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

Charles P. Pierce
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (271 customer reviews)


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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.

Review

“A raucous rant against the armies of the right. . . . Pierce is at his scathing, insightful best.”
The Boston Globe
 
“A lively and, dare I say, intelligent study of the ongoing assault on gray matter.”
—Stephen Amidon, The New York Observer
 
“[A] witty and pointed indictment of our nation’s disturbing ability to vilify smart people and elevate chowderheads to positions of power and influence.”
The Salt Lake Tribune

“For a good (if painful) laugh about creationism and other bits of American lunacy, try Charles Pierce’s Idiot America. It’s a funny, sly version of an argument made recently by Al Gore in The Assault on Reason, and by the brilliant Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason.”
—John A. Farrell, USNews.com
 
“There is only one Charles Pierce, and while that may be a good thing, it is also a damn good thing we have his unique combination of gonzo, erudition, fearlessness, and eloquence to help us make sense of a senseless world. I stand in awe, and appreciation.”
—Eric Alterman, author Why We’re Liberals and When Presidents Lie
 
“Pierce penetrates, and the world feels less idiotic already.”
—Roy Blount Jr., author of Alphabet Juice and Long Time Leaving
 
“Charles Pierce takes us on a brilliant and hilarious tour of the back roads of American idiotocracy through history—skewering Atlantis-seekers, evolution deniers, jackasses, nincompoops, and right-wing know-it-alls with his trademark sledgehammer wit. Reading Pierce’s Idiot America, I laughed myself stupid.”
—Amy Dickinson, author of The Mighty Queens of Freeville
 
“Engaging. . . . Pierce delivers a rapier-sharp rant on how the America of Franklin and Edison, Fulton and Ford has devolved into America the Uninformed.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“There’s a guy down at the end of the bar who’s furiously angry, hilariously funny, and has an Irish poet’s talent for language. He’s been traveling the country, and he’s been alternately appalled and moved by what he’s found there, and, lucky you, he wants to tell you all about it. Listen.”
—Peter Sagal, author of The Book of Vice and host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me


From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

CHARLES P. PIERCE has been a writer-at-large for Esquire since 1997 and is a frequent contributor to American Prospect and Slate. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Nation, The Atlantic, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications, and he is a regular on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Only a Game.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Prince of Cranks

Ralph Ketchum sits on the porch of his little house tucked away on a dirt lane that runs down toward a lake, pouring soda for his guest and listening to the thrum of the rain on his roof. He has been talking to a visitor about the great subject of his academic life–James Madison, the diminutive hypochondriac from Virginia who, in 1787, overthrew the U.S. government and did so simply by being smarter than everyone else. American popular history seems at this point to have de­volved into a Founding Father of the Month Club, with several huge books on Alexander Hamilton selling briskly, an almost limitless fascination with Thomas Jefferson, a steady stream of folks spelunking through George Washington’s psyche, and an HBO project starring the Academy Award winner Paul Giamatti as that impossible old blatherskite John Adams. But Madison, it seems, has been abandoned by Þlmmakers and by the writers of lushly footnoted doorstops. He also was a mediocre president; this never translates well to the screen, where all presidents are great men.

There are two things that make Jefferson superior to Madison in the historical memory,says Ketchum. One was Jeffer­son’s magnetism in small groups and the other was his gift for the eloquent phrase. Madison has always been a trailer in that way because, well, he writes perfectly well and, occasionally, manages some eloquence. Occasionally.

Madison was not a social lion. In large gatherings, Ketchum writes, people often found him stiff, reserved, cold, even aloof and supercilious. He relaxed only in small settings, among peo­ple he knew, and while discussing issues of which he felt he had command. He therefore seldom made a good first impression,writes Ketchum, seldom overawed a legislative body at his first appearance, and seldom figured in the spicy or dramatic events of which gossip and headlines are made.Madison thought, is what he did, and thinking makes very bad television.
However, for all his shyness and lack of inherent charisma, Madison did manage to woo and win Dolley Payne Todd, the most eligible widow of the time. Ketchum points out that the Virginian came calling having decked himself out in a new beaver hat. (The introductions were made by none other than Aaron Burr, who certainly did get around. If you’re keeping score, this means that Burr is responsible for the marriage of one of the authors of the Federalist and the death of another, having subsequently introduced Alexander Hamilton to a bullet in Weehawken.) He did win Dolley.Ketchum smiles. He had to have something going for him there.
Ketchum’s fascination with Madison began in graduate school at the University of Chicago. His mentor, the historian Stuart Brown, encouraged Ketchum to do his doctoral disserta­tion on Madison’s political philosophy. Ketchum finished the dissertation in 1956. He also spent four years working as an edi­tor of Madison’s papers at the University of Chicago. He began work on his massive biography of Madison in the mid-1960s and didn’t finish the book until 1971.
Partly, Ketchum says, the hook was through my mentor, Stuart Brown, and I think I absorbed his enthusiasm, which was for the founding period in general. He said that he thought Madison had been neglected–my wife calls him ‘the Charlie Brown of the Founding Fathers’–and that he was more impor­tant, so that set me to work on him.
Madison was always the guy under the hood, tinkering with the invention he’d helped to devise in Philadelphia, when he im­proved the Articles of Confederation out of existence. You can see that in the correspondence between them–Jefferson and Madison. Madison was always toning Jefferson down a little bit. Henry Clay said that Jefferson had more genius but that Madison had better judgment–that Jefferson was more bril­liant, but that Madison was more profound.
We are at a dead level time in the dreary summer of 2007. A war of dubious origins and uncertain goals is dragging on de­spite the fact that a full 70 percent of the people in the country don’t want it to do so. Politics is beginning to gather itself into an election season in which the price of a candidate’s haircuts will be as important for a time as his position on the war. The country is entertained, but not engaged. It is drowning in infor­mation and thirsty for knowledge. There have been seven years of empty debate, of deliberate inexpertise, of abandoned rigor, of lazy, pulpy tolerance for risible ideas simply because they sell, or because enough people believe in them devoutly enough to raise a clamor that can be heard over the deadening drone that suffuses everything else. The drift is as palpable as the rain in the trees, and it comes from willful and deliberate neglect. Mad­ison believed in self-government in all things, not merely in our politics. He did not believe in drift. A popular government,he famously wrote, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a tragedy or a Farce, or perhaps both.The great flaw, of course, is that, even given the means to acquire information, the people of the country may decline. Drift is willed into being.
I think we are nowhere near the citizens he would want us to be,Ketchum muses. It was kind of an idealism in Madi­son’s view that we can do better than that, but it depends, fun­damentally, on improving the quality of the parts, the citizens. I think he would be very discouraged.
Madison is an imperfect guide, as all of them are, even the ones that have television movies made about them. When they launched the country, they really had no idea where all they were doing might lead. They launched more than a political ex­periment. They set free a spirit by which every idea, no matter how howlingly mad, can be heard. There is more than a little evidence that they meant this spirit to go far beyond the political institutions of a free government. They saw Americans–white male ones, anyway–as a different kind of people from any that had come before. They believed that they had created a space of the mind as vast as the new continent onto which fate, ambition, greed, and religious persecution had dropped them, and just as wild. They managed to set freedom itself free.
Madison himself dropped a hint in Federalist 14. Is it not the glory of the people of America, he wrote, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for an­tiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Granted, he was at the time arguing against the notion that a republic could not flourish if it got too big or its population got too large. But you also can see in his question the seedbed of a culture that inevitably would lead, not only to Abraham Lin­coln and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but to Wil­liam Faulkner, Jackson Pollock, and Little Richard. A culture that moves and evolves and absorbs the new. Experiment, the founders told us. There’s plenty of room here for new ideas, and no idea is too crazy to be tested.
V V V
EARLY on the sparkling morning, the golf carts, newly washed, sit gleaming in a row along one side of the parking lot. There’s a faint and distant click, the sound of the day’s Þrst drives being launched down the shining fairways. Inside the clubhouse of the small public course along Route 61 just outside Minneapolis, two elderly gentlemen are just sitting down for breakfast when someone comes in and asks them if they know how to get to the old lost town. They think for a minute; then one of them rises and points out the window, past the dripping golf carts and off down Route 61, where the winding road runs toward the Mis­sissippi River.
As I recall,he says, when my grandfather took me out there when I was a kid, it was down that way, right on the river­bank. It’s all grown over now, though, I think.
A dream lies buried in the lush growth that has sprung up on the banks of the great river. In 1856, a dreamer built a city here; the city failed, but the crank went on. He went into politics. He went off to Congress. He came home and he farmed on what was left of the land from his city, and he read. Oh, Lord, how he read. He read so much that he rediscovered Atlantis. He read so much that he discovered how the earth was formed of the cosmic deposits left by comets. 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, utterly wrong. It is so oftentimes in this world,he lamented to his diary in 1881, Òthat it is not the philosophy that is at fault, but the facts.They called him the Prince of Cranks.
Ignatius Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, the son of a doc­tor and a pawnbroker. He received a proper formal education, and after high school found a job as a clerk in the law office of Benjamin Brewster. But the law bored him. He felt a stirring in his literary soul; in 1850, his poem The Mourner’s Vision was published. It’s a heartfelt, if substantially overcooked, ap­peal to his countrymen to resist the repressive measures through which the European governments had squashed the revolutions of 1848. Donnelly wrote:
O! Austria the vile and France the weak,
My curse be on ye like an autumn storm.
Dragging out teardrops on the pale year’s cheek,
adding fresh baseness to the twisting worm;
My curse be on ye like a mother’s, warm,
Red reeking with my dripping sin and shame;
May all my grief back turned to ye, deform
Your very broken image, and a name,
Be left ye which Hell’s friends shall hiss and ...
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