Now, you do have to read the whole thing; Mark ties this pseudoknowledge idea into what people think they know about the Scandal (as opposed to the very real problems worth getting upset about) and about Cardinal Law, who probably shouldn't be running a basilica but isn't being sheltered in Rome from criminal prosecution, since nobody in America (or anywhere else for that matter) has actually charged him with anything.
Some years back, a friend of mine was leaving evening prayer at our local Dominican parish when he found himself confronted by an angry lady scowling at the Dominicans in their habits. My friend happens to be a history prof at the University of Washington. The lady started muttering at him about the monstrous crimes of the Dominicans and how everybody (including my friend) was a blind sheep because they knew nothing about the medieval Church and the crimes it has committed. (Surely, if any subject is taboo in our culture, it is discussion of the sins, both real and imagined, of the Catholic Church). My friend asked, “What crimes do you mean?” She replied, “Why don’t you ask your Dominican friends about the 46 million people they killed in the Inquisition in the 14th century?”
My friend had nothing to say in reply to this. The woman took that as confirmation of her crushing rhetorical blow. My friend was thinking, “That was roughly the entire population of Europe at the time. The Dominicans slaughtered all of Europe and then killed themselves?” The woman wandered off, muttering.
The 46 million (or 5 million) killed by Dominicans, or the Vatican, or Constantine’s Vatican if you are a Da Vinci Code true believer is a classic example of pseudoknowledge. One of those things you pick up somewhere and repeat with a knowing air that substitutes for actual familiarity with the subject you are expounding upon. If somebody questions whether you know what you are talking about, you don’t deal with the question of whether you know what you are talking about. You simply say, “So! You want to make excuses for the murder of innocent people by religious bigots!” in the same tone you use to say, “You left your soiled underwear on my coffee table.” For, of course, at the end of the day, it will remain the case that some number of people (46 million? Several thousand?) were put to death… well, not by the Inquisition exactly but certainly by the secular authorities working with the Inquisition. So the story is close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades and that’s all that matters. The idea is not so much accuracy as truthiness: the sense that you have righteously scored off bad guys. And if they are bad guys, then they don’t really deserve to be spoken of accurately, do they? They should have thought about that before they started killing off their millions, or however many it was. The point is: I am righteously angry and when I have righteousness on my side, I don’t need to know what I’m talking about so long as I land some good hard punches on the jaw of Evil.
But I think Mark's wider point is just as valuable; how often do we frame our positions, arguments, discussions etc. about everything from politics to moral issues to religious matters against a backdrop of this same sort of pseudoknowledge? And how often do we do so under the mistaken impression that our wrath is righteous anger, while that idiot on the other side of the argument clearly has some rage issues and isn't capable of discussing things with the calm dispassionate reason with which our own arguments resonate?
Okay, so I've just described the Internet--but there's more to it than that. Our culture has built an industry out of the irate pushers of pseudoknowledge, all shouting at each other to make their points. Public discourse has suffered as a result; it's much easier to spread pseudoknowledge in a thirty-second soundbite than to refute that pseudoknowledge in a scholarly article of a few thousand words--because millions will hear and remember the soundbite, and only a handful will bother to get more than a paragraph into the rebuttal, especially if the author is an irenic soul instead of a manufacturer of angertainment.
Mark's really on to something, here. Ultimately it's something detrimental to our consumerist culture, which craves the fast food of drive-by scoring off of one's opponents instead of the real nutrition of a lengthy and peaceful debate which has more to do with the soundness of the arguments offered, than the tribe to which the debaters belong.