Review by Robert R. Thomas
Reading a book by its cover is dicey business, but a cover can be enticing, both the graphic design and the title and typography. Such was the case with Charles P. Pierce’s IDIOT AMERICA How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. George Washington, sword drawn, seated on an English saddle with no horn astride a green dinosaur caused me to pick up the book.
Pierce, a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine, published his skewering of American idiocy in 2009. The book became a best seller. His perspective remains prescient as we enter our first year in the post-truth age where there are no facts; only bull roar and belief, which are often one and the same as Pierce’s book postulates.
Pierce opens with the saddled green dinosaurs of the Creation Museum depicted on the cover. Located outside Hebron, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the museum was founded by an Australian named Ken Ham, also the founder of Answers in Genesis, for whom the museum is the headquarters. Here creationism rules and science loses.
“We,” said Ham, “are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists.” And where he took them, according to his Answers in Genesis, was the ark.
Two triceratops aboard a midget ark with the rest of all God’s critters? Dinosaurs with saddles?
“Welcome to Idiot America,” writes Pierce. “The title of this book very nearly was Blinking from the Ruins, and it very nearly was merely a tour of the extraordinary way America has gone marching backward into the twenty-first century.”
“The rise of Idiot America today,” says Pierce, “reflects—for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.”
This war on expertise is exemplified by a pastor named Ray Mummert saying, “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture.”
The war is also exemplified by a front page newspaper account of the intelligent design movement:
“They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”
Pierce decries this deception for the foolishness it is. It “makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly; none of them can.” The only news here, states Pierce, is that it appeared on the front page of the New York Times, August 21, 2005.
Aided and abetted by the mainstream media, particularly television, the war on expertise is central to the rise of Pierce’s Idiot America.
“Once you’re on television, you become an expert, with or without expertise, because you are speaking to the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who’s ever tossed a golf club, or kicked a lawn mower knows,” says Pearce. “Intellect is pitted against feeling.”
The Gut becomes the basis for what Pierce calls the Three Great Premises of Idiot America.
The First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
The Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
The Third Great Premise: Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
It is this Third Premise where religious idiocy enters the equation, according to Pierce, as a place “where, often, commercial idiocy and political idiocy came together to be purified, sanctified and altogether immunized against the ridicule they all so richly deserved.”
For companions on his journey through these three Great Premises, Pierce selects founding father James Madison and Ignatius Donnelly, a perfect American crank.
Pierce has great affection for cranks and their part in American counterhistory. “Let us be clear,” Pierce says. “This is still the best country ever in which to peddle complete lunacy.” But he adds, “It is wrong to believe that our abiding appetite for counterhistory simply makes us a nation of suckers who will fall for anything. Sometimes, that appetite makes us a harder people to fool. It’s meant to operate parallel with the actual country and to influence it, but subtly, the way a planet, say, might influence the orbit of a comet. It’s meant to subvert, but not to rule.”
Born to a doctor and a pawnbroker in Philadelphia, Ignatius Donnelly was a dreamer who read so much he had several incarnations including politics with both major parties; farming; founding a town; and writing a book about rediscovering Atlantis that went through 23 printings. Pierce sums up Donnelly:
“He read so much that he found a code in Shakespeare’s plays proving that their author was Francis Bacon. His endless, grinding research was thorough, careful, and absolutely wrong. ‘It is so oftentimes in this world,’ he lamented in his diary in 1881, ‘that it is not the philosophy that is at fault, but the facts.’ They called him the Prince of Cranks. The beauty of the crank, Pierce points out, is that he must always live where the wild imagination exists.“The crank,” says Pierce, “lives in a place of undomesticated ideas, where the dinosaurs do not wear saddles.”
Madison was suspicious of the moronism and power of the Gut. “All he hoped,” states Pierce, “was that the people in that society could educate themselves sufficiently to distinguish between the good ideas and the transparently crazy ones, and engage with one another well enough to use the best parts of the latter to improve the former.”
Madison and Donnelly are the ideal sidekicks for Pierce’s romp through creationism, intelligent design, the Templars convening for coffee twice a month in the basement of the United Nations building, and the virtual carnivals of television and talk radio presiding as experts simply because they have loud soapboxes.
Pierce can dish with the best when it comes to dueling with American counterhistory and lunatics running the asylum. His detailed reportage of the authorized Florida torture of Terry Schiavo perpetrated by religion and government is a shameful reminder of man’s authorized inhumanity to humanity. Ruling by nonsense is often dangerous, as Pearce’s example here demonstrates.
The author is transparent about his political perspective: “If this book seems to concentrate on the doings of the modern American right, that’s because it was the modern American right that consciously adopted irrationality as a tactic, and succeeded very well.”
His chapter on the intertwining of religion, science and law in a secular society is aided by Madison’s guidance: “When indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm,” he wrote, “its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude.”
“It is not an accident,” says Pierce, “that Mr. Madison listed religion first among the sources of dangerous faction. He looked on religious activity in the political sphere the way most people would look on a cobra in the sock drawer.”
The global warming “debate” in Idiot America over the very existence of global warming is still taking place in the Gut, according to Pierce. “The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUVs. It’s less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank or collecting contributions for your campaign from the oil companies.”
The global war on terror, the aftermath of 9-11, waltzed us into the catastrophe in Iraq, says Pearce.
“The war was Idiot America’s purest product,” he writes. “It was the apotheosis of the Three Great Premises. People believed what they were sold, not what they saw. Through millions of individual decisions, through the abandonment of self-government, through the conscious and unconscious abandonment of the obligations of citizenship, it had been declared by Idiot America.”
The Gut, as Madison had feared, overcame intellect. Feelings overcame the citizen’s exercise of critical thinking skills.
The book’s Afterword to the Anchor Books Edition opens with a quote from politician, author, American crank Ignatius Donnelly: “I believe I am right. Or, if not, at least plausible.”
Pierce concludes his tour of Idiot America with:
“This is still the best country ever devised in which to be completely out of your mind, and we are free to believe in nonsense. We are free to act on nonsense. We are free to stand aside and let our fellow citizens who believe in nonsense take up the task of self-government that we are too busy, or too lazy, or too distracted to take up ourselves. What we cannot do is walk away from the consequences of believing nonsense.”
Reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.