About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

#59 - Idiot America

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles P. Pierce (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

Jacket summary: "It was the saddle on the dinosaur that did it. In a legendary journalism career, Charles P. Pierce has interviewed vacuous movie stars, disingenuous politicians, cretinous sports heroes, and all manner of charlatans, demagogues, and fanatics. But it wasn't until his visit to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, that he realized just how far gone America is. At the center of this popular tourist spot are models of dinosaurs, one of which is wearing a saddle. 'We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!' cries the proprietor, who runs something called Answers in Genesis, an organization dedicated to the proposition that the biblical story of creation is inerrant in every word. Since the Bible says the world was created 6,000 years ago, then dinosaurs must have been around at the same time as humans, who were given mastery by God over all the creatures on earth ... ergo, the saddled dinosaur.

"This kind of thinking is not the exception in America, not the province of a few cranks who used to be viewed as eccentrics outside the mainstream. Idiocy is the mainstream. More people vote for the American Idol winner than vote in presidential primaries. Dire warnings from scientists about global warming and from engineers about our crumbling infrastructure are ignored, but gay marriage and flag-burning bans dominate political debate. Mass media divides its coverage between the latest arrests of Britney and Paris and demagogic scream fests led by populist multimillionaires. The Internet, far from 'letting information be free,' has devolved into a chaotic forum where ignorance spreads like a virus.

"The culture wars are over. The idiots have won.

"This pisses Pierce off immensely. Like all cynics, he's secretly a romantic at heart, and his disbelieving anger is fueled by the knowledge that America doesn't have to be this way. Like an Old Testament prophet (albeit an agnostic, funny one), Pierce lets loose on the foibles of society in the secret hope that, somehow, being smart will stop being a stigma and idiots will once again be pitied and not celebrated. But don't get your hopes up."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: Dinosaurs with Saddles (August 2005)
Part I: The American Way of Idiocy
  • Chapter 1: The Prince of Cranks
  • Chapter 2: The War on Expertise
  • Chapter 3: Beyond Atlantis
  • Chapter 4: The Templars in Town
Part II: Truth
  • Chapter 5: Radio Nowhere
  • Chapter 6: God and Judge Jones
Part III: Consequences
  • Chapter 7: A Woman Dies on Beech Street
  • Chapter 8: How We Look at the Sea
  • Chapter 9: The Principles of Automatic Pilot
Part IV: Mr. Madison's Library
  • Chapter 10: Torture in New Hampshire
  • Chapter 11: Mr. Madison's Library
My take: Extremely entertaining, if almost as extremely partisan, and I say this even tho' I mostly agree with Pierce's stance. Red staters, if you have blood pressure issues, you may want to pass this one by.

Pierce starts off with what seems like an extreme example: the saddled dinosaur, which you already know about if you read the jacket flap. Ayup, creationism gone wild. The same museum sports a eunuch-ized statue of Adam, and an Eve with strategically-arranged long hair that Pierce compares to an old Swedish art film. He makes it easy to laugh at this stuff, but at the same time, draws you into the half-perplexed, half-angry question at the heart of the book: How the heck did we get here? Why are we in this place where we're "drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge," and where it seems our whole country is "entertained but not engaged"?

Parts I and II, where Pierce explores this question, are the strongest and most intriguing parts of the book. He argues that wild and crazy ideas which nonetheless garner a respectable following are nothing new in the U.S.; in fact, the country was founded on them. Pierce calls this "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." Sure, this right has led to some wacky detours (Pierce is fond of citing Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century crank who believed the lost City of Atlantis provided the foundation of western civilization), but sometimes, cranks who initially seemed just as, er, unhinged provided the conflict by which the national consensus ultimately changed.

In short, it's not the eccentrics with the loopy ideas that are the problem. No, the problem comes when "the crank is devalued [and] his ideas are accepted untested and unchallenged into the mainstream." Pierce attributes this in large part to television, where anyone can look like an expert if they appeal to our emotions rather than our intellect. Ergo, you have what he calls the war on expertise, which is based on 3 premises:
  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books or soaks up ratings. This is the mechanism by which Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven -- a cute if somewhat treacly novel about one fictional man's after-death experience -- gets turned into someone's idea of inspirational theology. C'mon, people. I read the book and thought it was an interesting little story, but I thought The Lord of the Rings was interesting, too -- I'm still not looking for hobbit-holes beneath the nearest oak tree.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly or often enough. Did you know Al Gore never really claimed to have invented the internet? Again, here's where TV becomes a big part of the problem; before multiple screens in every home were commonplace, the cranks had to work much harder to get their ideas out to the public. Now, however, well -- "idiocy is almost always good television."
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined how fervently they believe it.
Pierce provides plenty of intriguing and entertaining examples of these premises in action, ranging from the transformation of a planned Texas superhighway into a trans-continental NAFTA superhighway (completely false, and managed to overshadow many legitimate concerns about the consequences of North American free trade) to the age-old belief that just about everything is a conspiracy controlled by the Masons. (Here again, shades of the same Mitch Albom Five People problem resurface with a vengeance, as a Mason-orchestrated conspiracy is central to Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. Brown, Pierce argues, probably never intended this. "To his credit, Brown wrote an intriguing thriller. It's hardly his fault that people read it and integrated into the personal views of the hidden world." He also includes an amusing interview with a long-term Mason from the Boston area, who invites Mason conspiracy theorists to attend his local lodge's annual dinner for a reality check. "Just plan that dinner and see if you think we're capable of pulling off some major conspiracy. You can barely get that dinner done."

Unfortunately, the more contemporary section -- from the Kennedy administration forward -- seems both less clear and harder to believe. While I enjoyed pondering Pierce's contrast of all the wacky conspiracy theories that still about (especially in Dallas) about the Kennedy assassination with our near-blindness to the real conspiracies that have dotted our political landscape since (i.e., the Iran Contra affair), this section of the book reads too much like a rough draft. Likewise, while I'm certainly no fan of the second Bush administration, I'm not sure all Pierce's assertions about their actions are true, or at least, fairly presented. It may very well have been, as Pierce suggests, that he focuses on right-wing idiocy and pandering because "it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic and succeeded very well," but I find it hard to believe there haven't been at least some similar examples on the other side of the aisle. Part of what makes this book a good read is that it doesn't try to be impartial, and I'm not suggesting that Pierce should have lost that -- but some acknowledgment that both sides have been known to pander and dissemble at least occasionally would have made for a much stronger argument.

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