Monday, April 19, 2010

Booknote: Idiot America

If you want a good explanation of why so many Americans (and by "Americans," I mean those residing in the U.S.) behave as ignorant idiots, then Idiot America is the book for you. The main issue is that Americans have forgotten that cranks belong in the fringes, and that cranks should stay out in the fringes. Instead, Americans have not only embraced their cranks, but they have also made them into the centerpiece of their major discussions and decisions in terms of the direction of the nation. In doing so, they have basically given up the fine traditions of education and pride in knowledge in favor of quick sound bites, willful ignorance, and pride in being plain stupid. Pierce does a good job of outlining the history of this phenomenon as well as providing examples that illustrate it. The situation is guided by three great premises which Pierce outlines at the start of the book.

I have seen a reviewer or two who claim this book is not well organized. The book reads like a good series of narratives. Each chapter features a specific story. Chapters do combine some early American history, mostly looking at James Madison and his contemporaries, and then brings in some current event to show how things have decayed. Pierce discusses events such as the Terry Schiavo case, global warming, the rise of talk radio (along with the increasing stupidity of the nation as a result), and the Dover case. I personally did find the last chapter, which looks at the last election, a bit long, but it is still worth a look as well.

This book combines a good narrative, with a little bit of humor. The text is well informed, and the information is out there if anyone feels a need to verify things or do some further reading. Pierce does cite a couple of books I have read, which were relevant to his discussion. One of them was Damon Linker's The Theocons, and the other was Allan Brandt's The Cigarette Century (this last used to show how the advertising and pseudoscience techniques of Big Tobacco have been used in more recent contexts).

I do recommend this book. Anyone interested in current affairs as well as in the situation in the United States should be reading this. However, I get the feeling that mostly people who are already part of the choir will be the only ones reading it. The less than bright ignorant people who embrace their ignorance will probably not even hear about it, and that is a shame because they are the ones in desperate need of an education. And I mean an education in the sense that people like James Madison meant, that is, a well educated citizenry able to be well informed and prepared in order to make the necessary decisions of a democracy.

* * * *

What follows now is aside from the review. You can read on or stop reading here. As I read the book, I found myself making some notes. These are some of the notes I made in my personal journal of things from the book I wanted to remember:

The Three Great Premises of Idiot America. This is basically how America is functioning these days. Don't believe me? Just watch most pundits on any cable news channel.

  • "Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units" (35).
  • "Anything can be true if you say it loud enough" (41).
  • "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it" (43).
The next note comes from the chapter on talk radio, which does an excellent job of dissecting why AM radio is pretty much an idiotic wasteland of ignorance, bigotry, etc.
  • "After an extensive study of talk radio, and of the television argument shows that talk radio helped spawn, Professor Andrew Cline of Washington University in St. Louis came up with a set of rules for modern American pundits" (104). In other words, if you aspire to be like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sean Hannity, these are the rules for success:
  1. "Never be dull."
  2. "Embrace willfully ignorant simplicity."
  3. "The American public is stupid; treat them that way."
  4. "Always ignore the facts and the public record when it is convenient to do so" (104).
Those four rules clearly illuminate why Rush Limbaugh on radio and Beck and Hannity on television succeed; they appeal to the lowest common denominators with entertainment and a total disregard for integrity. It does not say much about such a large segment of society that it falls for such bullshit on a regular basis while people like Rush and Beck laugh all the way to the bank.

  • "Talk radio pleads entertainment as an alibi for its most grotesque excesses while at the same time insisting on a serious place in the national discourse. It seeks camouflage against the not unreasonable notion that it's mainly a very noisy freak show. It justifies both claims by the simple fact that it moves the ratings needle. This confers upon a talk show advertising revenue, but it does not confer upon its host any real level of expertise. It does that through the Three Great Premises" (114).
I labeled this from the "people should remain stupid and illiterate department, so they are easier to indoctrinate:"

  • Pastor Mummert, one of the creationists in Dover, PA, said shortly after the case was decided (against the creationists, thank goodness): "'It seems to me,' he said, 'that it's the educated segment of society that reads the books and gets the new ideas, and that's the basis of the culture wars that we have going on now" (158).
I have a feeling that Pastor Mummert and the Taliban would get along just fine, if it weren't for that whole competing deities issue. After all, it is clear both prefer to recruit followers who are as illiterate as possible in order to brainwash them. They would not want followers asking questions. Mortenson mentioned that about the Taliban, given they dislike that Mortenson's schools teach Arabic. If the kids learn Arabic, they could read and understand the Qur'an for themselves. The mullahs would hate for that to happen. Kind of like Pastor Mummert.

On the War in Iraq, which became the current War on Terror:

  • "Americans chose not to believe those people who really knew what they were talking about. They chose to believe those people who seemed most sure of everything about which they had no clue. Expertise became a liability, a form of softness in the face of an existential threat. Expertise was not of the Gut. In the months and years after September 11, the worst possible thing was to know what you were talking about. People who knew to much were dangerous; on this the country largely agreed" (224-225, emphasis in original).
I guess being a well informed, well read, and a thinking librarian makes me dangerous now. Ther is quite a bit more from this book that made me think, but I think this will give my two readers an idea.

No comments: