Monday, April 23, 2007

Madison quote from Smart Mobs

This quote from Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs was, I thought, pretty provocative. So does the Library of Congress - its the words of James Madison it inscribed in its marble walls:

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy: or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives" (205)

I think its a complicated quote. For all its rosy "knowledge is power" rhetoric, it also is not too far away from justifying all kinds of oppression and condescention rampant in western European culture. I mean, "knowledge will always govern ignorance"? If the principle of subjugation called "white man's burden" ever needed a motto, this would work pretty well.

But on the other hand, it says some great things to our current society, too. In our society where intellectualism is equated with nerdy elites out of touch with reality, and where many view science and education, and spending money on them, as superfluous and silly unless immediate financial returns are possible, its helpful to hear this voice from America's past.

Its okay to be thoughtful and to be a leader. Its okay to be thoughtful and to be a citizen. In fact, our democracy, Madison says, depends on our citizens having the tools and resources to think critically, to be skeptical, to question and to dissent. Our democracy requires us to learn to accept being wrong, to consider new ideas, even transformative and radical ones.

Knowledge is power, says Madison. Today we can add that nuance, compassion and introspection are knowledge.

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