May 2013 Archives

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Pierce, Charles. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (New York: Anchor Books, 2010)

As a companion to Robert Proctor's Agnotology, Charles Pierce's Idiot America [see "Greetings from Idiot America" (Esquire) for a taste] is less academic and more conversational. The absence of notes--aside from a few pages listing his primary sources--is detrimental to Pierce's credibility, but I didn't note any other missteps. Here he lists what he calls the three Great Premises of Idiot America (pp. 35-43):

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

Together, this unholy trinity explains how the prevalence of anti-intellectualism has come to drag so much of our national discourse in a regressive direction. Pierce deplores "the extraordinary way America has gone marching backward into the twenty-first century:"

Unquestionably, part of the process was the shock of having more than three thousand of our fellow citizens killed by medievalist murderers who flew airplanes into buildings in the service of a medieval deity, and thereby prompted the United States, born of Enlightenment values, to seek for itself the medieval remedies for which the young country was born too late: Preemptive war. Secret prisons. Torture. Unbridled, unaccountable executive power. The Christian god was handed Jupiter's thunderbolts, and a president elected by chance and intrigue was dressed in Caesar's robes. People told him he sounded like Churchill when, in fact, he sounded like Churchill's gardener. (p. 5, Introduction)

Pierce's look at cranks and crackpots, from the Creation Museum to climate change, could be ignored by much of the audience that would most benefit from reading it because too many of his examples make the Right look bad; he addresses potential complaints of one-sidedness this way:

If this book seems to concentrate on the doings of the modern American right, that's because it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic, and succeeded very well. (p. 66)

This lopsidedness is an effect of media bias--which, as he correctly observes, tends to be conservative:

According to a 2007 joint study by the Free Press and the Center for American Progress, on the 257 stations owned by the five largest owners of commercial stations, 91 percent of weekday talk programming is conservative. (p. 103, "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio")
"The rise of Idiot America," he writes, is not strictly partisan, but "is essentially a war on expertise:"
It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those 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 best what they're talking about. (p. 8, Introduction)

A prime example of this is the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case (2005), of which Pierce writes that "Pastor Mummert had laid out the shape of the battlefield early on, when he described Dover as besieged by its intelligent and educated elements:"

The people to be most distrusted were those who actually knew what they were talking about. This is how people get elected while claiming not to be politicians. This is how, through the new mass media technologies best exemplified by the successful know-nothingism of talk radio, everyone is an expert, if they can move units or budge the needle. (pp. 153-154)

The distrust of intellectual expertise and elevation of ideological palatability leads to effects in how we discuss subjects such as global warming:

The novelist Michael Crichton wrote State of Fear, a thriller about bands of eco-terrorists bent on using the global warming "hoax" to capture the world. [Senator James] Inhofe [R-OK] invited Crichton to testify before Congress as an "expert" witness, and he was warmly received at, among other places, the White House. By those standards, poor Dan Brown should have gotten an audience with the pope. (p. 201)

Pierce pulls out the rhetorical stops when discussing the Iraq/Niger yellowcake document ("probably the most consequential forgery since the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," p. 240) and The Creation Museum ("a richly appointed monument to complete barking idiocy," p. 279). This anecdote about one of the Right's early propaganda books sums it all up:

I distinctly remember spending a rainy summer's afternoon on the porch, reading, at the suggestion of my father, None Dare Call It Treason, the ur-text of the modern American paranoid right, published in 1964 by John Stormer. I also recall thinking that, somehow, the book's whole argument made sense although it made no sense at all. It had an internal coherence while being utterly dissonant with the actual historical facts as they occurred. (p. 289, Afterword)

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