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Ignorance and Entitlement

I started writing this essay on Indigenous Peoples' Day, October 11. We used to call it Columbus Day, but as people grew increasingly familiar with the true history of Christopher Columbus, attitudes shifted in favor of celebrating our Native American heritage, as opposed to celebrating someone who basically decimated Native Americans.

But there are holdouts in this reclassification of this day of remembrance. There are those who still push the mythology of Christopher Columbus, saying he boldly went where no man had gone before. That he single-handedly proved the earth was not flat. That he made the very creation of our nation possible.

Where do these myths come from? Many of us were taught the tall tales of Christopher Columbus back in grade school. Similar to learning about Santa Claus, we were taught the myth that most people back in the days of Columbus were convinced the earth was flat, and Christopher Columbus proved them wrong. But later in high school we were set straight. We learned that the ancient Greeks not only figured out that the earth was round, but they actually calculated its size with a surprising degree of accuracy. This was nearly 2000 years before Columbus.

So don’t be fooled, all sailors and academics of the day knew the earth wasn’t flat. That’s a myth; one of many that we've all been told in grade school, only to find out later in life that they were indeed, myths.

Like I said, there are still some holdouts who continue to push these “Santa Claus” myths well into adulthood. Take, for example, Eric Schmitt, the current Attorney General for the state of Missouri who’s also running for senator next year. In a highly controversial tweet on Indigenous People’s Day, he said, “In 1492 the 'consensus' among scientists was that the earth was flat. Christopher Columbus challenged that notion and changed the world forever.”

Now, it’s easy to make fun of someone who so boldly stuck his foot in his mouth - and he did suffer a lot of humiliation, not only on Twitter but on the nightly news - but it troubles me nevertheless that he actually continues to push this myth. It's dangerous, I believe, because it’s part of a much larger story about ignorance and entitlement.

What does ignorance have to do with entitlement? A lot. In general, when someone has the correct information, he will make a more informed decision. A more informed decision is a better decision because it produces a better long term outcome. This is particularly important for our political leaders. But incorrect information sets the stage for disastrous and dangerous decisions. Furthermore, information that is intentionally incorrect forms the basis of propaganda, which is always used for nefarious purposes.

Propaganda relies on manipulation of the masses through false information. But it’s not so simple to just tell one story to a person and have him believe it. No. Propaganda requires diligence, repetition and consistency. It turns out that it’s fairly easy to fully indoctrinate a young person’s mind, when he or she trusts what is being said and will then grow to adulthood believing these things without question. And these sets of beliefs can motivate that adult to do harm, not so much as a conscious act, but as a natural part of his or her sense of entitlement.

For example, while the flat-earth myth that Eric Schmitt pushed may seem harmless on the surface, consider that he chose to tell his story on Indigenous People’s Day. The timing of Schmitt’s story was intentional; he intentionally disparaged our fellow indigenous Americans by throwing Columbus back at them. He did it on purpose. He did it as a message that said, “We kicked your asses over the past few hundred years, and we’re going to continue kicking your asses into the future. So y’all better stay down and don’t try to ruin our history with this talk of Indigenous People’s Day.”

It’s difficult for me to believe that people weren’t personally hurt by this. And the fact that Schmitt made a perfect fool of himself by getting his facts wrong didn’t make any difference. It was intentional. He intentionally dished out a cold plate of pugnacity for a subset of Americans he considered beneath him.

And this is where the entitlement part of ignorance comes in. We all like to feel like we’re doing the right thing, even when dishing out a cold plate of pugnacity. We buy into the myths we’ve been told, and we internalize it. Here’s an interesting example of how people internalize their myths. I was told recently that a vast majority of people who believe in heaven and hell also believe that they are going to heaven, and they know someone else who’s going to hell. In other words, we build a wall of protection around ourselves and think of ourselves as being better than others. And we fortify that wall of entitlement with stories, or myths, of righteousness; stories that tell us that we are the ones on the right side of history. That there’s a reason others are not as good as us. That there’s a reason we deserve to be better. That there’s justification for our entitlement.

That sense of entitlement needs justification in order to calm our conscience. So we look at that guy on the street corner begging for money and think to ourselves, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?” As if that justifies our sense of entitlement. We think of people in prison as being less than us - after all, they broke the law, so they are now somehow less than us. And therefore they don’t get the same privileges as us, even after they’ve paid their dues to society. They don’t get the good jobs, the good homes, the good cars. Maybe they don’t even get to vote.

And where does this entitlement generally find its needed justification? I believe it comes from our background. Our schools. Our religions. Our families of origin. They instill us with a sense that there are some who are chosen and some who are not. And this gets fortified in the myths we’re taught in school. Historically, various myths were used to justify our sense of entitlement. For example, Africans were not actually human; for convenience, the constitution originally classified Africans as three fifths of a man. There was also the myth that native Americans were savages. It lives on today, as we think about immigrants with brown skin or non-Christian religions as somehow predisposed to attacking us, infecting us with disease and stealing our culture. We build, fortify and perpetuate these myths to justify our collective sense of entitlement and consequently, exceptionalism.

And in the big picture, it’s known as American Exceptionalism. This sense of grand entitlement allows us to victimize other countries and steal their natural resources by corrupting their governments with massive loans of money and then collecting on those loans in the form of petroleum, or precious minerals, or even the human labor of those countries. In the extreme, it allows us to invade and occupy other countries, installing corrupt governments, killing them with our drones, and justifying it in the name of defense against terrorism. The reality is that it’s an expression of American Exceptionalism.

And it even happens right here, right in the United States, within our very borders. We’re seeing family farms being overrun by a growing number of factory farms that pollute the groundwater, poison the streams and put a foul stench in the air. Farmers are unable to protect themselves, as their own legislatures have written laws to impede any efforts to mitigate this growing environmental disaster. And the politicians behind this slow but intentional victimization of our farmers promote the myth that they are of the people, but privately they enrich themselves; doing so with a sense of righteousness and entitlement. They’re the same politicians that allow pharmaceutical companies to gouge us for the price of life-saving drugs, even though we, the people, have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to fund much of the research that developed these very drugs. Do these political myth-pushers feel bad about what they’re doing? I suspect not. They’re already convinced that they’re entitled, and therefore exceptional. They believe in their own mythology.

So this is what our myths have done to us. This is the price of our collective indoctrination into false myths of the past. This is what the myth of Christopher Columbus does to us. It keeps us ignorant. It keeps us convinced that we are all on the right path. It keeps us from questioning the very myths that destroy us. And this is precisely why so many of our leaders push back on the teaching of our true history. Indeed, the true history is ugly, but it’s also illustrative of how we, the people of this nation as well as citizens of the world, have been victimized by the mythologies we’ve been taught. For as we buy into the myths, we fortify our ignorance and provide a path for entitlement to run through our lives. We victimize others with our own sense of entitlement, and all the while, we are victimized by other peoples’ sense of entitlement all the same.

That is the tragedy - ignorance and entitlement.

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