American anti-intellectualism could end up destroying this country within the next decade.
Our decades-long assault on intellect is turning us into a backwater. Just consider these results from a Programme for International Student Assessment study: the United States ranked nearly dead last in math, smack in the middle of the below average column. Search for our educational rankings, and you’ll find article after article talking about our failing grades. We’re becoming a nation of idiots.
Something tells me the neocons are rather counting on that.
Consider this series of columns by John Dean, former Nixon lawyer turned enthusiastic Republican basher. Dean first analyzes Obama’s speech on race and comes to some depressing conclusions, revealed right there in the title: “Barack Obama’s Smart Speech “A More Perfect Union”: Did It Reveal Him To Be Too Intellectual To Be President?”
Computers have made it rather simple to determine the intelligence or grade level of a speech by measuring it with the Flesch-Kincaid test, which is found on the Tools/Options menu of Microsoft Word. This widely-employed measurement device determines the degree of difficulty of the written (and spoken) word.
Enterprising linguists and others have applied the test to a wide variety of material. For instance, the folks at youDictionary have tested the inaugural addresses of presidents. They discovered that no president since Woodrow Wilson has come close to delivering speeches pitched at a 12th grade level. Bush II’s first inaugural address was at a 7.5 grade level, which ranked him near Eisenhower’s second address (7.5), Nixon’s first (7.6), LBJ’s only (7.0), and FDR’s fourth (8.1). Clinton’s two addresses, by contrast, scored at the 9th grade level (9.4 and 8.8 respectively).
I tested Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech and it scores at a 10.5 grade level, which by current standards is in the stratosphere. But maybe he was being too smart to win the presidency.
This, Dean says, is because “Republicans have spent the past half century dumbing-down the American presidency, for it has helped them win the White House .” Apparently, Republicans think it’s a fantastic idea to have only the finest dumbasses in charge of the nuclear weapons.
Obama’s ranking on this scale was one of the things that convinced me to vote for him. I’m sick to death of people talking to Americans like they’re nothing but a bunch of rubes and utter morons. All evidence to the contrary, it would be nice to have a president who believes we can think our way out of a brown paper bag. One of the secrets of creating smart people is to actually expect people to be smart.
Intelligence, however, is anathema to the neocons, because five minutes’ critical thought can blow enormous holes in their “reasoning.” I point you to eight years of miserably failed Bush policies and the overwhelming evidence that McCain’s policies are merely more of the same. Magical thinking abounds in Republican circles. We can still win in Iraq if we stay there 100 years. The tax fairy will pay for all the tax cuts and dramatically increased spending. Drilling for more oil in our pristine national wild areas will lower the price of gas practically instantly. I could go on, but you’ve got the picture: pick at the shiny gold coating Republican policies, and what you find underneath is bullshit.
But this is fine with them. Republicans still have a chance at winning, because Obama’s smart and the electorate wants dumb. Consider Dean’s further evidence on this point:
In recent years, Democrats have nominated presidential candidates who are far more intelligent that their Republican counterparts. Common sense might suggest that high intelligence is necessary to be president,
and conclude that we should applaud such nominations. Election politics, unfortunately, usually punishes the more intelligent nominee.
He points out that the only Democrats to win in the last several decades have been Jimmy Carter (who was super-smart but whose Southern drawl makes him sound like a goober) and Bill Clinton (who played down his smarts, also spoke with a twang, and chased skirts for good measure). When it comes to electing a president, Americans seem to have an irresistible impulse to pull the level for the dumbest-seeming bastard they can find.
If this is truly what elections come down to in this country, Obama has absolutely no chance at the White House. He’s not only smart, he doesn’t hide it. And, horror of horrors, he expects Americans to be smart, too.
I’m afraid this may be too much for a nation of terminal under-achievers to handle.
So is Dean. And he’s got studies to back his pessimism:
Dr. Drew Westen, a clinical and political psychologist who teaches at Emery University, has literally looked inside the mind of partisan voters with MRI scanning equipment, and confirmed that emotions dominate our voting decisions. Westen writes about our emotionally-driven democracy in his recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions In Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs, 2007), and his findings are not good news for Democrats, unless they change their ways.
Westen and his colleagues found “[t]he political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a
reasoned decision.” Democrats, however, like to appeal to reason. While this resonates with many key elements of the Democratic Party, it simply does not work across the board with all voters.
In short, voters are going to react to McCain and Obama in the general election this fall with their hearts, not their heads.
If that’s the case, we are so fucked.
This country can’t afford another four years of stupid. Dean has some faint hope that the last eight years of utterly spectacular dumbfuckery has jolted the American electorate enough to realize that voting for the person who seems closest to you in general ignorance is the wrong thing to do. So do I. And yet both of us realize that many of our fellow countrymen are going to go for the man who throws a good barbecue rather than the man who has the intelligence to make the tough decisions and start picking up the shattered fragments of our nation. So what if McCain wants to keep us in a hideously unpopular war for a century, can’t tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite even if they’re wearing badges, and whose economic policy is guaranteed to bankrupt the nation? He doesn’t talk above the understanding of the average dropout, and his dry rub is to die for.
We just might.
America has to wise up. Somehow, we have to convince our fellow citizens to stop treating elections as popularity contests and start treating them as job interviews. The presidency is the most important job in America: it’s vital it doesn’t go to the dumbest candidate. We need a super-intelligent person in the White House, someone capable of running a complicated, dangerous, and threatened country. We need someone in charge who can think his way out of a brown paper bag.
The problem is, even if we end up with such a man, I’m afraid the below-average idiots who treat elections as an extension of American Idol are going to end up forcing him to tack stupid. We’re beyond a left-leaning politician having to tack right: if what John Dean and his sources are saying is correct, America will accept a left-leaner as long as he’s stupid enough not to threaten their fragile egos. They’ll forgive any number of idiotic mistakes – they’ve proven that time and time again over the last eight years – but they’ll never forgive a man for being smarter than they are.
That’s why we need to work hard to create a smarter America, my darlings. Intelligence needs to be prized again. Americans need to be encouraged to excel in academics, value smarts over personality, and above all learn how the fucking well think again.
This country is not going to survive as a superpower, or even a power, if it doesn’t get smart. If Bush’s idiotic antics have made our electorate realize that, then it’ll be the only good thing he’s ever done.
Let’s don’t vote for stupid this time, okay, America?