X University gather temperature evidence about warming, they are part of the bigger conspiracy. You can dismiss the consequences: I don’t want any government program to deal with warming, so I’ll just reject the facts of warming. All these methods depend on first being sure about the result, and then finding a reason to reject any evidence to the contrary.

Steve HochstadtIt disturbs some conservatives no end that Americans who teach in colleges and universities tend not to share their ideas about evolution, global warming, and history. So dismiss the source: just look at where we work, and that should tell you all you need to know.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed the ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his wooden puppets. One of them was named Knucklehead Smiff. Like him, those who close their eyes and ears to the facts of the world around them might as well have wooden heads.

Steve Hochstadt

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on January 25, 2011

Published by the LA Progressive on January 26, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."