“The culture wars are over,” says journalist Charles Pierce, “and the idiots have won.”
Woe be to the rest of America.
To a rational, thinking person, the rise of idiocy in America seems like a baffling phenomenon. People laugh in the face of logic and willfully ignore facts, preferring to listen to the gut instead of the brain. Intellectuals, experts, and scientists get vilified or dismissed for having expertise. Discussion gets shouted down by anyone able to shout nonsense loud enough.
Pierce plunges into the maddening crowd to explore this phenomenon in his new book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.
His adventures through idiocy take him, for instance, to a Creationism museum where dinosaurs have saddles. He visits a talk radio convention to listen to right-wing hosts pat each other on the back in the name of freedom. He looks at legal battles over textbook adoptions. He delves into conspiracy theories, Masons, and Templars. In an especially excellent chapter, Pierce explores behind the scenes of the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case from 2005, where emotional sensationalism and political grandstanding obscured the medical facts of Schiavo’s case.
“If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress,” Pierce says, “we have done so by moving empirical debate into the realms of political, cultural, and religious argument, where we all feel more comfortable, because there the Gut truly holds sway.”
The problem with trusting the Gut is that the Gut can’t always be trusted. “Good ol’ common sense is almost never common and it often fails to make sense,” Pierce says.
Pierce readily acknowledges the proud tradition America has for crack-pot ideas and cranks. In fact, such eccentricies are vital to the proper functioning of the Marketplace of Ideas. “Never has a nation so dedicated itself to the proposition that not only should people hold nutty ideas, but they should cultivate them, treasure them, shine them up, and put them right up there on the mantelpiece” Pierce says. “This is still the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy. In fact, it’s the only country to enshrine that right in its founding documents.”
As one of the organizing conceits of his book, Pierce traces the career of great American crank Ignatius Donnelly—land settler, sometimes-politician, and believer of Atlantis and Ragnorak. Contrasted against that is the career of Founding Father James Madison, a disciple of the enlightenment who believed passionately in the protection of free speech. Both men thrived in America at opposite ends of the American spectrum; America had room for both.
But in Idiot America, Pierce says, the idiots have no patience for—and want to leave no room for—anyone with enlightened, educated minds. Nonsense rules, and Pierce says that’s a serious problem because it comes with “a dangerous denial of the consequences of believing nonsense.”
Whereas cranks like Donnelly peddled their ideas because they believed in those ideas, modern American Idiots peddle their ideas because those ideas move units or forward a political agenda. The ideas themselves don’t mean much so long as someone can make a buck or gain political leverage.
Pierce places the blame squarely on American conservatives. “If this book seems to concentrate on the doings of the modern American right,” he says, “that’s because it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic, and it succeeded very well.” Pierce does little to hide his left-leaning biases, which sometimes get to be a little much and too holier-than-thou. Perhaps it’s understandable, though, considering how palpable his frustration and anger are.
“It is, of course, television that has enabled Idiot America to run riot with modern politics and all forms of public discourse,” Pierce says, although he points a damning finger at talk radio as “the driving force in changing American debate into American argument.”
Pierce lambasts Idiot America for making a devil’s bargain, “exchanging (rather than mistaking) fact for fiction, and faith for reason, and believing itself shrewd to have made a good bargain with itself.”
Pierce doesn’t seem too hopeful that the problem will go away any time soon, but despite his obvious cynicism, the text carries an undercurrent of faith in the American system to eventually right itself. The alternative, he implies, would be an intellectual Armageddon that would cripple democracy itself.
Idiot America provides sympathetic audiences with the chance to vent alongside Pierce. Other readers will find well-researched investigation laced with snarkiness.
As for the idiots who won the culture wars—they will probably pick up Pierce’s book, look at the cover and get a Gut feeling that they wouldn’t like it. The people most in need of Pierce’s wake-up call will be the ones least likely to get it.