Posts Tagged ‘stupidity as a virtue’

REVUES FROM THE REV: “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free” by Charles R. Pierce.

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

idiotamericaCharles Pierce is (among the credits listed on the book’s dust jacket) a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, a contributing writer for Esquire, a frequent contributor to American Prospect and Slate and a regular on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”.

This book will enlighten you like a brilliant sun breaking through seemingly impenetrable clouds,  It will refresh you with the clear distillation of our American history and culture.  It will shame you to your soul.  For each and every one of us is a citizen of Idiot America, and few of us are free of the stench from the mountains of crap we’ve allowed to pile up around us.

Pierce begins this acid-tongued gallop through our current cultural and political shouting match by lovingly describing the classic American “crank”: the individual who (ignoring scientific fact) creates a fanciful theory behind which he throws all of his resources, fully expecting to be attacked or ignored by academia as he not-so-patiently awaits his eventual vindication.  Pierce sees these individuals as important to our cultural imagination, be they looking for the lost city of Atlantis or proposing miracle cures for disease.  Interwoven with meaty servings of founding father James Madison’s views on the forces that always threaten to tear a participatory democracy apart, Pierce contrasts the American crank of old with the current trend of mainstreaming fringe views and the very real dangers such an elevation of idiocy to respectability creates.  It is a nuanced dance that Pierce is choreographing here, but it he does it well and the result is a refreshingly useful understanding of just how we got to where we are.

The book begins with a tour of the recently opened “Creation Museum” in Hebron, Kentucky, where the sight of a saddle atop a dinosaur proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Pierce.  Symbolic of how the home-brewed theory of what would have been a classic American “crank” has now been “mainstreamed”, this fantastical artifact of fake science becomes the entry point to a series of set pieces from the culture wars of the last twenty years.  Pierce is foremost a reporter, and one of the startling wonders of this book is that he infuses each set piece of our cultural idiocy with interviews with the central characters in the cultural dramas he records.  We hear directly from the federal judge in the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case, and the director of the Hospice that cared for Terri Schiavo during her last years and the intelligence and terrorist experts who were ignored in the run up to the Iraq War (climate change and 9/11 are also covered well).  The presence of these original interviews lends a credibility to this book that — when compared to the ignorant drivel that is pumped into the marketplace by the likes of Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and others — could make me weep with gratitude.  But those tears are a testimony to a deeper wound, a wound that we all bear: we have allowed our nation to slip the mooring of reason and fact and drift along like a super tanker that’s thrown its screw, somehow hoping that some unseen hand will stay the inevitable collision with the rocks that will rip our hull to shreds.

Psychologist Paul Ginnety’s quote about “the potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity” is expanded upon as Pierce presents his conception of The Three Great Premises as they apply to media pundits:

“A host is not judged by his command of the issues, but purely whether what he says moves the ratings needle.  (First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it moves units).   If the needle moves enough, then the host is adjudged an expert (Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough) and, if the host seems to argue passionately enough, then what he is saying is judged to be true simply because of how many people are listening to him say it (The Third Great Premise: Fact is that which enough people believe.  Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it).  Gordon Liddy is no longer a gun-toting crackpot.  He has an audience.  He must know something.”

This is a small wonder of a book.  The writer is informed, humane and diligent in his original research and interview work (and impressive in his listing of credits, inspirations and sources in the back of the book).  Unlike those he turns his attention to, Pierce is neither repeating rumor nor making unsupportable assertions.  This is the passionate work of a serious journalist.

I was both thrilled (by the quality) and deeply dismayed (by the content of) this book.  It can seem as if we are so divorced from valuing truth over opinion that the path back to reason can seem impossible.  Yet the fact of this book is an expression of hope, of a belief that there is a chance to make a difference for the common good.  But none of us can afford to wait another moment.  We have to stand up and be heard until the crackpots and ideologues are afraid to poke their heads out of their musty holes and return to their imaginative roles as American “cranks”.  Otherwise, we are a great and powerful nation adrift, arguing in the wheelhouse about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the engine room awaits a command.

t.n.s.r. bob