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Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free [Kindle Edition]

Charles P. Pierce
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (262 customer reviews)

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Book Description


The three Great Premises of Idiot America:
· Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
· Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
· Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it

With his trademark wit and insight, veteran journalist Charles Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.
Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate. But his thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated. Erudite and razor-sharp, Idiot America is at once an invigorating history lesson, a cutting cultural critique, and a bullish appeal to our smarter selves.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews Review

Book Description
The Culture Wars Are Over and the Idiots Have Won.

A veteran journalist's acidically funny, righteously angry lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.

In the midst of a career-long quest to separate the smart from the pap, Charles Pierce had a defining moment at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where he observed a dinosaur. Wearing a saddle... But worse than this was when the proprietor exclaimed to a cheering crowd, “We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!” He knew then and there it was time to try and salvage the Land of the Enlightened, buried somewhere in this new Home of the Uninformed.

With his razor-sharp wit and erudite reasoning, Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States, and how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate.

With Idiot America, Pierce's thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated.

A Q&A with Charles P. Pierce

Question: What inspired, or should I say drove, you to write Idiot America?
Charles P. Pierce: The germ of the idea came as I watched the extended coverage of the death of Terri Schiavo. I wondered how so many people could ally themselves with so much foolishness despite the fact that it was doing them no perceptible good, politically or otherwise. And it looked like the national media simply could not help itself but be swept along. This started me thinking and, when I read a clip in the New York Times about the Creation Museum, I pitched an idea to Mark Warren, my editor at Esquire, that said simply, “Dinosaurs with saddles.” What we determined the theme of the eventual piece—and of the book—would be was “The Consequences Of Believing Nonsense.”

Question: You visited the Creation Museum while writing Idiot America. Describe your experience there. What was your first thought when you saw a dinosaur with a saddle on its back?
Charles P. Pierce: My first thought was that it was hilarious. My second thought was that I was the only person in the place who thought it was, which made me both angry and a little melancholy. Outside of the fact that its “science” is a god-awful parodic stew of paleontology, geology, and epistemology, all of them wholly detached from the actual intellectual method of each of them. The most disappointing thing is that the completed museum is so dreadfully grim and earnest and boring. It even makes dragon myths servant to its fringe biblical interpretations. Who wants to live in a world where dragons are boring?

Question: Is there a specific turning point where, as a country, we moved away from prizing experience to trusting the gut over intellect?
Charles P. Pierce: I don't know if there's one point that you can point to and say, “This is when it happened.” The conflict between intellectual expertise and reflexive emotion—often characterized as “good old common sense,” when it is neither common nor sense—has been endemic to American culture and politics since the beginning. I do think that my profession, journalism, went off the tracks when it accepted as axiomatic the notion that “Perception is reality.” No. Perception is perception and reality is reality, and if the former doesn't conform to the latter, then it’s the journalist's job to hammer and hammer the reality until the perception conforms to it. That's how “intelligent design” gets treated as “science” simply because a lot of people believe in it.

Question: You delve into Ignatius Donnelly’s life story. In 1880, he published the book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in an attempt to prove that the lost city existed. Yet, you characterize Donnelly as a lovable crank, and don’t take issue with him as you do with modern eccentrics, like Rush Limbaugh. What’s the difference between a harmless crank and a crank in Idiot America?
Charles P. Pierce: Cranks are noble because cranks are independent. Cranks do not care if their ideas succeed—they'd like them to do so—but cranks stand apart. Their value comes when, occasionally, their lonely dissents from the commonplace affect the culture, at which point either the culture moves to adopt them and their ideas come to influence the culture. The American crank is not someone with 600 radio stations spewing bilious canards to an audience of “dittoheads.” The concept of a “dittohead” is anathema to the American crank. He is a freethinker addressing an audience of them, whether that audience is made up of one person or a thousand. A charlatan is a crank who sells out.

Question: What is the most dangerous aspect of Idiot America?
Charles P. Pierce: The most dangerous aspect of Idiot America is that it encourages us to abandon our birthright to be informed citizens of a self-governing republic. America cannot function on automatic pilot, and, too often, we don't notice that it has been until the damage has already been done.

Question: Is there a voice or leader of Idiot America?
Charles P. Pierce: The leaders of Idiot America are those people who abandoned their obligations to the above. There are lots of people making an awful lot of money selling their ideas and their wares to Idiot America. Idiot America is an act of collective will, a product of lassitude and sloth.

Question: What is the difference between stupidity and glorifying ignorance?
Charles P. Pierce: Stupidity is as stupidity does, to quote a uniquely stupid movie. It has been with us always and always will be. But we moved into an era in which stupidity was celebrated if it managed to sell itself well, if it succeeded, if it made people money. That is “glorifying ignorance.” We moved into an era in which the reflexive instincts of the Gut were celebrated at the expense of reasoned, informed opinion. To this day, we have a political party—the Republicans—who, because it embraced a “movement of Conservatism” that celebrated anti-intellectualism is now incapable of conducting itself in any other way. That has profound political and cultural consequences, and the truly foul part about it was that so many people engaged in it knowing full well they were peddling poison.

Question: While writing Idiot America, what story or incident made you the most incensed?
Charles P. Pierce: Without question, it was talking to the people at Woodside Hospice, who shared with me what it was like to be inside the whirlwind stirred up by people who used the prolonged death of Terri Schiavo as a political and social volleyball to advance their own unpopular and reckless agenda. There are people—Sean Hannity comes to mind—who, if there is a just god in heaven, should be locked in a room for 20 minutes with Annie Santa Maria, the indomitable woman who works with the patients at the hospice. Only one of them would come out, and it wouldn't be him.

Question: With the election of President Obama, is Idiot America coming to an end? Or, will there always be a place for idiocy in America?
Charles P. Pierce: Look at the political opposition to President Obama. “Socialist!” “Fascist!” “Coming to get your guns.” Hysteria from the hucksters of Idiot America is still at high-tide. People are killing other people and specifically attributing their action to imaginary oppression stoked by radio talk-show stars and television pundits. That Glenn Beck has achieved the prominence he has makes me wonder if there is a just god in heaven.

Question: Are there any positive signs that we are moving away from Idiot America? If you could create a twelve step program to America back on track, what would be your first suggestion?
Charles P. Pierce: Remember that perception is not reality, that opinion, no matter how widely held, is not fact. An old and wise friend of mine said that the only question that any American citizen is required to answer is “Do you govern or are you governed?” It has to be answered in the former, and that answer has to be continuous. We have to get back to that.

(Photo © Brendan Doris Pierce, 2008)

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist Pierce delivers a rapier-sharp rant on how the America of Franklin and Edison, Fulton and Ford has devolved into America the Uninformed, where citizens hostile to science are exchanging fact for fiction, and faith for reason, and glutting themselves on reality TV and conspiracy theories. Pierce makes no apologies for his liberal bias, and some conservatives—notably evolution opponents and Rush Limbaugh—endure a good deal of bashing. Pierce writes that in the U.S., Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it. He supports his thesis with references to James Madison and other founding fathers, who may have foreseen and rued the emergence of cranks who would threaten the Enlightenment-based nation they were shaping. Although the book is not likely to win any converts from the right wing Pierce so energetically decries, it is an engaging catalogue of those unscientifically verified truths that enthrall and impassion millions of Americans. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 419 KB
  • Print Length: 306 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0767926145
  • Publisher: Anchor (June 2, 2009)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002BH5HTY
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,926 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
808 of 865 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's True: We See This Everyday July 2, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Idiot America" is great, informative book about concepts we see everyday. Also, many of the 1-star reviews are likely biased because of some of the political and religious topics noted. I think this book is definitely a full, 5-star book.

The Following comments aren't meant to be particularly negative towards the United States and the concepts in this book aren't exclusive to the USA. The concepts in "idiot America" exist all over the entire world. "Idiot America" is a superbly covered account of something that's very prevalent in the US.

Charles Pierce provides the history of "cranks" (con artists and showmen) from the founding of the nation to current examples today in contemporary America. I focused on TV and Radio because of it's widespread impact on the populace today (even in the age of the growing Internet, which is becoming dominant). Much of TV and Talk Radio promote misinformation based on emotion, histrionics, shock, being loud, and over-the-top attempts to get ratings.

The author notes "The 3 Great Premises: and applies them to many instances in this book:

1. Any theory is valid if it moves units (rating, and making money).
2. Anything can be true if it is said loudly enough.
3. Fact is what enough people believe (the Truth is what you believe).

There are many examples in this book. Here are just a few:

The NAFTA Superhighway, that never was:

Even in the year 2003, a completely false rumor can end up being debated by Congressman, and end up on Lou Dobb's TV show. In 2003, the Texas legislature approved the the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) to improve road and rail lines to facilitate the movement of good within the state of Texas.
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606 of 657 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read, but the people who should won't June 19, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Well, wouldja look at that. As I write this, six one-star reviews, all saying exactly the same thing and missing the point in the process -- whining about how the book focuses on conservative US politics and whining about bias, while completely failing to understand how they prove the book's point.

There are a few things that irk me about this book -- the near-exclusive focus on US conservatism is necessary to this book's theme, but the author would be well-served to look into things like the alternative medicine movement, which suffers from many of the same problems. (And would it have killed Pierce to include an index? I've said this in other reviews -- political books need indexes because without them it makes them look like they're trying to railroad the reader.) But to someone willing to take the time to read it, this book tells people what practically everyone should know about American politics -- that the American people are being sold a sob story about how experts are an elite that is keeping them from being The Best Damn Nation In The World. (In that regard, one should definitely read "The Paranoid Style In American Politics" by Richard Hofstadter -- it's over four decades old, but saw from the very beginning what has come into full bloom now with the barking lunacy of the American Right.)

Pierce covers much territory -- he starts with the Creation Museum in Kentucky, then moves on into the 19th century crank Ignatius Donnelly and his popularization of Atlantis, and from there it's off to the races. The most painfully harrowing sections are those dealing with the Kitzmiller trial in Dover, PA, where a town drew up sides over good science vs.
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466 of 524 people found the following review helpful
Charles Pierce has long been a target of the same conservative spammers and sockpuppets that make reading the comments sections of most blogs and news websites such a display of witlessess. These same persons are on a drive to wreck sales for his book by downrating it even though they have never read it and never will.

The reason for their enmity is obvious: Much as the late David Postman did with his book Amused to Death, Mr. Pierce draws accurate and deadly aim at the forces that have led to the devaluing of intelligence and learning in America. The main difference is that while Postman didn't explicitly ascribe an ideological cause or specific ideological actors for this general dumbing-down, Pierce does. He lays the blame at the feet of various ideology-driven entities, with special attention given to the same corporate-media war cheerleaders who happily passed on Bush's lies about Iraqi weaponry to a somnolent public, and who, in the name of putting "balance" over reality, treat specious creationist nonsense and hard scientific fact as if both had equal validity. Highly recommended!
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159 of 183 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great ideas, bad organization June 12, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are several excellent observations running around in Idiot America. In particular, the Three Great Premises of Idiot America are an excellent and concise way to refer to the underlying process that legitimizes stupidity in America today. Idiot America is worth reading.

Unfortunately, Idiot America is not without flaws. At several points in the book Pierce discusses what the book "was going to be," and it is mentioned that the book arises from several different pieces of work that Pierce has produced over the years. The organization and flow of the book back those claims up to the hilt: we are presented with a pastiche of ideas and points in history that are not sufficiently stitched together to make a compelling extended argument.

The ideas of Idiot America hold great promise but, like many of the complicated ideas discusses in the book, they simply aren't communicated well enough. The editor of the work should have told Pierce to pick his hypotheses (the Gut, the Premises, crank versus idiot) and state those hypotheses clearly and organize the book around them, using his evidence and research to support his ideas.

Idiot America reads as if Pierce took a bunch of blogs and articles and threw them together, adding Madison musings at random intervals.

Read it, but don't expect too much more than what you can glean from reading the synopses that some have included in their reviews.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Basic idea is good
I've only made it through a third of the book, and there it's now been sitting, for many months. His premise is certainly valid, and points well made. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Mary Ann
4.0 out of 5 stars Confirms what I already knew.
Could have been more in depth about other issues. If you have the critical thinking skills most people lack, you will enjoy this book. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Terry M.
5.0 out of 5 stars hilarious and knowledgeable
Surprisingly enough, author Charles P. Pierce comes to praise cranks, not to bury them -- at least, the good old-fashioned type of cranks. Read more
Published 20 days ago by Miss Ivonne
3.0 out of 5 stars Not What I Expected
I really tried to like this book. My difficulty may have been that I listened to it on Audible and maybe it’s one of those books that just does not translate well to an oral... Read more
Published 21 days ago by Dear Prudence
4.0 out of 5 stars Should have obvious typos on the cover of this book to reinforce its...
Should have obvious typos on the cover of this book to reinforce its point. I like his article about Justina Pelletier in Esquire.

Published 24 days ago by Mike Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars An Open Letter to the Author
Dear Mr. Pierce:

In referring to former president George W. Bush you wrote, "People told him he sounded like Churchill when, in fact, he sounded like Churchill's... Read more
Published 25 days ago by L. Safhay
5.0 out of 5 stars all too true
And very disconcerting. How did America get stupid in my lifetime? Mr. Pierce knows all the ways. And if you like this try 'Losing the News' by Alex Jones (not the awful radio... Read more
Published 1 month ago by richardvjohnson
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading
A Masterpiece that should be required reading for anyone wanting to register to vote and in every high school civics class. I've always been an admirer of James Madison. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dan
1.0 out of 5 stars Stop whining!
It shouldn't matter to a book review, but since I'm not a professional reviewer I think it's important to preface a review of a book such as this by saying the following: I am a... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Benny Bobo
5.0 out of 5 stars Charlie is as clever as I expected
Having enjoyed Charlie Pierce on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" for years, I had been meaning to get this book. I can't hear his infectious laugh, but his wit comes thru.
Published 2 months ago by Debra Golden-Davis
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More About the Author

Charles P. Pierce is a writer at large for Esquire, where he also writea a daily on-line political blog, and is a staff writer for the on-line sports magazine Grantland.

He was born December 28, 1953 in Worcester, MA. Six months earlier, his mother hid in the basement as a massive tornado leveled his future hometown of Shrewsbury, MA The effect of prenatal imprinting is still being debated in medical circles, but a connection does not seem implausible.

He is a 1975 graduate of Marquette University, where he majored in journalism and brewery tours. He was delighted to combine his vocation and his avocation once again when he returned to Milwaukee to cover the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer.

He attended graduate school at Boston College for two days. He is a former forest ranger for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and still ponders the question of what possesses people to go into the woods and throw disposable diapers up into trees.

He began his journalism career writing bowling agate for the Milwaukee papers, and remains justly proud of his ability to spell multi-syllabic, vowel-free Eastern European names. He has written for the alternative press, including Worcester Magazine and the Boston Phoenix, and was a sports columnist for The Boston Herald. He was a feature writer and columnist for the late, lamented sports daily, The National. He has been a writer-at-large for a men's fashion magazine, and his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Times Magazine, the Nation, the Atlantic and The Chicago Tribune, among others. Although he is no longer a contributor, he remains a devoted reader. He is a frequent contributor to to Eric Alterman's Altercation, the American Prospect and Slate. Charlie appears weekly on National Public Radio's sports program Only A Game and The Srephanie Miller Show, and is a regular panelist on NPR's game show, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me. Since July 1997 he has been a writer at large at Esquire, covering everything from John McCain to the Hubble telescope, with more than a few shooting stars thrown in between. From 2002 to 2011 he was a Boston Globe Sunday Magazine staff writer and columnist, where he wrote political and general interest features as well as "Pierced, a weekly column.

Charles Pierce is the recipient of numerous professional awards and honors. On several occasions, he was named a finalist for the Associated Press Sports Editor's award for best column writing, and it has been suggested that if only he would wear a tie, they might have let him win. He was a 1996 National Magazine Award finalist for his piece on Alzheimer's disease "In the Country of My Disease," and has expanded the piece into a book Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer's Story for Random House. In 2004, he won a National Headliners Award for his Globe Magazine piece, "Deconstructing Ted". Depending on which year this is, Charlie Pierce has appeared in Best American Sportswriting more times than any other writer, or has tied with Roger Angell for most appearances in Best American Sportswriting, or is sulking in second place and plotting to regain the top spot soon, or has fallen plumb off the court. Charlie's sportswriting has been anthologized in Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He was awarded third place in the PBWAA Dan S. Blumenthal Memorial Writing Contest. When he won Phone Jeopardy, Alex Trebek sent him a plaque.

Charles Pierce lives in metro Boston with at least some of his three children all of the time, the rusted remains of a malfunctioning Toro lawnmower and his extremely long-suffering wife.


Topic From this Discussion
Americans will read The Fountainhead but not this...
It seems more common for people to read that which bolsters their own viewpoint rather than something that might make them think. That would explain the numbers of books by Beck and company being sold for one thing.

The only term I have been able to use that seems to explain it to myself is... Read more
Dec 27, 2009 by James Pfeiffer |  See all 4 posts
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