Out of town for three days last week with my wife and daughter to attend the wedding of some old friends, I found myself not only incapable of writing a column, but also of getting my customary fixes of newspaper, radio, television and internet news.
And in the process discovered that, far from feeling anxious about what kinds of antics and atrocities were happening around the world while my attentions were focused on the nuptials and other enjoyments, I found my ignorance of the news to be as blissful as the old saying claims.
But not for long, unfortunately. For example, even in the course of ignorantly strolling around the South-Coast NSW town where we were staying, I happened to stumble on a bookstore run by the Lions Club ladies and find there a book that until that moment I’d been utterly ignorant that one of my favourite non-fiction authors, David Halberstam, had written, called ‘The Fifties’.
This appeared and has since proven to be a masterly account of a decade that I had actually lived through and yet, at least compared with the scholarly Halberstam, had previously been breathtakingly ignorant about.
And especially ignorant about the politics of the Korean War, of which I recall reading daily newspaper reports as I travelled in the train on my way home from school all those decades ago, and which is now, more than 60 years later, still being fought or at least faked by China’s poxy proxy Kim regime, to the fury of Donald Trump.
In fact, ‘The Fifties’, like so many of the books I read to try to dispel my woeful ignorance about pretty well anything I can think of, has only served to remind me that I’m more ignorant than I already realised I was.
Even about so many things I’ve been blissfully presuming that I knew. Like, to cite the most embarrassing example that comes to mind at this moment, the actual wording and origin of the ‘ignorance is bliss’ saying that I referred to earlier.
For some reason I was convinced it was from Shakespeare, but on checking just a few minutes ago learned that the original source of the sentiment was a poem written in 1742, or well over a century after Shakespeare’s time, by Thomas Grey.
Titled ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, it expresses the thought about the boys at the school that ‘regardless of their doom, the little victims play/no sense have they of ills to come, nor care beyond today’, and ends with the suggestion that these youngsters should be indulged in their innocence as long as possible, with the words ‘where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise’.
A sentiment that seems to resonate very strongly indeed with my now 22-year-old daughter, a good many of her friends and indeed lots of much older people I know who, despite being far from ignorant of many subjects and skills they need to earn their livings and generally live their lives as enjoyably as possible, determinedly avoid the news, especially the political news.
And in a sense, especially in light of my relatively blissful three-day experience of no news last week, I have to say I can’t entirely blame them, as it tends to be relentlessly depressing.
Unhappily, however, it is even more serious folly not to be wise about what’s happening in politics, as ignorance about politicians and their endless politricks makes it all too blissfully easy for the most crooked and corrupt of them to not just rise to power but stay there.
As the citizens of virtually countless formerly democratic countries ranging from Umno/BN’s Malaysia to Zanu-PF’s Zimbabwe have learned to their terrible and apparently eternal cost, popular ignorance of political chicanery and corruption can start as merely foolish and end up as totally futile.
In other words, by the time the people awake from the state of blissful ignorance into which they’ve been lulled by a killing combination of their own apathy and their political masters’ racial and religious propaganda, they find that they’re left with no powers or institutions with which to save themselves.
And after ten years of railing against this situation in this column in Malaysiakini, I have to confess that I feel more ignorant than ever of any possible way for Malaysians to escape it, in light of the fact that its principal cause, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is now posing as its possible cure.
I feel totally ignorant, too, about what enlightened US citizens can do to realise the great potential of their republic to recover from the folly of a fiasco like the Trump presidency.
As for Australia’s chances of replacing the Turnbull-led Liberal-National Party coalition, willfully ignorant as it persists in pretending to be of the nation’s crying need for everything from a more equitable tax system and fairer social policies and services to clean energy, genuine concern for the environment and merciful immigration policies, let’s see.
I fondly hope my daughter and her peers, on more mature thought, will come to see that there can be far more bliss in battling to beat ignorance than in blindly or even selectively embracing it.
Because, as I was reminded just yesterday when I spent some time with Paxton, the toddler son of one of my wife’s PhD supervisors, and as the poet originally wrote, only in innocent infancy and childhood is ignorance so truly blissful that it is folly to be wise.