We’ve Always Been Idiots

Idiot AmericaI 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:

It was the smartest of times, it was the dumbest of times—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

0 thoughts on “We’ve Always Been Idiots

  1. Couple of thoughts, here. Yep, there wuz sum stoopid peeples back in da olden dayz. A lot of idiot writers/speakers had huge followings. But so did the bright ones. "The Great Agnostic," Robert Ingersoll, drew huge crowds in the middle of a fundamentalist revival — people who disagreed with him and thought he would burn in Hell wanted to hear what he had to say. Oscar Wilde was a bit hit in America — by no means only among the educated elite. Even though everyone knew he was a "fop," aka, homosexual. Can you imagine religious conservatives wanting to see, say, Stephen Fry give a thoughtful, funny, polite lecture on atheism today?

    Susan Jacoby has pointed out, in "The Age Of American Unreason" and elsewhere, that our attitude towards intelligence has changed in the last 50+ years. Working-class people (who could afford to) used to attend museums & the theater, read poetry, etc. She uses as an example (and I think it’s a great one) those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, remember those? They were silly chopped-up versions of novels considered current/important, and we sneer at them today, but the people who read them/bought them for their kids thought having a literary background was important. Intelligence was a social value.

    Modern anti-intellectualism began in the post-war period, when right-wingers tired of the New Deal (and jumping on the fact that mega-popular FDR was dead) began associating New Deal government "experts" with Communism. (That’s what the Hiss trial was about, really; not finding a spy, but tainting anyone who thought government should be run intellectually as a crypto-Soviet plant.) McCarthy and Goldwater were strictly anti-intellectual demagogues, as Hofstadter noted. The modern conservative movement gets its real soul from those two, not from the likes of Buckley.

    It’s hard to know how much to blame TV. Fundamentalism was on the decline for a while, and TV preachers like Graham really boosted it back up. But so did the civil-rights movement and racism. What were once mainstream churches — the moderate Protestant denominations now all but dead — generally supported civil rights, or stayed neutral. Fundamentalist churches were steadfastly racist, and drew a lot of supporters because of that. That support continued with appeals against feminism, abortion, homosexuals (there’s always someone else to hate.)

    I suspect TV did, in the "Bowling Alone" sense, contribute to the death of those fraternal groups like the Elks, Lions, Eagles, etc. (which while politically moderate and sometimes just drinking clubs, did get people together to talk.) But I think the loss of those moderate churches was a bigger deal, and the loss of unions especially. I don’t know that TV had a part in those. It did have a major part in Reagan’s rise. Would another, equally foul mouthpiece for neoconservatism have arisen if TV never existed? I can’t say.

    The Pierce book sounds fun; I’ll get it tomorrow!

  2. @JMF – Interesting thoughts. I don’t know how much I agree. Yes, TV has had some effect. Also, more personalized entertainment has allowed people to dumb themselves down. I don’t think that Goldwater was an anti-intellectual, but certainly McCarthy was. Traditionally, liberals (populists) have been the more anti-intellectual ones. I think our slip in recent years has come from the push to the political right. There is no left to counterbalance the right, so the right has gone off the rails. In the 1960s, we could have a reasonable political discussion between right and left and both sides would have good points to make. Now that just isn’t true. The right has almost no good ideas and it has [i]no[/i] good major ideas. As a result, roughly half of the nation has to be trained to ignore experts because there is no other way for the right to hold onto its beliefs.

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