Saturday, September 25, 2010

Idiocy and the Twilight of American Culture

Last week I had my students read an excerpt out of Charles Pierce’s Idiot America as one of the six readings assigned for the unit on critical thinking. Scathing in his critique, Pierce begins his rant with a discussion of the Creation Museum in Ohio where a literalist approach to Genesis has led religious believers to create models of dinosaurs with saddles on them, a striking statement that dinosaurs cohabited the earth with human beings since everything was created in six 24 hour days of creation. Pierce concludes that discussion with this litany:

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.

What Pierce is driving at is the willingness of Americans to buy into ridiculous ideas which cannot be supported or defended with reason or evidence but are held as indisputable truth nonetheless in the face of that reality. Indeed, given the tendency among many true believers to fancy themselves martyrs when their unsupportable assertions are held up to ridicule, confusing ego for principle, it’s precisely the least defensible of assertions that become litmus tests among the faithful.

Pierce lays out his case for Idiot America in three major premises:

• First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough

• Third Great premise: Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

When I first read Idiot America, my mood ranged from irritation with his thinly veiled sarcasm – if not condescension - at so many points to elation that someone was finally calling Americans on their crap to despair in the realization of how poorly this bodes for the future of our nation. In all fairness, Pierce is not a doomsayer. He concludes his second chapter, entitled “The War on Expertise,” with this statement:

There is still hope for any country that remains as easy to love as this one, in no small part because this is still the best country ever in which to be a public crank. The United States is an easy country to love because you can take it on faith that, at some point in every waking hour of the day, there is among your fellow citizens a vast exaltation of opinions that test the outer boundaries of the Crazoid.

But Pierce is also clear that such testing never occurs without effort:

We will have to sort ourselves out again here in America. We will have to put things back on the right shelves. We will have to remember where our cranks belong in our national life, so that they can resume their proper roles as lonely guardians of the frontiers of the national imagination, prodding and pushing, getting us to think about things in new ways, but also knowing that their place is of necessity a lonely and humble one. There is nothing wrong with a country that has people who put saddles
on their dinosaurs. It's a wonderful show and we should watch them and applaud. We have no obligation to climb aboard and ride.

This is where I begin to get nervous. In another article I have my students read entitled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification,” a scholarly paper authored by a team of social scientists at institutions across the country seek to explain essentially why we believe lies. The team focused on the understandings of Americans polled just before the 2004 election in which voters reported that the US had invaded Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9-11 attacks. Were that true, it could be at least a defensible reason for having entered into this costly, destructive and ultimately pointless invasion and occupation.

Problem is, it was never true. While it could be argued that George Bush misled the people prior to the invasion as a means of garnering support for his foregone conclusion to invade, even he has admitted publicly that Iraq simply wasn’t involved in 9-11, adding his affirmation to the flood of news stories which had already reported the same thing. Even so, a majority of Americans held fast to that understanding in the face of fact to the contrary, choosing to lie to ourselves rather than admit we were wrong. And many cast their ballots for Bush on that basis.

This is the turbulent soup of 21st CE American politics. As Pierce notes, we live in an age where media seeks to boost ratings through sensationalism, where voters opt for entertainment over information and where truth is seen as the product of popularity of an idea, no matter how crazy, if it sells merchandise, is shouted long enough and loud enough and if people believe it fervently enough, regardless of its intrinsic credibility.

It is an age where diffuse anger congeals in Tea Parties where wacko fundamentalists of both religious and libertarian varieties are nominated for office and where voters appear ready to return to power the party who has brought them financial ruin and international shame.

Perhaps Pierce sees something I’m missing.

Pierce’s argument was brought home to me this week by two unrelated events that hammered home the Idiot America point he is making. The first came from a Pew Research survey in which American perceptions of the religion of the president are discussed. Obama, an adult convert to the United Church of Christ, has long noted his Christian faith citing it in his speeches and his writing. While his middle name is Hussein, a name given him by his Kenyan father who abandoned him and his mother when he was just three years old, Obama was drawn to African-American churches during his work with black churches as a community organizer and he was baptized in 1988.

Unlike those who simply inherit their parents’ religion (and often have no clue why they believe it other than their parents said so and thus get violently confrontational when questioned about their faith), adult converts are true believers. They can actually tell you what they believe and why. If you listen to Obama talk about his faith and how it shapes his approach to the world, there is little doubt about his religion.

Now these are the facts. But apparently facts are not sufficient for many Americans. The Pew survey found that the percentage of Americans capable of recognizing these facts has dropped to 34% in the Aug. 2010 polling. Another 18% report seeing him as Muslim and 43% of Americans say they don’t know what his religion is.

What’s not to know? In America, if we want to know what religion someone holds, we simply ask them. We have always presumed in this Protestant ethic country that the individual speaks for him or herself on such matters. And yet, when the president says he is Christian, two thirds of the country reports they won’t believe him. Why not? And why should such responses be taken seriously given the facts?

Moreover, the survey found that how people respond to the religion question turns on their perceptions of his job performance. Of those who approve of his presidency nearly 2/3 correctly report him to be Christian while among those who do not approve the same number inaccurately report him to be Muslim despite the facts to the contrary. As Pierce notes, even ludicrous ideas can become irrefutable truths if believed fervently enough.

This week, some of my honors students presented a power point in class using a graphic of President Obama with the title “Osama Obama.” Not only does such usage attempt to tie the president to Islam – a potentially dangerous connection in an increasingly Islamophobic culture like our own – but moreover it ties him specifically to the leader of the Muslim extremist group who has taken responsibility for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. When I asked the students why they chose the graphic, they said it was just an illustration. Of course, that was a disingenuous response, as they knew and everyone else in the classroom did as well. As always, dishonesty with oneself is the beginning place for dishonesty with others.

As I watch the maximum amount of rancourous television discussion of the elections I can stomach (which, admittedly, on most days is not too much), I find myself getting increasingly apprehensive about the future of my country. As Pierce notes, it’s not that Americans are incapable of “sort(ing) things out…[and] remember(ing) where our cranks belong in our national life,” it’s that we seem increasingly unlikely to do so. Indeed, more and more it appears to me that America no longer sees itself as a single people nor does it see such a vision as desirable.

Abraham Lincoln saw the danger in that thinking 150 years ago when he quoted remarks attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Some of the other writers I assign my students to read take that prognostication one step further in predicting that a nation of self-focused, distracted and largely disconnected Americans is headed for a “dark age” (Maggie Jackson, Distracted)  a decline into The Twilight of American Culture (Morris Berman).

I came home sick from school yesterday at the end of my last class and collapsed onto the couch. The evening’s fare of everything from PBS to Fox left me in near despair. I wish I could be more hopeful about America’s future. I’d like to believe it’s just the lingering effects of the flu that are painting my perspective so gray this morning. But a nation where idiots dominate the public discourse, where the honors student representatives of an entire generation report they are disinterested in politics thus leaving it to the idiots is enough to keep thoughtful people up at night. I simply do not see how a country marked by an ongoing paralysis of policy in a system controlled by corporate moneys with a media which confuses entertainment for information can sustain itself. I desperately hope I am wrong.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

E.M. said...

I remember reading Pierce when I took HUM 2020 last year and I still believe his assertions valid, even though his rancor is sometimes obnoxious. Your class made me think about what it means to be human, but if I use the mainstream media as a litmus test of my contemporaries I'm certain my confidence will decay quickly. I share your disdain with the “public cranks,” soaking up all the airtime and I hope the tide changes but I am fearful it won’t. Being human, at least in modern America, seems to mean “sell or be sold,” a relationship between consumer and seller. Ideology is marketable (look at all the wonderful bumper stickers Central Florida sports), reducing discourse to slogans. Is political or social derision even possible without a business model nowadays; pushed to the margins and drowned out by louder, more powerful voice?

I just read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and many of the political dissidents’ tactics she discusses seem irrelevant now. Groups like Critical Mass still exist, but instead of leading to bigger and more impactful messages, these groups are fashion shows, self contained and not working towards a larger goal. For Klein, the power of the masses resides in buying power, not political action. If I want to illicit change I have to organize against Nike, McDonalds, and other multi-nations. It makes me think of a book Dr. DiBernardo had I read called Deconstructing Popular Culture, where political actions (especially protests) are nothing more than “street fetish.” The book’s author, Bowman, argues that protesting hasn’t changed political decisions in a long time, reducible it to nothing more than egoism. Yet the Tea Parties are gaining momentum and could potentially usher in change, but for the wrong reasons. Neil Postman states in Technolopy that the losers (regular people) often cheer the winners (those with power) and isn’t this basically the unspoken mantra of the Tea Party movement - arguing for the status quo, which isn’t in the best interest of Americans?

On his latest CD, comedian David Cross asserts, “Americans have long, rich tradition of voting against their best interests,” and I’m beginning to think he’s right. I personally believe Cross is a little arrogant but he makes a valid point. Unlike the workers fighting for basic labor rights in the Zinn excerpts I read in your class, the “cranks” getting airtime are fighting for those who exploit them. If this is the road we’re in trouble.

Great post. =)