Saturday, 28 August 2010

“Idiot America”, by Charles P. Pierce (Anchor Books)


How Stupidity became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

The Culture Wars are over, and the idiots have won. This is a veteran journalist’s acidly funny, righteously angry lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.

In the midst of a career-long quest to separate the smart from the pap, Charles Pierce had a defining moment at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where he observed a dinosaur. Wearing a saddle... But worse than this was when the proprietor exclaimed to a cheering crowd, “We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!” He knew then and there it was time to try and salvage the Land of the Enlightened, buried somewhere in this new Home of the Uninformed.

With his razor-sharp wit and erudite reasoning, Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States, and how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate.

With Idiot America, Pierce’s thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated.

I’m often wary of books like this – polemics are often dangerous books to put too much stock into. Al Franken is one of the few ‘comics’ who can write a book about politics and American society while being both funny and heavy on the facts, evidence, and data (this does not include his ‘satire’, which is mostly shit). Charles Pierce is a journalist with a great gift for outlining the facts and then spearing those who are clearly deranged.

The title and description of the book are slightly misleading – this is not just a rant about the religious right, or about Republicans. Rather, this is a historical look (often in a fond tone) at America’s history of ‘cranks’, and how this oh-so American tradition has been bastardised to create the Idiot America of the title. Pierce goes into quite some detail when looking back at cranks who have dotted the American historical landscape, not to mention the many conspiracy theories that Americans (obviously, as a generalised whole) seem so prone to believe: Masons! The Illuminati! Jewish bankers! Aliens! White men! Black men! The CIA! Global Warming activists! Strange Cults and Religions! They’re all mentioned by Pierce, in often detailed and frequently amusing chapters and portraits.

There are three main tenets of Idiot America as Pierce sees it. They are:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
  3. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.

So far so good, so far so scary.

The central question Pierce asks is, “how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate”? After all, of the most famous Founding Fathers, almost all were polymath intellectuals: Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin in particular. It is to Madison that Pierce turns for much of his historical evidential support, for it was Madison who (despite being somewhat relatively neglected as a Founding Father and president) wrote most specifically about the issues of public fancy, factionism, and “choosing up sides” that have gone into creating Idiot America.

Pierce kicks things off with an introduction about Ken Ham’s Creation Museum (here I should refer you, also, to the cover image and the mention of dinosaurs with saddles in the synopsis). The author takes issue with the utter belief and inability (unwillingness?) to question anything Ham or any other employee of the Museum might claim as “truth”. As Pierce left, he was struck by his fellow visitors’ total acceptance of what is to be found at the museum.

“It was impolite to wonder why our parents has sent us all to college, and why generations of immigrants had sweated and bled so that their children could be educated, if not so that one day we would feel confident one day to look at a museum full of dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs… and make the not unreasonable point that it was batshit crazy, and that anyone who believed this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and their own money. Instead, people go to court over this kind of thing.”

I’ll admit that the first thing that came to mind when I read the chapter and saw the cover artwork, was the scene in Friends, when Ross informs a colleague that there’s no way Dino from the Flinstone’s was a velociraptor, because otherwise he would have eaten the family…

“Religious idiocy – where, often, commercial idiocy and political idiocy came together to be purified, sanctified, and altogether immunized against the ridicule they all so richly deserved”

While it is often funny to laugh at the strange beliefs of those attempting some religious contortionism to explain the existence of dinosaurs, Pierce is not saying these believers are the idiots of the title. Far from it. Rather, the ‘Idiot America’ of which he writes is the one predicated on the war on expertise that seems to currently define American discourse. It is the breakdown of the consensus that knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge are good and admirable things.

“It also represents the ascendency of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about.”

Indeed, Pierce finds a strength in America’s Founding documents and mentality. Of the many, obscure and anti-modernist sects and denominations that have found a home and purchase in America, the author writes,

“they found a country that would welcome them, that had written its tolerance for their eccentricity into its founding documents, that was the best country ever devised to be a little off the beam. It might look askance at them, or turn them rather tastelessly into tourist attractions, but it would allow them the blessed freedom of their insularity.”

Perhaps the best chapter is the one that looks at the effect of Talk Radio of taking the great, marginalised American cranks and sending them screaming into the mainstream (this means you, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, etc.). Take the case of Gordon Liddy – former Watergate and firebomb-the-Brookings-Institute mastermind and felon – and his lucrative broadcasting career:

“No country serious about its national dialogue on any subject would allow Gordon Liddy near a microphone, for the same reason that we would keep Charlie Manson away from the cutlery.”

Having said Idiot America is not an anti-Republican screed, it cannot be denied that Pierce’s most scathing and passionate attacks are saved for the contemporary right and Republican party, and its wholesale embrace of Idiocy and extreme populism. When combined with Talk Radio’s reach, it is a corrosive force:

“Since right-wing populism has at its heart an ‘anti-elitist’ distrust of expertise, talk radio offers the purest example of the Three Great Premises at work. A host is not judged a success by his command of the issues, but purely by whether what he says moves the ratings needle... If the needle moves enough, then the host is adjudged an expert... 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.”

There are two particularly shocking chapters, in which Pierce attempts to lay out the whole story of two important, recent cases of religious interference with politics – and politicians’ spinelessness in dealing with it. The first is the Dover, Pennsylvania, Intelligent Design case as an example of how damaging and ludicrous religious-political fights can become, not to mention the terrible consequences. The fight was over teaching ID alongside Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, in science class. I know I’ve had my own heated debates about this with colleagues and believers, but Pierce manages to deal with the subject calmly and in substantiated detail, allowing those who were involved describe their impressions and feelings on the subject. The judge assigned the case, John Jones, was admirable and utterly sensible and professional in his 139-page decision throwing ID out the door. The result? He received death threats that caused US Marshalls to put him under 24-hr protection.

Equally, Pierce gives us a narrative and examination of the Terri Schiavo case, which was a gruelling, grisly political fight over whether or not to allow a woman to die in peace. In this case especially, but also in the Dover ID case, the interests of those involved were of little importance or consequence to the special religious interests who were interested only in picking a fight and subverting the Constitution and law. Pierce reserves a great amount of scorn for the politicians who facilitated this farce – and just as much for those who stood by and did nothing (that would be you, Democrats). Relying on testimony from those who worked at the Hospice, Pierce paints a grim picture of religious elements and opportunistic politicians ghoulishly using Schiavo as a political tool for furthering their specific, narrow cause.

We are, Pierce laments, too prone to listening to our Guts, that ephemeral force that does not take its cues from reason or logic, and is frequently wrong.

“If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is there that the Gut rules. Held to the standards of that context, any scientific theory is turned into mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample.”

Pierce’s great hope is that intelligence and knowledge will once again return to their respective place at the forefront of society, rather than relegated to the pile where, not too long ago, we used to find the cranks, the Glen Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and the Ann Coulters.

I make no attempt to hide my political leanings, but I cannot get on board with a movement that accepts – nay, welcomes – the likes and bigotry of Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity when forming their political planks and approach to political discourse. Intelligent, well-reasoned political debate demands objective treatment in the press. These characters – and many others of their ilk – do not provide this.

Overall, Pierce has written a cogent, oft-angry, and frequently funny rant against the ever-encroaching forces of Idiocy in American society and politics. His arguments are uniformly intelligent, well-constructed, and well-substantiated (even if the chapter on climate change is over-long and lacks a proper conclusion of similar impact to other chapters).

Also try: Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1973); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (2009); Al Franken, Lies & The Lying Liars Who Tell Them (2004) & The Truth, With Jokes (2006); John Avlon, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America (2010); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2008)

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