American Culture

Free to be as dumb as we want—even if it kills us

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idiotamerica72dpi“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.

10 replies »

  1. The problem is what to do about this. I have no idea–I moved to a country where not only is the major book award televised, but bookmakers run odds on the potential winners. So I’m not much help here. But somehow what I come up with is the inescapable complicity of the media in this process. Improving the media is a necessary condition for starting to move back to a more sensible society–it may not be sufficient, though. But it would at least be a start.

  2. I recently had a conversation with Dr. John Silber, President emeritus of BU and one time MA gubernatorial candidate. He was absolutely appalled at one particular incidence of right wing idiocy immediately after the inauguration. Right wing media buffoons and regulars were carping about the new presidential limo and the cost of building it. He said; “What is wrong with these people? Do they actually want the president to be vulnerable? Are they not aware of the history of armed attacks on US presidents?” To which I responded; “That is the major problem with the American right today. Not only are they anti intellectual, they are actually proud of it” To which he shook his head and grumbled, “It’s awful. It’s destructive to the party and to the country” Silber is still one of the actual somewhat sane conservatives, and he is absolutely horrified at what has become of so called “conservatism”. For the life of me, I can’t see what they want to “conserve”, except for corporate profits, white privilege and the oppression of minorities.

  3. I can’t wait to read this book!

    I don’t know if he addresses this or not, but my take is that the basic issue is one of pure democracy vs. a republic with widespread suffrage. Pure democracies have been terrible governments throughout history, and Plato ranked them only above tyrannies, as I recall. As we have entered the age of the mass voters’ polls, politicians have followed the whims of the electorate more and more, especially in low-turnout and partisan primaries, eschewing good judgment for popular judgment. The media provide a feedback loop, of course, and this includes new social media that allows the kooks to band together to obtain political power.

    I don’t see a solution short of really, really, really improving education, and that isn’t going to happen soon if ever.

  4. I love living in Colorado. But I’ve had some frank (and uncomfortable) conversations with myself (and my wife) about where this country is headed. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the people who framed the Constitution made some fundamental and fatal mistakes in the assumptions upon which they were building, the biggest being the idea (reasonable enough then, but too silly to contemplate now) that citizens would, if given the freedom to do so, choose to inform themselves. We now know that education is the LAST thing that a free people choose to invest in.

    So I understand that the day may come when I have to leave the US. Some of my fellow Americans already have, in fact. Wufnik, please remain available – I may need more info about the UK before all is said and done.

  5. Conservatives tend to think their end justifies most any means. They don’t understand how carefully that principle must be used.

  6. I look forward to reading the book, because there’s nothing like having my suspicions confirmed.

    I will say that it isn’t just the right (though they are the most egregious). I thank the automotive gods that Toyota used to make vehicles warlord grade, allowing me to punch my dashboard when i’m stuck behind a Prius with a “say ‘nah’ to sulfide mining” bumper sticker. There’s a mining consortium about to start digging for nickel nearby, and i’m stuck behind someone who’s against it while driving a car full of nickel batteries…caught in the smug pollution.

  7. OK, will remain available. I like England, but partly that’s because I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to live here–it’s not cheap, especially here in London. But there are a number of positives–the NHS is fine, museums are generally free, the cultural life is fantastic (and generally cheaper than in the US), public transport works, the newspapers are gernerally literate and usually a pleasure to read, and not afraid of showing their biases (which I think is why blogging is less influential here), the food is generally better, at least at the supermarket level in London (and it’s actually easier to get local and seasonal food, in part because it’s not that large a place physically), the whole place has a fantastic history, there are ley lines and fairies… On the other hand, it’s not without some significant issues–there is quite a lot of unemployment in the north, the BNP does pose a potential political risk (although so far it’s been fairly limited), there really are police cameras everywhere (there are positives and negatives to this, obviously), taxes are high (like everywhere in Europe), ethnic relations can be troublesome, there is much more centralization of government functions (much stuff in the US done at the local and state level is carried out at the “federal” level here, which also has its pluses and minuses). Still, we would have to think long and hard before returning to the US, and about the only thing that will do it (and it might, I have to admit) is the grandkids. Unless we get them (and their parents) to move here.

  8. I agree that the media is largely (but not entirely) to blame for this. Once corporate media owners put profit before public service, it all went downhill. So instead of providing information and analysis, the media offers entertainment and titillation, and most of the public eats it right up. Not only is it what they want, but it also distracts them from paying attention to what they need.

  9. You want to know why idiocy is rampant in this country? The following may be an answer. Or, at least, part of it.

    For quite some time, I have been uncomfortable, no, angry, at what I call the unbridled “fanatical partisanship” so prevalent in this country. Blind acceptance of Party speak without the application of reason is rampant in America. Today, I was reminded of George Orwell, a visionary author, who provided some context for my concern.

    In his book, “1984”, Orwell coined a new word, “blackwhite”. It has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with why we have such deep political divisions, a ruined economy, no real answers, less than competent leaders and an uncertain, and surely, an unafordable future.

    Orwell defines Blackwhite: the ability to accept whatever “truth” the party puts out, no matter how absurd it may be. Orwell described it as: “loyal willingness to say black is white when party demands this. It also means the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know black is white and forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

    From Wikipedia: The word represents the active process of rewriting the past, control of the past being a vital aspect of the Party’s control over the present. (Does any of this sound familiar? Anyone in Congress come to mind? Any Presidents you know of?)

    Politics, in general, is nothing more than the promotion of blackwhite and, if one surveys his surroundings, he will notice that blackwhite does not require the application of logic or common sense in order to propagate. In fact, it thrives best without them. Politicians tirelessly expound on past mistakes, truthfully or not, and ignore the positives, thereby exerting that control over the present. I suppose it would be asking too much to expect that we learn from the positives of the past.

    Blackwhite is real, you can see it, you can hear it and it owes its very existence to the ignorance of the American people and our leaders. If apathy weren’t so widespread and people cared enough to actually reason for themselves, instead of simply repeating party speak, blackwhite would have no place in our country, a much different country, a much better country. Wouldn’t that be nice?