The Dunce Confederacy

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free
By Charles P. Pierce.
Doubleday, 293 pages., $26

The pastor from Pennsylvania put it best. On the eve of a trial to determine the legality of a local school board’s decision to teach intelligent design alongside evolutionary theory, the Rev. Ray Mummert, a leader of the anti-Darwin brigade, made national headlines with a statement that cut straight to the heart of America’s culture wars. “We’ve been attacked,” he protested, “by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture.” In an increasingly divided nation, where one is asked to take sides on every issue from the creation of the universe to the first lady’s triceps, it was perhaps inevitable that people should be required to make a stand on the subject of being smart.

Charles Pierce’s Idiot America is a lively and, dare I say, intelligent study of this ongoing assault on gray matter. “We’ve chosen up sides on everything,” he asserts, “fashioning our public lives as though we were making up a fantasy baseball team.” This new civil war almost always boils down to a clash between intellect and feeling, or what Mr. Pierce labels the Gut. “The Gut is a moron, as anyone who’s ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked a lawn mower knows,” he writes. “The Gut is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears.” The problem is, it currently has a stranglehold on a hefty slice of our major media—talk radio—as well as that traveling circus known as the G.O.P.

People who believe that the educated intellect should guide public policy are liable to rely on facts, science and logic as their weapons of choice. Their general is James Madison, who, according to Mr. Pierce, “considered self-government no less a science than botany. It required an informed and educated and enlightened populace, or else all the delicate mechanisms of the system would come apart.” Team Gut, however, relies on bluster, superstition and bullying to wage its campaigns. Its field commanders are broadcasters like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who deploy a battle plan Mr. Pierce calls the “Three Great Premises of Idiot America.” The first of these states that a theory need only sell books or elevate ratings in order to be deemed valid. The second maintains that “anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.” And finally, a fact is defined as “that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.”

Having established his book’s ideological framework, Mr. Pierce then illustrates it with a number of anecdotes that, though often familiar, here take on a deeper and more troubling meaning. Take the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead woman whose vegetative corpus was thrust into the national spotlight back in 2005, when she became a poster girl for the right-to-life brigade. Never mind that a phalanx of neurologists had testified that she was beyond cure; never mind that to allege her doting husband was conspiring with the staff of a respected hospice to murder his wife was fantastical, to say the least. All Team Gut had to do was shout loudly enough and the “debate” was on. Perhaps the lowest point in this cavalcade of nadirs came when Bill Frist, the Republican Senate majority leader and once an esteemed heart surgeon, rendered a diagnosis of Schiavo after simply watching a highly edited videotape of her. Luckily, sanity beat Mr. Hannity, though not before we came perilously close to becoming a nation where the intelligent, educated faction was run out of town on a rail.

Although Ronald Reagan was an important champion of Idiot America, particularly in promoting his loopy “trickle down” theory of economics, the dunce confederacy really came into its own when George W. Bush took the helm. This is hardly surprising, given that a senior member of his administration (rumored to be Karl Rove) once famously expressed the Bush White House’s contempt for “the reality-based community.” Thus, we were given a chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Dr. Leon Kass, who “opposed—in no particular order—in vitro fertilization, cosmetic surgery, organ transplants, contraception and the public eating of ice cream cones.” Or a head of FEMA, Michael “Brownie” Brown, “who’d been dismissed as an incompetent from his previous job as the director of a luxury show-horse organization.”

And then there is the Iraq war, which Mr. Pierce deems “Idiot America’s purest product.” Although the irrationality and fear-mongering that led up to the destruction of Iraq has been widely discussed in other forums, the reader’s jaw will still drop as Mr. Pierce recalls how applicants for jobs in the agency tasked with rebuilding Iraq were quizzed on their opposition to Roe v. Wade before being hired. Or the vital role Fox’s torture porn show 24 played in discussions on whether to abuse prisoners. “Consider the highest level of the U.S. government,” Mr. Pierce muses, “gathering in the White House in order to set American law back to a point 10 minutes before Magna Carta was signed, and tossing around ideas they’d heard on.”

Worse still, this legacy of idiocy seems destined to outlive the Bush years—at a Republican primary debate in 2008, three of the nine contenders proudly claimed they did not believe in evolution. As Mr. Pierce aptly points out, “it should have given people pause about the entire Republican party that a third of its presidential field was willing to admit that their view of the life sciences had stalled in the 1840s.” The Republican primary also inspires Mr. Pierce’s best line, when he recalls how Rudy Giuliani criticized John McCain for decrying torture. This coming from a candidate, Mr. Pierce reminds us, whose only expertise on the subject was that he “was once tortured by the thought that his second wife wouldn’t move out of the mayor’s mansion in favor of his current girlfriend.”

 

OF COURSE, a lot of this will sound familiar, especially to the sort of reader who would spend $26 on a book subtitled How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. What raises Idiot America above the level of a particularly inspired op-ed piece at Esquire or Slate (where Mr. Pierce’s work frequently appears) is the author’s advocacy of the type of irrationality epitomized by good old-fashioned cranks. “This is a great country, in no small part because it is the best country ever devised in which to be a public crank.” His hero in this matter is the 19th-century politician, writer and lunatic Ignatius Donnelly, author of the best-selling Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), a work scientifically proving that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Mr. Pierce’s serious point amid this breezy biography is that a healthy democracy needs cranks; we need gadflies and conspiracy theorists who can probe the limits of our polity by floating theories that every so often stay aloft and change the way we live. The problem is, in a climate where noise and raw feeling are prized above all else, the crank has been mainstreamed. The man standing in front of a small crowd trying to sell snake oil turns into Rush Limbaugh, peddling his poison to millions. “The crank is devalued when his ideas are accepted untested and unchallenged into the mainstream simply because they succeed as product.”

The book’s most memorable passage comes when Mr. Pierce describes a man who might not have been a full-blown crank, but was certainly a cultural pioneer whose ideas risked mockery, or worse. John Richbourg was a white disk jockey known to the listeners of WLAC radio in 1950s Nashville as “John R.” At a time when American radio had all the color and variety of a sponge cake, Richbourg began playing black musicians such as Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. Eventually, the tunes caught on among white listeners, merging demographics that had formerly been diametrically opposed. Today, WLAC still exists, though as little more than a computerized way station that channels nationally syndicated talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity. The same airwaves that once helped bring Americans together into a single ecstatic audience are now splitting listeners down the middle. And the dial is cranked all the way up to 10.

Stephen Amidon is the author, most recently, of Security: A Novel. He can be reached at books@observer.com

The Dunce Confederacy