Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

Before BuzzFlash joined Truthout, it also offered progressive premiums.  Perhaps the most popular, with literally hundreds ordered, was Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.

Pierce was on to something that bears remembering in this Republican primary season where issues appear to be discussed not based on facts, but on coded language that evokes emotional responses.  It appears that the candidates are not debating public policy as much as they are competing for how they can make GOP voters feel better about themselves, the facts be damned.

In 2009, BuzzFlash interviewed Pierce for one of our weekly conversations with authors — and it still offers delightful insight about how so many Americans have entered an alternative universe based on a world view that doesn’t correspond to reality.

In the interview with BuzzFlash, Pierce pulled no punches in goring sacred cows, such as the New York Times:

I think the illustrative sentence, for all three of what I call the great premises of Idiot America came from The New York Times, which was talking about the intelligent design movement. And the sentence that appeared on the front page of The New York Times is called the intelligent design movement — “a politically savvy challenge to evolution.” Which is self-evidently ridiculous. It’s like deciding that you’re going to have an agriculturally savvy challenge to Newtonian geometry. It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t matter how many people vote for the candidate of the Alchemy Party ticket. He’s not going to be able to change lead to gold. It doesn’t matter how many people in the Gallup Poll think they should be able to flap their arms and fly to the moon — they’re not going to be able to do it. So when you have The New York Times, on the front page, posing a self-evidently ridiculous notion like a politically savvy challenge to evolution — actually it’s not. It’s a politically savvy challenge to the poor bastards who are trying to teach high school biology.

Pierce artfully explains the demagoguery that is today’s political surround sound, and why it is do difficult for Obama to effectively communicate with many Americans, when he states:

But, yes, I think we’re also dealing with the kind of anti-intellectualism and a contempt for expertise that certainly Richard Hofstadter wrote about, and that Susan Jacoby wrote about in her book, The Age of American Unreason. There is a very powerful element of that in our national discourse.

It has a lot to do with the fact that so much of our national discourse on important issues takes place in an entertainment context. The worst thing you can do, is to know what you’re talking about. If you know what you’re talking about, you’re not going to speak in sound bites. You are very rarely going to speak in sound bites if you know what you’re talking about. If you know what you’re talking about, most problems are very nuanced and very complicated.

But perhaps this exchange with Pierce best illustrates how perception becomes reality for far too many, even if it makes no sense.

BuzzFlash: When we had the so-called teabagging protest April 15, I was on a commuter train, and there was a woman going to a teabagging protest in Chicago, where BuzzFlash is located. She was writing on a poster with a Magic Marker and it said, “No taxation without representation.” I thought to myself for a moment — I was thinking, what does this person think? She probably has two senators, a congressperson, a state representative, a state senator. She has a representation. Her favorite candidates might have lost the last election. Obviously she’s disgruntled. But she has representation.

The Revolutionary War was fought because we were being taxed and we didn’t have representation by those who were taxing us, meaning the monarchy in England, King George. This seemed to me one of the real-life encounters with truthiness — a slogan that has no meaning, but there’s a great deal of passion behind it. I believe that lady probably believed she had no representation.

Charles P. Pierce: I think that she’s enormously sincere in her concern. And you’re right. She’s misappropriating the slogan. But you have to understand, one of the great sales jobs that was done over the last twenty or thirty years began with the Ronald Reagan campaign in 1980, which I covered when I was starting out. So I saw the dynamic beginning to work. It was to sell a specific idea to people that the government is an alien entity over which they have no control, and in which they have no say, demolishing the idea of a political commonwealth.

And that is what we are left with, a mass media that reports on perceptions and propaganda as if they were competitive with reality and facts.

It’s like the creationism museum in Kentucky that we discussed with Pierce, where dinosaurs have saddles to try to illustrate that men and women lived in Biblical contemporaneous time with the brontosaurus.

But that notion leaves us with fossils for brains.

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