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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Innocence or Ignorance

“The greatest pleasure I know, is to do a good deed by proxy, and to find it out by accident.” (with apologies to Lamb)

In 1987, the supposedly most powerful man in the world, a former radio sports commentator called Ronald Reagan, was forced to regain his credibility with the American people by claiming ignorance of a complex deal, cooked up by members of his administration.

Codenamed Irangate, the deal was to sell arms to self-styled moderates inside Iran, obtain the release of hostages in Beirut, and to pass the profits to the fighters of freedom in Central America. That does not concern us here. What does concern us is the profession of ignorance, and the advantages of it. Why does Reagan (who claims he knew nothing, or perhaps forgot) do better than Nixon (whose behaviour revealed his knowledge) ? What are the implications of knowing, or not knowing ?

See previous posts on Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.


There are two words in English for not knowing. The word innocent comes from the Latin and, perhaps because of its association with the Roman Catholic Church, is regarded as synonymous with moral purity. Knowledge compromises purity, knowledge is dangerous - witness the Fall of Adam. Thus innocence is usually a word of praise, within a system of values that deplores all knowledge but that of God.

The other word ignorance comes from the Greek, within the Renaissance system of values on which the modern notions of education and scientific humanism are founded. Knowledge is noble, knowledge is power. Thus ignorance is usually a degrading word.

The romantics were ambivalent. Goethe recreated the figure of Faust, to explore the implications of knowing too much. (This story was rewritten for the screen by the feminist wife of a romantic poet; she called her version Frankenstein.)

“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” [Oscar Wilde]


Power through knowledge, versus power through ignorance. The ability to have one's wishes carried out without one knowing, or needing to know. The best known example of this: the assassination of Beckett. Power through ignorance - is this not paradoxical ?

“ ‘Knowledge is power’ is a misleading slogan. Knowledge may well be important to the maintenance of power, but that does not mean that the knowledgeable are powerful.” [David Lyon, The Information Society (Cambridge, Polity Press/Basil Blackwell, 1988) p 62]

Nor that the powerful are themselves knowledgeable.

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