Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free
By Charles P. Pierce
Doubleday 2009, 293 pp.
If you’ve ever wondered how the right wing has been so successful at manufacturing perceived truths, Charles P. Pierce’s new book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free” is a must read.
The old saying, “It would be funny if it wasn’t true,” applies perfectly to the ideas discussed in this book. Some parts of “Idiot America” made me want to laugh out loud, while others made me cringe and wonder how so many people can be so fooled so often by craziness.
For example, Pierce starts off the book with a story about a trip to a Tennessee amusement park called Creation Museum where statue dinosaurs wear saddles and wait patiently in line as Noah herds them into the Ark. Park-goers fork out almost $150 per-head to hear sermons about how “dinosaurs co-existed with humans (hence the saddles)…”
Ken Ham, the park’s mastermind and founder of an organization called Answers in Genesis, tells participants, “We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!”
According to Pierce, right-wing nuts (Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, et al) gain their credibility by adhering to “The Three Great Premises.”
“The First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it sells enough books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units,” writes Pierce. “The crank then becomes simply someone with another product to sell within the unimaginative parameters of the marketplace; his views are just another impulse buy, like the potato chips near the cash register.”
Hence, Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is a commercial success where hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of kids are brought by their parents, schools and churches to be indoctrinated, challenging a whole generation to disbelieve established scientific fact, evolution.
“The Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.” Again, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage come to mind. How many times have they hammered away, yelling and interrupting condescendingly as guests sincerely try to make points and honestly provide answers to complex questions? This is their method. They thrive off of anger and cynicism. And rile people up without providing answers to anything.
“Idiocy can come to the nation wholly and at once and, because idiocy is almost always good television,” writes Pierce, “it can remain a viable product long after the available evidence and common sense has revealed it to be what it is.” Idiocy!
Even worse, “Get your ideas on television – or, even better, onto its precocious great-grand child, the Internet, where television’s automatic validation of an idea can be instant and vast – and it will circulate forever, invulnerable and undying. The ideas will exist in the air,” writes Peirce. “They will be ‘out there,’ and therefore they will be real, no matter what reality itself may be.”
“The Third Great Premise: Fact is that which enough people believe,” writes Pierce. “Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.”
“Under The Third Great Premise, respect for the effort required to develop and promulgate nonsense somehow bleeds into a respect that validates the nonsense itself,” writes Pierce.
To illustrate his point, Pierce cites Daniel Patrick Moynihan in writing about the J.F.K. assassination. Moynihan wrote, “a solid 70 percent of the American people did not believe the the conclusion of the Warren Commission…This percentage has not changed substantially since…the commission first published its findings” in the 1960’s.
However, “the revelation of an actual conspiracy – the Iran-Contra matter, say – has come to have a rather deadening effect on American politics and culture,” writes Pierce. Unfortunately, Pierce continues, “then the whole thing just dies in banality…” it is “commonplace and boring.” It’s not exciting. It doesn’t sell. It isn’t believed fervently.
“Iran-Contra should have immunized the American public forever against wishful fact-free adventurism…,” writes Pierce.
Ultimately though, nonsense promulgated by pundits, politicians and presidents alike (President Bush anyone? Weapons of mass destruction? Iraq?) continues to impact the body-politic.
How many times have we heard the tea-baggers, militias and racists – all funded by right-wing health care industry lobbyists – yell at the top of their lungs: President Obama wants to kill my grandma. A health care public option will create rationing. Etc. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. Glenn Beck believes it. A lot of people watch Glenn Beck. He moves units, therefore he must know what he’s talking about. Additionally, he’s loud and yells a lot. And he works hard spreading nonsense. He believes fervently in his nonsense, therefore, according to The Great Premises, it must be true.
Is this what right-wing political discourse has come down to? It’s an insult to the American people!
While “Idiot America” is generally a good, hilarious and scary book, outlining how the right wing has claimed the sound-bite in the war on ideas, Pierce seems to have too little faith in the American people. His only shortcoming is in not acknowledging two simple facts: First, ordinary people don’t expect to be lied to every time they turn on the TV, read the paper, or check their favorite websites. Second, most Americans – working two, three jobs, taking care of the kids, the mortgage, etc. – don’t have the time to really investigate and challenge the daily dose of nonsense being spoon-fed to them.
Nonetheless, “Idiot America” is an important contribution.