I just finished reading Charles Pierce’s Idiot America. It is an easy and funny read. It perhaps helps that I agree with Pierce on all the specifics. Saddles on dinosaurs are indeed funny. Why else would they have done that in The Flintstones? And I will even yield part of what he’s getting at: America certainly is more stupid than the people in other advanced economies. But there’s a very simple reason for that: Americans are more religious than other advanced countries. I don’t mean just any religion here; I mean “fundamentalism”: the belief that the literal word of God is written down in some book. (Even if it was written down in a language they don’t read.)
But there was something that bothered me throughout the book. It was something I learned from my old pal Chuck Dickens. But let me put it in a more modern context: “Same as it ever was!”
This especially came to mind last night when I was watching Ken Burns: Prohibition. And so I was watching as the abstinence movement of the 19th century tried to train kids not to drink alcohol. And what were they doing? Exactly what the modern day sex abstinence movement does to kids: lie! One drop of alcohol will destroy your stomach. Condoms don’t work. Whatever! Lie to the kids, it is for their own good!
Pierce pays special attention to Iganatius Donnelly, the curious fellow who brought us things like the modern myth of Atlantis and the never tiring idea that everyone but Shakespeare wrote all those plays that rubes think were written by Shakespeare. And Pierce clearly admires Donnelly as I do. But he thinks that something is different now. Donnelly was just a crank then but now he would be on television. Fox News would have brought him on to discuss whether the Atlanteans would have preferred Romney or Obama.
The problem is that Donnelly was on the television of his day. He was a best selling author. People the world over paid to hear him speak. So I don’t think that our technologies have made us stupider. They have just made it easier for cranks to make a living. And really, what’s wrong with that? When I turn on the NBC Nightly News, I don’t see anyone saying that the world is only 6,000 years old. The people in America believe that for different reasons. It isn’t because cranks get more exposure than they used to.
So Pierce is right that we are a very stupid and ignorant people. But as my pal Chuck would say: