In the 1950’s, Joseph McCarthy’s decade of reckless red-baiting led to a purging in the State Department of our experts on China and East Asia. The theory being that State Department officials with expertise in those countries must be Communist sympathizers and thus pose an imminent threat to the US.
According to Robert McNamara, “The irony of this gap [in knowledge] was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department—John Paton Davies Jr., John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent–had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we certainly badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony.”
Newsweek, April 16, 1995.
Why did it matter? A decade later, this lack of expertise fueled our involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing escalation of a senseless, devastating war.
I think of myself as a well-educated, thoughtful citizen. I vote in every election; I read a newspaper most days. Perhaps not cover to cover, but I scan the headlines and pore over a few of the opinion pieces. I took American History in high school. I understand the importance of having three independent branches of government. I value free speech, an independent press, and the separation of church and state. I know it was 1920 when women got the right to vote, although I couldn’t have told you—until I looked it up—that it’s the 19th Amendment that granted women suffrage.
I know we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but I’m hazy on the difference between the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Did I ever actually read the Constitution? How many amendments are there? Until recently, I thought it didn’t much matter.
On an intuitive level, I understand that banning Muslims is immoral, dangerous, and deeply un-American. But I have to rely on our Justice Department and Attorney General and our elected officials to articulate the constitutional arguments. To protect our democracy from misguided efforts. To represent our interests in court. Lately, that dependence on our leaders seems more and more perilous.
It is an understatement to say that we can no longer count on government officials to honor and protect the democratic values we hold sacred. If we’ve learned anything from recent events, it is that this democracy is our democracy. It is incumbent upon us to understand what it means for our nation to be founded on inalienable rights—basic human rights that cannot be taken away, infringed upon, abridged, or denied by the government.
Knowledge is power, wrote Sir Francis Bacon in 1597.
It’s time to familiarize ourselves with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution. Especially Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution that governs impeachment.
Because lies matter. And ignorance does too.