Calumnity and the Wages of Ignorance

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Calumny: a false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something." Hand it to John McCain. Had he not cynically plucked a deservedly-unknown and brutal politician whose entire electoral base rivals the population of Birmingham, Alabama, I would never have had the need for a nineteenth century word, nor have had to use it for the very first time in my life. "Calumny". A convergence of quaint and current. The wages of sin are not within my expertise, but it's high time we acknowledge the wages of ignorance -- the Sarah Palins and John McCains of this needful world which deserves better. Much better.

While "aggressive ignorance" is how we usually describe audacious affronts to the knowable at our house, "egregious calumny" fills out the indictment in this election cycle.

No, I am not joining the ranks of the name-callers. I am making a call to us all to name responsibility for an appalling deficit in civic basics. The public conversation and political process have fallen so precipitously from the potential that democracy should enshrine, that two clearly incapable individuals have -- with snickers raised only on late-night comedy shows -- been able seriously to contend to be the most powerful politicians in the world.

Turns out, it's a very not-new story. The November 20th issue of "The New York Review of Books" (which I always admired and too-seldom read) tells a potent and scary story of past decades. DECADES. Hidden from the purifying light of day, the American political system has been rotting from the inside. David Bromwich does vital service in "The Co-President at Work." (He actually read all those books the rest of us should have been reading.) Taken together, he shows us the stark picture of insidious, unelected shadow-governing, led by a truly reprehensible -- and shrewd -- individual. Rather than an "ad hominem" argument, it is one driven by history and by facts -- evidence rather than magical thinking. This is my considered political assessment and as even-handed an evaluation as I can manage of the character of Richard B. Cheney, Vice President of these United States of America. Go look. What's right there for our understanding is just how crucial the outcome of Election Day, 2008 really is.

Specifically, Bromwich has given us a careful narrative of the individuals and groups for whom John McCain and Sarah Palin are unabashedly the spokespeople. This autocratic, militarist would-be cabal is McPalin's variant of "real America". Read it and weep. Then redouble your efforts tomorrow.

Did I digress? No. It's all the same story. John McCain and Sarah Palin are, in the technical sense, deeply ignorant and committed to spreading the disease. They are ignorant in more than the run-of-the-mill way.

Specifically, they have no excuses and we are obliged -- for the sake of our nation and our world -- to cut them no slack on this fundamental deficiency. Their behavior and uninformed stances are, or at least border, on being, anti-social and anti-American. In a world as tightly connected as ours is, these cultivated blind spots ("ignorance") are unequivocally dangerous to our health, well-being and standing here at home and in the world.

Hubris may account for Alaska's parochial governor getting boonswaggled by Canadian comedians into thinking the President of the French nation is into her own helicopter-slaughtering style of "environmentalism." Her absolute "want of knowledge" is more grave still (though not unrelated).

"'Ignorance of law', consists in the want of knowledge of those laws which it is our duty to understand, and which every man (sic) is presumed to know."*

Sarah Palin whines that the First Amendment does not protect HER, a candidate for the second highest office in the nation, FROM the media? When does the comedic cross-over into the horrific? She won't release her medical records 'cause she doesn' wanna? Would she impose her thirst for ignorance on us, where knowledge is legitimate and important, questioning self-appointed authority essential? Yes, it seems, she would. If she doesn't know about evolution or the origins of global climate change or the history of the place called Iraq, it doesn't matter ... to her. It does matter to me.

Palin's incendiary language gives every appearance of being libelous -- were those she's attacking not exempt from such litigation by virtue of being public figures -- from an individual seeking a position of the most delicate nature? This frontier mentality ill-serves the Alaskan people, though having had family there for 3 generations, I sadly accept the demonstrable fact that offense and self-aggrandizement too often come with the of Alaska.

Sarah Palin needs to slink back into the obscurity that would have covered her ignorance, had her partner-in-slime, John McCain, not shone an ugly side of his own nature by imposing Governor Palin on the more-deserving American electorate.

Now. Elect Barack Obama. In addition to his many other admirable qualities, his pick of a running mate both demonstrates his seriousness in making it possible to address the challenges ahead and pushes back against both ignorance and my newest vocabulary word: calumny.

*-- Free Dictionary/Legal (online)

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