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Ignorance is Not Bliss

The most famous words from Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” are: “ignorance is bliss.” But of course ignorance is not bliss. Being well-informed means making better decisions when the pros and cons are carefully weighed. This is even more important for those running state or federal government — which makes it even more troubling that both President Trump and the Montana Senate seem to think remaining ignorant of the facts is useful in the difficult job of governance.

In Donald Trump’s case, it was Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher A. Wray, Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week with their very informed assessment of certain conditions in various areas of concern that sent the president into another ill-informed Twitter frenzy.

The heads of those intelligence agencies, which were appointed by Trump by the way, told the Senate that North Korea isn’t dismantling its nuclear weapons, that Iran is not building nuclear weapons, and that the Islamic State in Syria isn’t defeated in Syria and Iraq, as Trump and his cabinet officials have claimed.

Our nation spends about $80 billion a year to analyze intelligence gathered from satellites, ships, planes and agents. These are highly skilled people, many of whom risk their lives to learn the facts.

Unfortunately, because the facts contradicted Trump’s bellicose blatherings about his fictional successes in the nation and world, he decided to insult them in a tweet, writing that the heads of the intelligence agencies were “extremely passive and naïve… they are wrong!” and “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

Mind you, this is a president who doesn’t read his security briefings, doesn’t read much at all, and mostly gets his “intelligence” from watching right-wing talking heads on Fox News or, as he claims, from his “gut.” He’s also the guy who has continuous access to the nuclear launch codes, which should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who thinks those kinds of decisions should be based on real, verifiable knowledge, not self-serving, megalomaniacal political spin.

Closer to home, the Montana Senate approved a measure last week that similarly embraces the concept that ignorance is better than knowledge. The new rule, which still must be approved by the House, bans the online posting of the legal analysis of bills by the attorneys in the Legislative Services Division. So, if and when a bill has problems that would render it potentially unconstitutional or that have other legal problems, the attorneys notify the public and legislature so those potential pitfalls can be addressed during the legislative process.

Because the Republican majority in the Senate decided letting the public and fellow legislators know of the deficiencies in their bills isn’t helpful, they adopted the “ignorance is bliss” rule. Their own ignorance of the Montana Constitution is blatantly evident, however, since Article II, Sec. 9, Right to Know mandates that: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand for individual privacy exceeds the merit of public disclosure.” Obviously there is nothing in the lawmaking process in which individual privacy exceeds the merits of public disclosure.

Ignorance is not bliss and it’s troubling that our politicians think keeping the populace misinformed or in the dark on issues of public policy is acceptable. It’s not — and for the good of our people and our society it must end now.

 

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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