Saturday, October 22, 2011


A sign that always caught my eye in the Toronto subway system was a warning that said “Mind the gap.” I think it may have been a warning to people that there was a space between the train platform and the floor of the subway car. But to me that gap was never much of a menace. I was more concerned about other gaps.

Everyone seems to be talking these days about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In November 2010, The Consumerist reported that between 1995 and 2005, the average CEO pay went up 298% while the average worker's pay went up 4.3%. Notes published by Prof. G. William Domhoff, entitled "Who Rules America: Wealth, Income and Power" claim that in 2007, 42.7% of America's financial wealth was controlled by the wealthiest 1% of the American population, 50.3% by the next 19%, and only 7.0% of the nation's financial wealth was controlled by the remaining 80% of the American population. This distribution of wealth has held steadily since the time of President Reagan. An article on economic inequality claims that the Forbes list of billionaires shows that the three wealthiest people in the world (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett of the United States and Carlos Slim Helú of Mexico) together have more wealth than the combined wealth of the 48 poorest nations in the world. The economic gap has deservedly attracted quite a lot of attention. But that is not the gap that I wish to talk about in this squib.

There is another gap that has become increasingly evident to me during the past several months, largely thanks to the debates among aspiring candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. This gap is more difficult to characterize and therefore to quantify than the inequality between the financially richest and the poorest people. For lack of a better term, let me call this yawning inequality the civilization gap. By civilization I mean a whole range of human virtues beginning with a basic knowledge of science and the humanities (history, geography, economics, literature, the arts and so on). I also take civilization to include skills in critical thinking and what people commonly call wisdom—the ability to discern realty from fancy and to make good practical decisions grounded in fact and arrived at by weighing evidence carefully. And of course I take civilization to include compassion, generosity of spirit and empathy. In short, civilization includes the four traditional cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, self-restraint and courage and at least the theological virtue of love. The opposite of virtue, of course, is vice, and a commonly referenced list of vices in Western literature is the list of the seven deadly vices of pride, anger, greed, gluttony, envy, lust and sloth. My observation, then, has been that so far the Republican candidates have displayed a remarkable deficiency of civilized virtue, and what I suspect is that the candidates display that deficiency largely because they are supported by a substantial sector of the American public that is also lacking in wisdom, a sense of justice, self-restraint, courage and compassion but is driven instead by pride, anger and greed.

The Republican debates have had a number of chilling moments. Chris Matthews recalled several in the October 21 episode of Hardball. There was the cheer that came up from the crowd when it was announced that while Governor Rick Perry of Texas has governed, there have been 234 executions of prisoners, more than any other governor in modern times. Governor Perry also earned hoots of approval when he stated that there is no compelling evidence that global warming is taking place as a consequence of gas house gases being introduced into the atmosphere as a result of human use of fossil fuels. There were the shouts of “Yes!” when Senator Ron Paul was asked whether he would let someone who could not afford private health insurance die rather than be given treatment at the taxpayers' expense. Then Ron Paul was jeered when he said, rightly, that Muslim terrorists had attacked the United States because the United States had established military bases around the world and interfered in the politics of other countries, and not because terrorists hate American freedom. There was a cheer from the audience when Herman Cain said that anyone who is unemployed has no one to blame but himself. All those outbursts of cheering and jeering from the audience exhibited a lack of civilization that can be found in every region of the country. While the Republican debates are what have helped me be more aware of the civilization gap, I do not at all think the gap is an especially Republican phenomenon.

There are two dimensions of the civilization gap that I would like to reflect on here. The first dimension is what might be called an education gap, and the second is what I'll call the decency gap. As an educator, I am confronted on a daily basis with evidence of how poorly informed most Americans are about international events, geography, history, mathematics and basic science. One obvious educational gap is between those who have a post-secondary education and those who have stopped their formal education at or before graduation from high school. The cost of college education has become prohibitively high for most people, with the result that many low-income people in the United States have no opportunity at all for higher education, and many others graduate with debts that will follow them around for most of their lives. There is, however, a less obvious education gap. Even among people with advanced degrees, there is a gap between those who have a good grasp of both the humanities and the sciences. Specialization in most fields has resulted in an increase in people who are highly trained in a narrow field but poorly informed in others. It is not unusual to find teachers and scholars in the humanities who know next to nothing about science, and scientists who have a poor command of topics in the humanities. In a complex world in which many decisions are made democratically, it is alarming when most people are called upon to cast their votes on issues about which they have little or no basis on which to make an informed decision. The alarm registers even higher when one considers how vulnerable most people, thanks to their ignorance, are to being manipulated through misinformation. In a democracy of dunces, most of the power ends up in the hands of liars.

What I have called the decency gap is a manifestation of a pandemic lack of sensitivity that goes mostly unobserved because people have become so, well, insensitive. (Insensitivity by its very nature is one of those maladies, like ignorance, a main symptom of which is that those who have the disease are unaware of having it.) A few recent examples may help clarify what kind of thing I am thinking about here. 

On the PBS News Hour of October 21, 2011, footage was shown of the last few moments in the life of Colonel Mu'ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Qaḏḏāfī. The images, taken by a cell-phone camera, showed the terrified colonel being beaten, humiliated, cursed and pushed by an angry mob. As part of the same news story, the colonel's bloody corpse was shown lying on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by Libyans taking photographs of it with the mobile telephones. Apparently, producers of the News Hour found it sufficient to warn viewers that the images they were about to see were graphic and violent. What is astonishing is that such images have become entirely unremarkable. 

Television viewers were well prepared for al-Qaḏḏāfī's demise as a result of having seen similar photos of the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the assassination of Usama bin-Ladin. Indeed, people all over the world are routinely subjected on a daily basis to pictures of dead and often decaying bodies of war casualties, traffic accidents, political assassinations, homicides, and victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricane, tornadoes and floods. 

What is gained by showing such images? In what way do they aid the understanding of the world in which we live? What purpose do they serve, aside from satisfying the morbid curiosities of viewers? What is the effect of satisfying people's morbid curiosities on a daily, even hourly, basis? Do the producers of visual news and entertainment productions consider such questions? Do they give a second thought to the cultural climate they are helping to promote? I am not sure whether it would be more disheartening to learn that television producers give these matters no thought at all or to to learn that they have thought about it and find their policies warranted. Denying that regularly subjecting viewers, even at the safe distances provided by a television, to the effects of violence has the effect of creating a more coarse and insensitive cultural milieu seems as reprehensibly ignorant as denying that burning fossil fuels creates the conditions of accelerating degradation of the air, the land and the waters of our planet. In both cases, it is a matter of a cultivated ignorance that is willfully maintained in the interest of making money at all costs.

These are dangerous and unpredictable times. Part of what makes them so dangerous is that there are too few people minding the gaps.