In honor of the apotheosis of idiocy that was the nomination of Donald Trump, I am reposting this review from five years ago. It is even more relevant now.
Mike Judge is one of the most incisive commentators on the dumbing down of American culture. He created the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead, two dimwitted adolescents who sit around watching music videos and providing moronic commentary (e.g., “He said ‘butt.’ Heh, heh, heh”). To many viewers, myself included, Beavis and Butthead at first looked like an instance of that dumbing down rather than a commentary on it. Later I realized that Judge was poking fun at some of the very viewers of MTV who were watching his show. I wonder if any of them recognized themselves in the maunderings of Judge’s two meatheads. Later, Judge produced a film Idiocracy which portrays a world in which intelligence has been banished and idiocy rules. Judge set his movie 500 years in the future. According to Charles P. Pierce in his hilarious and trenchant book Idiot America, Judge was far too optimistic. Pierce says the future is now. It is the dawning of the Age of Asininity.
Pierce notes that America has always had cranks. In fact, America’s free speech traditions have always made it a great place to be a crank. Only, Pierce says, it used to be a lot harder to make a living at it. As long as they remain outsiders, cranks play a valuable role. They mark the boundaries of rational discourse, as the dragons on old maps marked terrae incognitae. Besides, every now and then, they have an idea that turns out right. But when cranks are mainstreamed, then, for all practical purposes, there is no mainstream—and no cranks either. All discourse is worth its market value. If it sells, it is legitimate. Rationality, logic, evidence, and all the old values of objectivity are irrelevant. Science becomes just someone’s opinion. The expert’s judgment carries no more authority than a radio loudmouth’s. The operant definition of “true” becomes “fervently believed by many people.”
Pierce says this is what has happened. Nuts that would have been relegated a corner soapbox before—if not a psych ward—now have primetime shows and their books head the bestseller lists. Kooky ideas that were on the fringe not long ago are now promoted in the halls of Congress, touted by mainstream media, and promulgated by innumerable ideologically driven “think” tanks, which, flush with corporate cash, promote any kind of obfuscation that adds to the sponsor’s bottom line. Where formerly a certain level of deference to scientific consensus was respected by all parties in public debate, we now have Senator James Inhofe (R—of course—Oklahoma) denouncing the findings of climate scientists as a hoax. Inhofe also offered a list of 400 alleged “experts” who supposedly dissent from the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is real and human caused. It turned out that these “experts” had done little or no research in the relevant fields and even included a few TV weather reporters. Even politicians used to have to meet some minimal standards. Candidates for high office were expected to be able to exhibit a certain level of competence or at least coherence. The Republicans of fifty years ago would have laughed Sarah Palin off the stage.
How did this happen, how did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism, and its dressed-up cousin “intelligent design,” are worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar “creation museum” in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles?* How is it that the Texas State Board of Education can prefer the propaganda of extremist, ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scholars—and not be unceremoniously tossed out of office by the voters? How can a presidential administration censor and adulterate science for eight years (see Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science) without being savagely mauled in the media? Who let Glenn Beck get off his meds and onto prime time?
*(In case this understandably mystifies you, the saddles were so that Adam and Eve could ride the dinosaurs around the garden. Since they were naked, they really needed the saddles. Could you imagine the chafing from riding a Triceratops bareback? Yeow.)
Obviously, as Pierce notes, a lot of the reason for the eruption of nonsense has been the rise of religious fundamentalism since the early 1980’s. However, this only invites the further question of how fundamentalism, which had looked down if not out for decades, rose to prominence in American politics and culture. It is hardly a coincidence that the rise of the Moral Majority and the recrudescence of creationism coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “Movement conservatism,” after its disastrous loss in the 1964 presidential election, rose to ascendancy in only sixteen years. To accomplish this, the Republican Party had to be remade. Teddy Roosevelt was the “trust buster,” but his GOP successors found it far more profitable to carry water for the rich. They still do. The most honest thing George W. Bush ever said was this: When addressing a gathering of the wealthy, “the haves and the have-mores,” as Bush called them, he candidly noted that they were “his base.” Yet the wealthy are a minority, and as long as the Republicans were identified with them and their interests, they seemed doomed to remain a minority party.
The genius of Republican strategy was to enormously expand the GOP’s base by adopting a faux populism (see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?). To attract the great mass of disaffected hoi polloi, Pierce notes, the GOP had to at least give lip service to all sorts of strange dogmas and loopy obsessions. To attract the tens of millions of fundamentalist Christians, candidate Reagan had to make creationist noises, and he complied by characterizing evolution as “only a theory.” To keep the loyalty of the pew-sitters, Republicans have had to endorse the agenda of the religious right; they had to at least appear to be antiabortion, anti-gay rights, anti-sex education, anti-church/state separation, and, in general, pro-“family values.” To attract the hard-right anti-tax and anti-big government group, they had to espouse supply-side economics, a crackpot theory that stands in relation to real economics as creationism does to real science. To appeal to the tinfoil-hat paranoiac constituency (millions of people), it had to at least tolerate true weirdoes like the “birther” nuts and Glenn Beck. To get the support of xenophobes and racists (many millions) it had to promise to crack down on “illegals” that came here to take jobs picking lettuce and processing chickens away from us Real Americans. So, the GOP made a Faustian bargain with irrationality, and started winning elections.
By the way, you have to feel a little sympathy for the religious right (Okay, a very little sympathy) for the way Republicans have played them for chumps. Pierce tells a remarkable story about David Kuo, an evangelical Christian who worked on “faith based” initiatives for the George W. Bush administration and later wrote a tell-all about that experience. Pierce quotes Kuo’s account of an encounter between Don Willett, who had headed the initiative, and Karl Rove who wanted an up-and-running program without actually doing anything to support the program. I won’t reveal the punchline, but, suffice it to say, it shows that “Turdblossom” was far too kind a nickname for Rove. It also shows the complete cynicism of the big shot Republicans in exploiting their born-again supporters.
The moronization of the Republican Party is not the only reason for America’s slide into dementia, though that certainly has been a factor. The media also have a large share of the blame. The media have given much undeserved and free publicity to nuttiness. Worse, in the name of a bogus idea of “fairness” it has lent a specious appearance of legitimacy to the most grotesque nonsense. Every issue has two sides, so it is only fair to make sure that each side of a controversy has equal and unbiased coverage, right? So those who say that President Obama was born in Kenya deserve equal time with those who don’t, right? And those who say that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs should have the same access to media coverage as those snooty scientists, right? Surely, too, flat-earthers should have ample media space to counter the dogmas of round-earthers, right? By treating wildly irrational claims as merely one side of the debate, you give cranks a free ticket to the mainstream. Yet even media malfeasance is not the deepest reason for the great dumb-down.
To see the deepest reason, Pierce tells us we have to follow the money. Big tobacco created the reigning paradigm for massive public obfuscation. When in the 1950’s evidence began to mount that cigarettes cause cancer, the tobacco companies were facing a crisis. When science says that you are selling a dangerous and addictive product that is killing many thousands of your customers yearly, yet you are reaping profits beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. The cartoon Dilbert shows how easy it is: The evil Dogbert employs an agency called “Rent a Weasel.” “I need three bitter and unsuccessful scientists and a hundred lazy journalists,” he demands. The weasel complies and in the final frame Dilbert is reading a newspaper headline stating “studies show toddlers thrive on pollution.” So, it was a cinch for the cigarette manufacturers to get together a respectable-looking body of “researchers” who challenged the findings linking tobacco to cancer. The aim was to create doubt in the public mind, so that those who wanted to smoke would not be deterred and so that lawmakers would delay imposing restrictions.
The tactic worked incredibly well. Planting doubt about the effects of smoking kept the money rolling in and forestalled serious regulation for years. Then, in the 1990’s, a new scientific threat to business arose: global warming. Restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions would hurt big oil’s and big coal’s profits, so what worked for big tobacco was put to work for the big polluters. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced a document titled Smoke and Mirrors that details how big oil adopted the obscurantist PR tactics of big tobacco. The results have been astonishing. These tactics have worked even better for big oil than they did for big tobacco. As of this writing, the summer of 2010, while the eastern United States is broiling in record heat, Congress has failed to take action controlling carbon emissions. Mere science is helpless in the face of great PR and vast amounts of money poured into politician’s coffers. Money has so compromised Congress that the Capitol dome should be festooned with corporate logos. Add to this that, as noted earlier, corporate money funds many ideologically-driven “think” tanks that are more than happy to spew out slick, media-savvy obscurantism. The Inquisition could not hold science down, but big money just might.
Pierce makes all of these points with great panache. H.L. Mencken said that one belly laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms. Pierce gives us the arguments and the facts, but he gives us the belly laughs too. Is this a problem? Isn’t one deplorable feature of current discourse not only that it is dumbed down, but that it is so uncivil? Doesn’t Pierce’s mockery just further coarsen the discussion? But there is no discussion. The forces of organized and militant stupidity don’t discuss; they do not debate, certainly not in the sense that Socrates debated. There is no exchange of ideas. Their “arguments,” even when couched in the language of science, are appeals to what Pierce calls “the Gut,” your inner idiot, the way you think when you are gripped by powerful emotions like fear, anger, or resentment, and your critical faculties melt down. Each of us has an inner idiot, and the purveyors of stupidity are very adept at manipulating it. In fighting the armies of the night you don’t need to employ the shoddy, manipulative rhetoric they always use, but the ridiculous deserves ridicule.
It is particularly ironic that the forces of fatuity have grown so strong in America. The United States was founded by intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Pierce focuses on James Madison, a man of small stature but enormous intellect who, along with Jefferson and the other Founders, had deep respect for science and equally deep suspicion of every form of superstition and fanaticism (see Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers). No country has achieved more in science and technology than the United States. It is astonishing how often Nobel prizes still go to American researchers. American graduate programs in engineering, mathematics, and natural science are still the envy of the world, attracting top students from every part of the globe (just not enough from our part of the globe). Think of the great names in our history: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Alva Edison, S.F.B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur and Orville Wright, George Westinghouse, Robert Oppenheimer, E.O. Lawrence, Richard Feynman, Claude Shannon, Linus Pauling, George Washington Carver, Edwin Hubble, Harlow Shapley, George Ellery Hale, Thomas Hunt Morgan, James Watson, Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and Walter Reed. Think of the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the splitting of the atom and nuclear energy, The Saturn V rocket, lasers, television, the transistor, the microchip, the personal computer, nanotechnology, numerous vaccines and breakthroughs in medicine, the discovery of the expansion of the universe, and innumerable other world-class accomplishments in every field. This magnificent legacy is now at dire risk, threatened by the forces of ideology, politics, and big money.
What is the worst thing about the decline in the national I.Q.? What is the real danger of believing nonsense? Voltaire expressed it long ago: “Whoever can get you to believe nonsense can get you to commit atrocities.”
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