I love this article.
Ctenotrish sent along a copy of Greetings from Idiot America, by Charles P. Pierce (sorry, but it’s behind a firewall, and you have to pay $2.95 to see it) from the latest Esquire. I don’t think I’ve ever read this magazine before—it’s one of those things with half-naked young ladies draped over the cover, which, strangely enough, isn’t something that usually entices me to pick up a copy—but this one article has all the vigor and passion that most of our media have wrung out of their press, replacing it with tepid timidity and vacuous boosterism for whatever the polls say is most popular today. It begins with a description of a tour of Ken Ham’s new creation science museum in Kentucky, with its dinosaurs wearing saddles and its bland Adam, which we learn is naked but sculpted without a penis, and the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade through the patently bogus exhibits.
What is Idiot America?
The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are teh people who know best what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, 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.
In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.
It’s a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based,” a cheap huckster’s phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It’s a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.
While I think faith is insubstantial, I’ll grant the writer license—its proponents believe it is substantial, which makes their thin gruel of “faith-based” this and that particularly unpalatable. The main point is something that has long bothered me—we’ve replaced the esteem for real knowledge and skill with vague notions of “faith”.
Intelligent Design creationism is such a good example of that phenomenon.
On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”
A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn’t matter how many votes your candidate got, he’s not going to turn lead into gold. This sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news is where it appeared.
On the front page.
Of the New York Times.
Within three days, there was a panel on the subject on Larry King Live, in which Larry asked the following question:
“All right, hold on. Dr. Forest, your concept of how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”
And why do so many of them host television programs, Larry?
The article in question is by the vacuous Jodi Wilgoren. Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts. It’s sad to see how far we’ve fallen.
The country was founded by people who were fundamentally curious; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to name only the most obvious examples, were inveterate tinkerers. (Before dispatching Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson insisted that the pair categorize as many new plant and animal species as they found. Considering they were also mapping everything from Missouri to Oregon, this must have been a considerable pain in the canoe.) Further, they assumed that their posterity would feel much the same as they did; in 1815, appealing to Congress to fund the building of a national university, James Madison called for the development of “a nursery of enlightened preceptors.”
It is a long way from that to the moment on February 18, 2004, when sixty two scientists, including a clutch of Nobel laureates, released a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends. It is a long way from Jefferson’s observatory and Franklin’s kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”
The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America—where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.
That’s a contrast that hurts: we’ve gone from Enlightenment America, which strangely enough all the idiots still revere, to George W. Bush’s Idiot America. Can we please bring it back?
Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of decisions made and not made. It’s the development of a collective Gut at the expense of a collective mind. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and not merely do we abandon the right to punish them for it at the polls, but we also become too timid to punish them with ridicule on a daily basis, because the polls say they’re too popular anyway. It’s what happens when leaders are not held to account for mistakes that end up killing people.
You would be surprised at how much email is sent to me telling me to stop being so derisive, that harsh language and ridicule turn people off and repel the very ones we’re trying to persuade. My reply is like the one above; by refusing to ridicule the ridiculous, by watering down every criticism into a mannered circumlocution, we have created an environment where idiots thrive unchallenged. We have a twit for a president because so many people made apologies for his ludicrous lack of qualifications—we need more people unabashedly pointing out fools.
I’m doing my part to fight Idiot America. I hope more people join me.