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Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free Paperback – May 4, 2010
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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)--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
More About the Author
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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!
Our country was founded during the Age of Enlightenment by the likes of James Madison, to whom Pierce pays repeated attention. He discusses events and issues that show clearly how the Enlightment's premise, that democratic self-government requires an educated citizenry, no longer holds sway in America. Pierce demonstrates how scorn for expertise, intelligence and education has led to recent myths such as the Dover, PA court case over "intelligent design", the lies about weapons of mass destruction, and Terri Schiavo's ability to recover from her vegetative state.
Pierce lays out three great premises that have overtaken respect for facts and truth. Those are listed in other reviews; I won't repeat them. Where the book falls short, in my opinion, is in offering a prescription for how the "intelligent and educated segment" may reach out effectively to the "other America" to restore a more universal respect for actual facts and how to determine whether a proposition is true. But Pierce is certainly provocative. Perhaps those younger and wiser than I, e.g., Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart, will hear him and bring forth the imagination, drive and reasonableness to counter America's descent into idiocy. Otherwise, the future looks frightening, and the Age of Enlightenment is truly history.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Fantastic read. So relevant today, even more so than when it was originally written. Thank god for Chuck Pierce. He makes us all smarter.Published 2 months ago by Hamilton Ray
People who believe their mass media "journalism" and their governments every word about every event from the Kennedy assassination to the Sandy Hook DHS drill gone... Read morePublished 3 months ago by TRUTH HURTS
I learned a lot from listening to the audio version of this book. Amazing how the US has gone backwards in science and away from using fact and reason to make decisions.Published 3 months ago by Zozobra