Pharyngula

Idiot America

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I love this article.

Ctenotrish sent along a copy of Greetings from Idiot America, by Charles P. Pierce (sorry, but it’s behind a firewall, and you have to pay $2.95 to see it) from the latest Esquire. I don’t think I’ve ever read this magazine before—it’s one of those things with half-naked young ladies draped over the cover, which, strangely enough, isn’t something that usually entices me to pick up a copy—but this one article has all the vigor and passion that most of our media have wrung out of their press, replacing it with tepid timidity and vacuous boosterism for whatever the polls say is most popular today. It begins with a description of a tour of Ken Ham’s new creation science museum in Kentucky, with its dinosaurs wearing saddles and its bland Adam, which we learn is naked but sculpted without a penis, and the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade through the patently bogus exhibits.

What is Idiot America?

The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are teh people who know best what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

It’s a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based,” a cheap huckster’s phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It’s a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.

While I think faith is insubstantial, I’ll grant the writer license—its proponents believe it is substantial, which makes their thin gruel of “faith-based” this and that particularly unpalatable. The main point is something that has long bothered me—we’ve replaced the esteem for real knowledge and skill with vague notions of “faith”.

Intelligent Design creationism is such a good example of that phenomenon.

On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”

A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn’t matter how many votes your candidate got, he’s not going to turn lead into gold. This sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news is where it appeared.

On the front page.

Of the New York Times.

Within three days, there was a panel on the subject on Larry King Live, in which Larry asked the following question:

“All right, hold on. Dr. Forest, your concept of how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”

And why do so many of them host television programs, Larry?

The article in question is by the vacuous Jodi Wilgoren. Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts. It’s sad to see how far we’ve fallen.

The country was founded by people who were fundamentally curious; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to name only the most obvious examples, were inveterate tinkerers. (Before dispatching Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson insisted that the pair categorize as many new plant and animal species as they found. Considering they were also mapping everything from Missouri to Oregon, this must have been a considerable pain in the canoe.) Further, they assumed that their posterity would feel much the same as they did; in 1815, appealing to Congress to fund the building of a national university, James Madison called for the development of “a nursery of enlightened preceptors.”

It is a long way from that to the moment on February 18, 2004, when sixty two scientists, including a clutch of Nobel laureates, released a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends. It is a long way from Jefferson’s observatory and Franklin’s kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America—where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

That’s a contrast that hurts: we’ve gone from Enlightenment America, which strangely enough all the idiots still revere, to George W. Bush’s Idiot America. Can we please bring it back?

Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of decisions made and not made. It’s the development of a collective Gut at the expense of a collective mind. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and not merely do we abandon the right to punish them for it at the polls, but we also become too timid to punish them with ridicule on a daily basis, because the polls say they’re too popular anyway. It’s what happens when leaders are not held to account for mistakes that end up killing people.

You would be surprised at how much email is sent to me telling me to stop being so derisive, that harsh language and ridicule turn people off and repel the very ones we’re trying to persuade. My reply is like the one above; by refusing to ridicule the ridiculous, by watering down every criticism into a mannered circumlocution, we have created an environment where idiots thrive unchallenged. We have a twit for a president because so many people made apologies for his ludicrous lack of qualifications—we need more people unabashedly pointing out fools.

I’m doing my part to fight Idiot America. I hope more people join me.

Comments

  1. #1 Steve LaBonne
    January 31, 2006

    it’s one of those things with half-naked young ladies draped over the cover, which, strangely enough, isn’t something that usually entices me to pick up a copy…
    They clearly need a special cephalopod-cover edition in order to expand their readership.

  2. #2 Lya Kahlo
    January 31, 2006

    Excellent post. Almost gives this cynic hope.

  3. #3 John Faughnan
    January 31, 2006

    I tried to start a group called GOTE “Guardians of the Englightenment”, but it didn’t quite take off.

    I suggest you catch up with David Brin, who has written a great deal in this vein:

    http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/

  4. #4 No Nym
    January 31, 2006

    From: Richard Hofstadter’s _Anti-Intellectualism in American Life_:

    “One begins with the hardly contestable proposition that religious faith is not, in the main, propagated by logic or learning. One moves from this to the idea that it is best propagated (in the judgment of Christ and on historical evidence) by men who have been unlearned and ignorant. It seems to follow from this that the kind of wisdom and truth possessed by such men is superior to what learned and cultivated minds have. In fact, learning and cultivation appear to be handicaps in the propagation of faith. And since the propagation of faith is the most important task before man, those who are “ignorant as babes” have, in the most fundamental virtue, greater strength than than men who have abdicated themselves to logic and learning. Accordingly, though one shrinks from a bald statement of the conclusion, humble ignorance is far better as a human quality than a cultivated mind. At bottom, this proposition, despite all the difficulties that attend it, has been eminently congenial both to American evangelicalism and American democracy.”

  5. #5 Paul W.
    January 31, 2006

    Hofstadter also said some interesting things about the historical origin of this anti-intellectualism, and why religion in America is so different from religion in Europe. The (liberal Catholic) historian Garry Wills picks up on that and elaborates it in his book Under God.

    The pattern for religion in America was largely set by the settling of the frontier. The mainline European churches were based on a system of having educated ministers, who went to college, etc. They couldn’t produce enough ministers who wanted to go to America, or leave the big cities, and left frontier preaching to the locals. The locals, naturally, were mainly uneducated yokels who “felt the call” to preach, and didn’t believe any special qualification was required; all you needed was the ability to read the Bible. (If you didn’t think that, you didn’t take up preaching, so there was a huge self-selection bias there.)

    Denominations with no particular training requirements for preachers were thus favored—they could produce the preachers, who naturally were mostly uneducated rural types who didn’t think religion was about book learning or elite intellectualism. Those were the guys who did most of the preaching on the frontier, and started churches as towns got big enough. Methodist and Baptist preachers popped out of the woodwork and those denominations grew like topsy.

    By the time a town got big enough to support an expensive church with a hard-to-get educated preacher, and the Catholics, Episcopalians (Anglicans), Presbyterians or Lutherans sent a preacher, it was too late. The Baptist/Methodist/whatever churches were already there, and the indigenous uneducated preachers viewed them as a threat—the overeducated city slickers from the (effete, elite, citified, corrupt) churches were just coming to poach their humble-but-virtuous salt-of-the-earth flocks.

    This pattern recurred over and over again as the frontier shifted westward across the continent. The low-overhead all-you-need’s-the-Bible guys got there fustest with the mostest, and by when the educated city slickers came to town, they were The Enemy to the guys who already held the turf.

    And then there were class conflicts strongly correlated with religious denominations. Rich and/or educated people would come to towns that grew big enough, from bigger Eastern cities, and bring their (corrupt, effete) intellectual denominations with them. Social climbers would convert from being barefoot Baptists to being methodists, or methodists to being Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and this was viewed negatively by the people who bought The Simple Gospel Truth and stuck to the humble, straightforward (barefoot cracker) denominatons.

    This is all very different from the situation in Europe at the time, where most places were pretty well settled for hundreds and hundreds of years, and much more stable. The established churches were generally aligned mostly with the rich and educated, and coevolved to suit the educated ruling class, hence not prone to just-the-gospel-truth fundamentalism. (E.g., Anglican priests generally went to Oxford or Cambridge, and were liberally educated. It’s much harder to be a fundamentalist when you’re getting a world-class liberal education and rubbing elbows with Natural Philosophers.)

  6. #6 pough
    January 31, 2006

    Ah, but the half naked young lady in question was Jessica Biel, so I found myself buying a copy. Buy it for the cover, keep it for the article!

  7. #7 Larry Brennan
    January 31, 2006

    I’m surprised you’re only just now finding this article. I read it on an airplane headed east for Thanksgiving. It was enough to make me send in a subscription card.

    Besides, Esquire makes for good airplane reading. It’s the respectable, out-of-your-twenties (physically if not psychologically) lad magazine.

  8. #8 Kristjan Wager
    January 31, 2006

    Larry, this is a repost of an old post from the original site.

  9. #9 John M. Price
    January 31, 2006

    Hard choices, save here. This credit really should go to Charles. It is an excellent article, and yes, it is worth $2.95!

  10. #10 Jeremy
    January 31, 2006

    Well said! It’s time to stop being so PC to those who refuse to educate themselves! They’re idiots, and deserve to be treated as such!

  11. #11 Palmer
    January 31, 2006

    Sorry to be anal but I’m a computer geek…

    I’m sure the whole Keepmedia site is behind a firewall. I’m thinking they don’t leave the free sections out in the DMZ open and vulnerable to attacks. It is not their firewalls which prompt you for credentials to see if you’ve paid – that’s a whole different mechanism.

  12. #12 Ben
    January 31, 2006

    If anyone would like a copy of the article emailed to them, just leave a message with your address and I’ll send it through EBSCO’s database.

  13. #13 BC
    January 31, 2006

    I hope you’ve all seen the Colbert Report’s show about this same subject.

    “And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books… No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”
    http://www.comedycentral.com/sitewide/media_player/play.jhtml?itemId=24039

  14. #14 shargash
    January 31, 2006

    There is an unprotected, free version of the article here. I actually felt a little bad Googling “Charles P Pierce idiot”, since he is anything but.

  15. #15 shargash
    January 31, 2006

    Oops…the link isn’t selectable. Here is the link in clear text: http://www.aboyandhiscomputer.com/Greetings_from_Idiot_America.html

  16. #16 That Girl
    February 1, 2006

    I think the whole point about ridicule is that individual people can get turned off by being called stupid, rather than challanged.
    And saying “God is stupid” is a quick way to alienate people.
    I totally agree that leaders, media, etc should be ridiculed on a daily basis and called to account for all their mis-statements and outright lies.
    It’s when a columnist has to throw in a snide remark about how people know all about Brangelina but not about evolution that people get mad.

  17. #17 Shane Celis
    February 1, 2006

    So awesome. I’m going to buy that magazine and I’m going to subscribe to this feed. Great stuff!

  18. #18 melior
    February 1, 2006

    It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket.

    The Onion once produced a masterful parody issue of USA Today, which included the typical colorful pie chart summary of a national poll on the front page, with the heading: “Lead now the heaviest element, survey shows”. Et tu, New York Times?

  19. #19 Hinheckle Jones
    February 1, 2006

    I think the trouble is a dearth of real experts on evolution. When an expert at biochemistry whatches a pseudo-expert at evolution make a monkey of his parents, then what?

    We are developing a cadre of experts in biochemistry and biophysics. Evolution is not so well studied, since it doesn’t pay as well.

  20. #20 Alon Levy
    February 1, 2006

    Paul W, isn’t the same belief that everyone can preach so long as he can read the Bible common to all Protestants? After all, the original Protestantism and the movements it inspired, such as Calvinism and Puritanism, were all very fanatical and zealous. The Puritans who went to New England are not the source of the fundamentalism you describe; they didn’t spread fundamentalism beyond New England, whereas the late-blooming Southern zealots did. Further, in Europe Calvinism was contained and Lutheranism tamed, despite the fact that they shared the characteristics you ascribe to Baptists and Methodists. Why is that?

  21. #21 Aaron
    February 1, 2006

    While I generally agree with the basic points of this article, I find it rather ironic that an author named Charles Pierce disparages “common sense” as dressed up idiodicy.

  22. #22 chris
    February 1, 2006

    I think it’s a very interesting article, but I found it very difficult to read due to the Subaru advert. The constant movement of the car made it really difficult to read until I had read enough to scroll down the page. I know you need ads on your site, but if you have any control over it, please use less obtrusive ones – it was both distracting and annoying

  23. #23 justin
    February 1, 2006

    I think people have it wrong when they refer to Bush as an idiot. He’s no genius, but he is far from being an idiot. He says things like “Both sides ought to be properly taught” because that’s the sort of thing that his supporters want to hear and without supporters a politician has no power. It doesn’t matter whether he belives that ID is a “side” or not. What matters to him is whether saying that is going to win him minds, because he’s not going to get, say, Social Security reform without minds.

    I suspect it also creates some dissonance in some of these minds to hear Bush called an idiot, when some of them have met Bush and deemed him smart enough. It probably makes them question the reliability of the epithet’s source.

  24. #24 roseg
    February 2, 2006

    Thanks – great post.

  25. #25 Paul W.
    February 2, 2006

    Alon: [I]sn’t the same belief that everyone can preach so long as he can read the Bible common to all Protestants?

    I think that Protestants generally agree that you don’t have to be a priest to read the Bible—you don’t need a priest with a magical connection to The Pope of The One True Church, who has a magical connection to God, and has a special divine authority.

    However, Protestants vary wildly in how much respect they have for elite authority—expert knowledge and judgement about the Bible, or about the world, and about how knowledge of the world should inform your understanding of the Bible.

    (They also vary in what they think of the Catholic church. I believe the Lutherans officially think the Catholic church is the One True Church, and hope one day to be reunited with it. They just stay apart from the Church because it has gone astray,
    and they don’t want to be complicit in its current fucked-upness. I think the Episcopalians have some similar line—they’re “protesting” the Catholic church, but not necessarily permanently divorced from it. American mostly-southern/rural denominations, on the other hand, tend to think that the Catholic church is at best just another church and way too big for its britches—or, at worst, a satanic conspiracy with the Pope as Antichrist.)

    Traditionally, the mainline denominations have believed in an academic religious elite, with educated ministers who go to seminary schools to learn how to understand the Bible and theology. A minister is supposed to be an educated man with expert knowledge from an expert academic/theological community, who knows a lot a of non-obvious things about the Bible, and a lot of things not in the Bible. He’s not just some working stiff with a Bible and a “calling.”

    The denominations that didn’t believe in such qualifications for ministry had a big advantage in the U.S., especially those that emphasized a “personal religious experience” over expert knowledge. (Beyond sufficient literacy to read the King James Version in English.) A barely-literate farmer could “feel the Lord calling him,” and set up shop as a preacher.

    This has some weird ramifications. For example, many of the sects that blossomed as farmers with Bibles on the frontier later moved upscale, and raised their educational standards, e.g., starting seminaries and expecting potential ministers to go to them.
    (Partly because once most people in a given area moved upscale, it got to be embarrassing that their ministers talked like ignorant hicks.) But for some, it was already explicit in their official, anti-elitist doctrine that seminaries are bad; they therefore started “Bible Colleges.”

    As I understand it, a Bible College is not just a seminary for denominations that don’t admit to having seminaries; they typically are actually less intellectual, and more focused on the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. (Sometimes jokingly referred to as colleges for people that only read one book.)

    After all, the original Protestantism and the movements it inspired, such as Calvinism and Puritanism, were all very fanatical and zealous. The Puritans who went to New England are not the source of the fundamentalism you describe; they didn’t spread fundamentalism beyond New England, whereas the late-blooming Southern zealots did. Further, in Europe Calvinism was contained and Lutheranism tamed, despite the fact that they shared the characteristics you ascribe to Baptists and Methodists. Why is that?

    I’m not sure quite what the question really is here. (And I am not an expert on this stuff; unforunately, I also don’t have the Hofstadter and Wills books handy.)

    I think Calvinism and Lutheranism in Europe were tamed by the normal process of coevolving with political structures in a comparatively stable, settled, and moneyed environment, as opposed to on a moving frontier full of farmers barely scratching out a living. By the time most of America was being settled, the Lutheran church was mature and comparatively wealthy, with an educated ministerial elite. That’s one thing that made it slow to grow and spread in the U.S. (They’d already “moved upscale” the way some quick-growing denominations in the U.S. would later do.) The Baptists had mostly unpaid or part-time farmer preachers, and the Methodists had low-paid circuit-riding preachers, which was a cost-effective way of serving areas that couldn’t afford their own churches or ministers. (Those churches had the same sort of first-to-market-with-cheap-stuff advantage that Microsoft did in the early days, leading to big market share at a low initial price point.)

    I am not sure about the Puritans, or what really happened to them. My general impression is that after becoming successful in New England, they mostly moved to a more upscale ministerial model, and suffered much the same slow-growth fate as the mainline/European churches; they “peaked too early,” they probably assimilated a lot, too… who wants to be a Puritan, anyway?… but really, I don’t know enough about it.

    And of course there are other factors at work, especially with respect to Calvinism. Predestination has a certain appeal for rich and successful folks, who use it to argue that they are the ones God favored from the beginning, hence better in the eyes of God; wealth is a sign of God’s grace. On the other hand, it can motivate poor people who already buy it to become rich, to prove that they’re not predestined to be doomed. On the other hand, if you’re poor and don’t already buy it, you’re likely not to buy into it because it makes it sound like you’re poor because God meant for you to be poor because he doesn’t really like you. (I’m not pretending that actually makes sense, or that I know it’s true.)

    I’ve heard it said that neither Calvinist group is as motivated to go around proselytizing and missionizing as some other Christian groups are, because a theology of predestination makes it easy to think of salvation as something that’s mainly up to God—e.g., if God had wanted those people to be saved, they’d probably be saved already; if they’re not saved, that’s probably God’s will. (At least when it comes to strangers; family and friends are different—maybe they’re not really saved, but you don’t want it to show, so it’s embarrassing if they don’t buy in. 🙂 )

    This all gets really messy because each denomination typically has three different “theologies” or theology distributions: the official theology, the elite theology of the ministers, and the theology of the people in the pews. These things to drift relative to each other under various pressures. For example, the elite ministers may drift away from the official theology, becoming more theologically liberal because they’re educated enough to see the backwardness of the official theology. They may or may not manage to reform and liberalize the official theology when there’s enough consensus at the elite ministerial level. But the people in the pews often believe something a lot more conservative than what their ministers believe, because simplistic stories are all they can understand or are willing to listen to; those people will fight the liberalization of doctrine.

    And if you allow cheap, uneducated non-elite ministers, the growing ranks of ministers may be closer to what the populace at large already believes than what the elites believe, irrespective of the official theology. Then you get a schism, where the growing numbers of not-elite populace-pleasing ministers split away from the elite core, saying “we don’t have to listen to you educated/Eastern/European city slickers.” (I suspect, but don’t know, that this is what happened with the Southern Baptists splitting off from the Baptists. The growing lower-class ministry in rural areas and the south said “fuck off” to the older, established elites in the bigger cities and back East.)

    This kind of ramifying evolution is continually happening. As Quakerism moved west, it assimilated to a lot of generic American Christianity, because that was what there was a market for—instead of Eastern-style “meeting houses” with no ministers, you get “Churches” with ministers and a more Biblical/fundamentalistic theology. (And Richard Nixon calling himself a “Quaker”—to the dismay of most Eastern Quakers, who are actual pacifists.)

    All of the mainline denominations are having huge problems in Africa, with the growth of lower class, less-educated, and more Biblical/fundamentalist churches there. Anglicans or Quakers in Africa aren’t much like the Episcopalians and Quakers in Eastern U.S. cities; they’ve shifted way to the right and toward fundamentalism.

    The Anglicans are likely to split because the African conservatives outnumber the English and American educated elite liberals. They’ve got their Bibles and they’re tired of a bunch of white guys ordaining fags and telling them homosexuality isn’t thoroughly evil. They still stone homosexuals to death in parts of Nigeria, while the American Anglicans (Episcopalians) are consecrating gay marriage, ordaining out gays, and even making one a bishop. That can’t last; the Nigerian Bishops just can’t afford to be seen as part of the same corrupt, liberal, “unAfrican,” faggy system. The embarrassing fact is that the elite liberal white guys don’t let the increasingly numerous African conservatives have much say, despite their numbers. It may not be racist, but it looks racist and it’s obviously elitist; the relatively powerless African conservatives are getting fed up with being treated like a colony, and they will vote with their feet. (Most likely by splitting off a conservative Anglican denomination, but if not that, by hemorrhaging members to more conservative protestant denomations that are happy to take them.)

    One cause of this very general problem is a self-selection bias, within each denomination, in who becomes a minister, and the relative cost of spreading what kind of Gospel. Good Eastern style liberals from the mainline denomintations are less likely to feel the call to go missionize the Africans, because they’re not all about saving souls for Jesus. Religion, for them, is mostly about good works; they don’t care so much whether people accept Jesus Christ as their Personal Savior. If they do go to Africa, they’re likely to worry more about doing good—schools, sanitation, etc.—than Spreading the Gospel. On the other hand, the more theologically conservative members of the very same denominations are more likely to go, and more likely to focus on Spreading the Gospel. They build fewer schools and more churches, and they focus on The Word of God rather than good works or a complicated intellectual worldview. So it’s the cheap conservative version that spreads and grows; what liberal denominations actually end up exporting ends up resembling the fundamentalism they oppose at home.

    The general pattern seems to be that if you require educated ministers, you lose market share; if you don’t, your message gets morphed toward lower-class fundamentalism and you end up outnumbered and schismed into irrelevance. This happens to denominations within the U.S., and internationally.

    Europe is different because it’s been Christianized for a thousand years; religion has had time to “move upscale” and develop an less virulent form with a slow-growth educated elite, everywhere. In terms of memetics, the U.S. is more like a third-world country, or rather, more recently a third-world country. Virulent cheap fundamentalist Christianity thrives on poverty, ignorance and social instability; it takes a long time to evolve back to a more educated “reasonable” form.

    That is one of the reasons why I dislike Christianity per se, even though liberal Christians don’t bother me. I’m friendly with a couple of liberal ministers (and a rabbi). One of the ministers recently made national news, being tried by an ecclesiastical court for what-they-don’t-call-heresy-anymore, over the gay marriage issue. It was conservatives in the pews who forced the issue, not his superiors, and thats’s reflective of a looming split in his denomination.

    Theologically liberal Christianity is expensive and hard to reproduce accurately. It tends suffer “back-mutations” and to revert toward the “wild type” of fundamentalism, which is cheap to reproduce and therefore tends to out-reproduce the educated liberal version. My liberal minster friends know this, and are dismayed by the impending splits in their denominations. While I respect people like Bishop Spong’s attempts to “rescue the Bible from fundamentalism,” I think it’s a losing game. Bibles are cheap, and liberal education is expensive.

    The Bible is the problem—it is a crazy fundamentalist document, with too much crazy and evil shit in it. The Catholic church was right to think it’s dangerous to hand it to laypeople. (Not that I like their authoritarian elite reading, either.) If you can’t send a reasonable, educated person along with each and every copy, you shouldn’t be passing out Bibles; if you do, you are promoting fundamentalism. Every time you cite scripture approvingly, without pointing out that it’s a dangerous myth, you’re promoting fundamentalism.

    I’m not sure if I’ve answered your questions, really. I guess one thing I’m saying is that it’s often not the overt, explicit theology that matters the most; it’s the managerial, ministerial model—how ministers are trained and paid, and who is regarded as qualified to preach, proselytize, or missionize. The explicit theology is typically correlated with the meme-spreading strategy, but there are lots of discrepancies because of the weird stuff about “theology” at different levels within a denomination and other confounding factors.

    One way this stuff plays out with my liberal minister friends is at the level of their individual churches. They both preach a pretty liberal gospel, for their respective denominations, and have driven away most of the older, more conservative members of their congregations. Some have gone to other churches of the same denominations, with more conservative preaching. Others have presumably left the denominations entirely.

    Driving away the mostly-older conservative folks is a financial disaster; when you lose 50 percent of your congregation, you lose 80 percent of the money. It’s the older people who are likely to have built up enough wealth to be able to make serious donations; it’s the oldest ones who are most likely to die and leave lots of money to a church.

    The end result is that there are several memetic evolutionary pathways that have similar effects. If a denomination drifts toward being too liberal at the elite level, there will likely be a grass-roots movement that forks off a conservative denomination. Conversely, if it it drifts toward being too conservative at the elite level, there will likely be a liberal offshoot.

    Either way, you tend to get the same kind of distribution of resulting denominations, or congregations within denominations, whatever they call themselves. There’s only so much that the educated, liberal elites can do without risking a backlash that’s bigger than the reforms, as long as ignorant people can wave Bibles around.

  26. #26 Bob C.
    February 4, 2006

    [Re: idiot nation]
    Very interesting blog; I hope to read the Pierce essay itself. Let me suggest some additional points you have perhaps overlooked. We need to look at the ID business in a slightly different, but telling, context. It was Nietzsche, certainly no Christian, fundamentalist or otherwise, who said, “There are no truths; only interpretations.” (Never mind that the statement is self-refuting.) The idea gained traction–indeed, dominance–in the late 20th century. The “public intellectuals” of our time, including the household gods Derrida, Rorty, and Foucault, have been telling us that there are no absolute facts or morals. So Noam Chomsky, for example, can publish numerous books (in fields in which he is not expert) in which he makes up “facts” out of whole cloth, manufactures footnotes which lead nowhere, and misleads and obfuscates without cease, and for all of this he is revered in the Universities and the Media as a leading intellectual. His critics are “answered” only with ad hominem invective.

    And now, after decades of reading in the newspapers and in popular and scholarly books that there are no rock-solid facts and that everything depends on interpretation or opinion or feeling, some people have decided to take the intellectual elite at their word and aim to deconstruct “science”–to debunk its facts and present a different interpretation. Remember that the first attempts to deconstruct science were by Feminists, not Creationists. You write, “Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.” No, the reliance on Gut rather than reason is solidly based in the universities, the media, and the public intellectuals. But perhaps that’s OK; it’s fine there and is offensive only if used by the conservative or the religious?

    In short, the ID movement and similar phenomena are Populist Postmodernism. There is no intellectual rigor in postmodernist academic or popular writing; so why is it surprising if there is no intellectual rigor in responses to it? You wrote, “we’ve replaced the esteem for real knowledge and skill with vague notions of faith,” as though they had not already been replaced with something else. Care to discuss Michael Moore’s “esteem for real [factual] knowledge?” You cite “a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends,” as though the discredited junk research of Alfred Kinsey, for example, had not been manipulated for left-wing political ends. Is manipulation evil only when done by Republicans? I’m emphatically not endorsing manipulation of facts; but justice and reason require that our outrage be directed at all such manipulators, not just the ones we disagree with.

    Finally: One does not need to agree with President Bush to disagree with remarks about his alleged low intelligence. He earned higher grades in university than Al Gore and has a graduate degree from Harvard; when did Yale and Harvard begin granting degrees to morons? His Secretary of State has absolutely impeccable academic credentials and a stellar record as a scholar. Check the academic credentials of his public critics–the Hollywood crowd who make so much noise: largely high school graduates or dropouts, people who are famous for being famous. Here we see real anti-intellectualism, the stuff that’s a threat to our future! People awash in ignorance attack people who have proved they know what they’re doing, then are praised by the media for political or ideological reasons; and millions of the mindless believe them. Idiocy is not the monopoly of the religious or political right; both the popular and the elite left share generously.

    The moral of the story: What goes around, comes around.

  27. #27 Fellow idot
    February 5, 2006

    So are you asserting that you are an “expert”? 🙂

  28. #28 FC
    February 5, 2006

    Anybody who uses a Green Day lyric as the basis for argument is moronic beyond repair.

  29. #29 Stanton
    September 6, 2006

    That we’ve elevated “The Gut” above “The Mind,” and yet, there is a billion-dollar industry specifically created to bamboozle people into taming and trimming their personal guts is an irony of eye-hurting proportions.

  30. #30 JD Kolassa
    December 23, 2006

    I would love to help destroy Idiot America, Mr. Myers. I’ll help out by going to college first and actually paying attention, and I’ll blast every IDiot I’ll see. Considering the number of nonreligious students in my high school, I think I’m allowed to say, “Reinforcements are on the way!”

  31. #31 James F. Trumm
    February 7, 2007

    The academics of the left created the philosophical foundation for Idiot America. Post-modern lit-crit holds that the written word is just a text that is susceptible of multiple but equally valid interpretations. The post-modern history of science holds that science itself does not reveal truth, but is simply a hegemonic gender-biased western-world means of discourse. Intellectual toys like this are just fun and games until someone loses an eye–and that’s what’s happening now to science, to politics, to religion, to education, to the news media, and to the culture in general. People trying to see their way to truth, knowledge and progress have had one eye poked out by a deconstructionist stick.

    Here’s a personal, recent example. I was talking with a new Writing Center colleague of mine last week. I characterized some student writing I have seen as “bad.” My interlocutor was much miffed. At the institution where she was trained, she told me, she was taught that there is no such thing as bad writing, and that the primary goal of writing mentors was to help students write in their authentic voice.

    That’s Idiot America for you. The rules of grammar, the meaning of words, and the principles of style are just textual constructs in a universe where all other constructs are equally valid. Inauthenticity is the only cardinal sin. We don’t need no stinkin’ Strunk & White.

    I take some comfort from my observation that the community college students I teach are generally more rooted in common sense–if not reality–than some of their teachers. I’ve never yet had a student ask how he can make his voice more authentic; most of them are desperate to know if their sentences are grammatical, if their organization is logical, if their word choice is sound, if their punctuation is accurate. They know there are things like right and wrong, truth and untruth, reason and unreason, even if some of their teachers don’t. They know that the rules of good writing can’t be voted off the island.

    Those liberals who esteem tolerance as the preeminent virtue have done their part to prepare the soil in which Idiot America has grown. They tolerate bad writing, bad science, bad history, bad argument: hey, everyone’s entitled to a point of view, right? As I’ve noted before in a discussion of Chris Hedges’ new book, there’s a paradox at work here: tolerating the intolerant leads to the destruction of tolerance. The problem is that tolerance is so damn comfortable. It’s like a warm sweater and a well-worn paid of jeans. Who wants to change into a stiff, scratchy uniform and go fight for objective truth? Thus we are conditioned to ignore the strident voices that call for theocracy (Muslim or Christian) and the smooth anchorman voices that report on fictitious controversies over evolution, public health, and pollution.

    Phil Ochs captured this kind of comfortable complacency in his acidly sarcastic song, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends:

    Oh look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed
    They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed
    Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
    But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game
    And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
    Outside of a small circle of friends.

    Liberals are standing around tut-tutting while history, science, religion and enlightenment are being mugged–and then they wonder why they are outnumbered and outgunned when yahoos want to teach their kids creationism, when kooks deny the adverse effects of pollution, and when chickenhawks send our troops into Baghdad with the assurance that they will be greeted with flowers and chocolate. They pine for intelligent discourse, and Idiot America only laughs in their faces.

  32. #32 Steve_C
    February 7, 2007

    What a load of crap.

  33. #33 tony
    April 10, 2007

    re: #25

    What a totally fabulous, erudite, and interesting post…

    If this were Slashdot you’d be getting modded up hugely in every dimension!

    I’ve long been a ‘lay’ follower of comparative religion (since becoming athiest around 11 or 12). Your post is one of the best summaries of the evolution of (christian) religion I’ve seen in a long time!

    keep it up!

  34. #34 Expat Onlooker
    January 14, 2008

    While admitting that I haven’t fully addressed the subject matter here, I would still like to opine one meaningful thing: Yes, you Americans are about as idiotic as they come.

  35. #35 Richard Lentini
    May 15, 2008

    Why do we still have, in this 21st century, divinity schools (or theology departments) at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on? On top of that, how could G.W. Bush graduate from Yale and Harvard and still talk and think like BoZo the clown? I don’t see how these schools can hold on to their prestige under such conditions.

  36. #36 Bill Anderson
    July 13, 2008

    Here’s a quote from Steven Colbert:
    “We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

    Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.”

  37. #37 MAJeff, OM
    July 13, 2008

    Idiot America

    Redundancy.

  38. #38 Rod
    July 13, 2008

    I hate to disagree with so many kindred spirits but the phrase “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is in no way “self-evidently ridiculous” It means simply that the IDers are challenging evolution, which they are, and that they are politically savy, which they certainly are. I notice something in many bloggers which I find in myself: a compuslive masochistic self-exposure to all the stupidity in the world which gets me angrier and more full of despair and makes me less able to approach it all rationally. The Times is NOT actively promoting ignorance. They publish the Sciene Times for Dawkins sake, and thats probably the best exposure to public gets to current science….and Carl Zimmer writes for it!!!

  39. #39 Nicole
    July 13, 2008

    Rod: “…a compuslive masochistic self-exposure to all the stupidity in the world which gets me angrier and more full of despair and makes me less able to approach it all rationally.”

    I agree, it’s a hard thing to fight. But there is so much goodness and hope I see in reading things like the Science Times, or watching the Discovery Channel, or talking with like-minded people, that combats that nicely.

    Aside: Anyone else now have Green Day stuck in their heads?

  40. #40 Tom
    July 13, 2008

    I was going to quarrel on one point in particular, but Rod beat me to the punch:
    “the phrase ‘politically savvy challenge to evolution’ is in no way ‘self-evidently ridiculous’ It means simply that the IDers are challenging evolution, which they are, and that they are politically savy, which they certainly are.”

    The claim that the content of the offending statement is on par with the notion of an “agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry” is nonsense. One cannot use the mechanisms of agriculture to contest Euclid. One can use the mechanisms of politics to challenge evolution – not the science itself, but the public’s view of it, its place in public education, etc. Surely that is what the author meant.
    And surely they have been nothing if not savvy; for a PR campaign to have done this well in defense of a theory with zero scientific support counts as impressive, if disdainful.

  41. #41 Zeno
    July 13, 2008

    People may have already figured this out on their own, but Greetings from Idiot America appears to be available in full at this site.

    I have frequently found that articles hidden behind firewalls soon get republished elsewhere. When the New York Times made a practice of trying to keep its articles away from nonsubscribers, they apparently completed forgot about syndication and republication. NYT articles routinely appear in other newspapers within a day or two and become readily available on their websites. The same appears to be true of magazine articles. Do a Google search on the title or phrase before you assume you can’t access the whole thing.

  42. #42 Escuerd
    July 13, 2008

    Heh, every once in a while I see ancient comments that I feel the need to reply to.

    #31, James F. Trumm | February 7, 2007 10:38 AM wrote:

    That’s Idiot America for you. The rules of grammar, the meaning of words, and the principles of style are just textual constructs in a universe where all other constructs are equally valid. Inauthenticity is the only cardinal sin. We don’t need no stinkin’ Strunk & White.

    and

    They know there are things like right and wrong, truth and untruth, reason and unreason, even if some of their teachers don’t. They know that the rules of good writing can’t be voted off the island.

    Much as I love to see things that bother truth-relativists, I think you’re putting the rules of grammar and writing and the meanings of words on too high a pedestal. These are largely (not completely) arbitrary social constructs. Some variations certainly are better than others, but in many cases they are nothing but standards (like the right-hand rule in vector calculus, or the rule that all square roots be positive). They could well have been otherwise with no essential change. They can indeed be “voted off the island”. There is no Platonic ideal of them.

    Science is concerned with learning about reality, though. While its conclusions are always, to some degree, tentative, they are ultimately either true or false, and it’s clearly a stronger method for discerning that than, say, democracy. There is a platonic ideal here, and that is why it’s a greater sin to insist that the conclusions of science are arbitrary than to insist the same of the rules of grammar.

    I maintain that teaching good grammar, writing, etc. (their status as social constructs notwithstanding) is important for the same reason it’s important that students of vector calculus learn the right hand rule for cross products. Arbitrary standards are necessary to communicate ideas effectively. I.e. I agree with you, but only in practice. 🙂

    That said, I think there’s as much naivet in mistaking social constructs for truth (what appears to me to be your error) as there is in mistaking truth for social constructs (the error of those who proclaim science “just another viewpoint”). There is certainly such a thing as truth, and lots of things really are social constructs. A good education can’t do without either.

  43. #43 Laila
    July 13, 2008

    “the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade”

    … strange, strange image in my brain.

  44. #44 Brad
    July 13, 2008

    Escuerd #42: I think you missed his (#31, James F. Trumm’s) point. The rules of grammar and composition might well be arbitrary, like whether people drive on the left or right side of the road, but there are reasons that there is more harmony when people mostly follow the rules.

    Politicians and English professors notwithstanding, the main purpose of language and writing is to get the ideas in one person’s brain to another person’s brain without being mangled beyond recognition. Every step of the way, from thought to words to sentences, to recognition to understanding to a replica of the original thought in the recipient’s brain, is fraught with possibilities for failure.

    OK, I’ve reread your post, maybe we are not so far apart as I thought. Yeah, the rules of grammar are mostly arbitrary in that other rules would serve as well, but _any_ rules work better than no rules. The rules vary with the situation of course; text messaging is much less formal and free form than posting on the internet, which has less formal rules than business correspondence or writing papers for a journal.

    On topic to both the blog and the comments(not yours!): I caught a bit of a program on radio today on a related topic, and the host asked,”Since when did ignorance become an opinion?” I thought that was both funny and sad – it sums up a lot of what’s wrong with the world today.

  45. #45 Escuerd
    July 13, 2008

    Brad #44, I don’t find anything you said to contradict what I said (judging by your third paragraph, maybe you’d even agree). I don’t think it’s so much that I missed James F. Trumm’s point as that I wasn’t aiming for it. I agree with him that “proper” language (among other things) should be taught.

    But I think this for the same reason I think it’s important to teach children that multiplications should be performed before additions. It’s important to have standards, in order to communicate statements about truth.

    I only have a beef when this is justified by asserting that the standards (linguistic, or whichever) are themselves a kind of truth, and that’s what James F. Trumm appears to have done.

  46. #46 Meryl
    July 14, 2008

    You should give Esquire a shot. I’m a perfectly straight female and I subscribe to it because there are frequently pretty insightful pieces in it. And because I love Chuck Klosterman, for some reason.

  47. #47 Rickr0ll
    November 12, 2008

    intellligence is vestigidal to humanity PZ. face the acid rock. The average number of kids in american families is 6. the average intelligence is around 112. the more intelligent the parent’s the less kids they have. Parent’s with the IQ of 130 have half as many kids as the average (AND the average is going to continue to sink, because, as we all are well aware, teenage pregnancy and PhD are exclusive sets. 3 in 10 kids drop out of High School). just more food for thought guys

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