Idiot America

November 6, 2009

America has always had a healthy anti-intellectual streak, but making that fringe mainstream is proving disastrous.

Idiot America is a book about, in Pierce’s own words, “the consequences of believing nonsense.” He identifies two related evils at work on the American public: vigorous anti-intellectualism with its distrust of expertise, and a commitment to the idea that if you believe something fervently enough, it’s true1. In the popular media, these get manifested in the idea that “because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong.” This idea is poisonous not just for academic reasons, Pierce goes on to show, but because it hurts people. He draws on several examples, the most compelling of which is Woodside Hospice where the Terry Schiavo affair played out. In the media, the opinions of Schiavo’s doctors, the only people qualified to assess her medical condition, were matched against the comments of–to say the least–people who are not doctors. As a result of the manufactured controversy, doctors and nurses at Woodside Hospice were victims of death threats and assault, and when a judge backed up Michael Schiavo’s request that his wife’s feeding tube be removed, someone threatened to take over a local school and kill one child every ten minutes until the tube was reinserted.

Where does this come from? While America has always had her kooks and crazies, Pierce notices that it was only after 9/11 that we let them move from the fringe to the main stream:

A confrontation with medievalism intensified a distressing patience with medievalism in response and that patience reached beyond the politics of war and peace and accelerated a momentum in the culture away from the values of the Enlightenment and toward a dangerous denial of the consequences of believing in nonsense. (6)

If the trauma of 9/11 contributed to a national desire for the “potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity” (109), I can think of a few enabling factors. One is consumerism: we’ve come to expect to be able to choose the most comfortable and self-affirming products from the marketplace, including the marketplace of ideas. Another is our individual isolation, increasing since the 1950’s with the growth of the suburbs and the ascendance of national culture (television, rock and roll) over the local, and other factors which collectively mean we no longer have to run into people we disagree with.

So what is the answer? America was born out of Enlightenment rationalism (our Declaration of Independence is essentially a long, well-reasoned argument) and Pierce thinks we need to get back to those roots. But the kooks and cranks can stay, since they have the virtue or making reasonable people question their beliefs. In fact, in times like these “we need our cranks more than ever,” Pierce argues, “but we need them in their proper places” ( 285).

See also:

  1. Similar to Stephen Colbert’s famous concept of “truthiness”, the idea that if you feel something to be true, then that’s enough to count it as such, regardless of whatever the real truth may be.