Charles Pierce has expanded an essay into a full blown book on Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), soon available in fine bookstores everywhere, and I recommend it highly. You might be wondering what Idiot America is, and he explains it well.
The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstader teased out of the national DNA, although both of these things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects — for profit, mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know the best what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, 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.
This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of Christ’s Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an “expert” and therefore, an “elitist.” Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He’s brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool.
Pierce then goes through several sublime instances of American Idiocy: the Creation “Museum”, the Terry Schiavo case, the Dover creationism trial, the War on Terror, right-wing talk radio, climate change denialists, the Republican roster of candidates in the last presidential election…it’s terrifying and humbling that this country has so excelled at churning out such appalling stupidity. And, of course, he points out everywhere how our journalists simply gaze on approvingly, churning the chum and making money out of mindlessness. He uses one of my favorite (for a version of “favorite” flavored with schadenfreude) examples, the way the NY Times covered creationism and evolution, and especially that willing palimpsest, Jodi Wilgoren. Wilgoren, by the way, has since been promoted at the Times — I think for vacuity above and beyond the call of duty.
Lest you think Pierce is doing nothing but delivering a thunderation of his own, he also often reveals a fondness for the quirkiness of cranks and kooks — he clearly thinks they spice up American intellectual life. He even starts his book with the tale of a famous local kook, Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th century visionary who founded a utopian city on the banks of the Mississippi…a dream that failed dismally, after which he turned to writing bestsellers about Atlantis and Velikovskian (although he long preceded that crank) cometary catastrophes. He was a crank, but he was an entertaining crank, and most importantly, there was little risk that he could rise to run the country as president.
That’s the heart of the problem. Wild, loony ideas aren’t dangerous in themselves — what’s dangerous is when criticism is set aside and wacky ideas are given unquestioning acceptance and allowed to set the national agenda. It changes the dynamic: no longer do kooks have to work to get their voices heard, but the more insane their claims, the more likely they will be given media attention, promoted and passed around, given the imprimatur of authenticity because, well, Larry King featured them on his show.
What has America become? America has become an episode of The Office, where lovable assholes are put in charge to fumble their way along incompetently, coasting on the slack, disinterested efforts of their underlings. The show is a comedy, and it can be hilarious, in part because there is some stinging truth to it.
You won’t laugh very much at Idiot America, though. It’s too real.