There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing. What brought me to this point? Too many students unaware of anything before they were born: creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are. A teacher’s job is to teach, not shame. But how do you teach when, even when they reach college, students are not expected to have basic knowledge of our history, our culture, our government?
I raise this because in the weeks since the presidential election, in the guise of tolerance and understanding and that most useless of bromides, “having a dialogue,” we are being told that there should be no shame in not knowing. The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?
Although cable television and the Internet can be a haven for misinformation, they also make responsible journalism available to a wider audience than ever before. It’s not like the facts about the candidates were somehow unavailable to voters in red states. Despite the mainstream media’s craven narrative of two equally untrusted candidates — an approach which declined to say in what case distrust was matched by actual duplicity — the facts were available to prove that the charges of Clinton’s lying and Trump’s business genius were both the sheerest fictions. That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.
And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices. It’s an insult to these salt-of-the-earth types, we’re told, to think they acted out of racism. You must understand, the pundits say: They resent being told they are dinosaurs, they fear their lifestyle is passing away.
And if their way of life means believing that Confederate flags are not a celebration of treason, or means being indignant that the Constitution does not protect a baker who refuses to work for gay customers or a pharmacist who refuses to fill a prescription for birth control, well then, their apologists say, we must sympathize.
Time was when battered women were told by police or by their priests that they must try not to antagonize their abusive husbands. That is exactly how Americans of color, gay Americans, undocumented immigrants, and women are now being addressed: They’re being told they must respect people who believe they have the right to jail, deport, or beat — if not yet kill — anyone who makes them uncomfortable. Because, of course, unlike the black or brown or queer people on the coasts, those Trump voters are the real America.
The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents. Trump said his campaign would prove the experts wrong. He was right. The Trump supporters who in the last few weeks have contributed to the sudden surge in hate crimes, often invoking the name of their candidate, have shown, much more than the experts, they understand exactly what his candidacy was about.
Charles Taylor teaches writing at New York University. His book “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You” will be published in spring 2017.