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Monday, 01 June 2009 23:00

Charles P. Pierce Talks With BuzzFlash About How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free: Idiot America. It's Deadly

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

So when you have The New York Times, on the front page, posing a self-evidently ridiculous notion like a politically savvy challenge to evolution -- actually it's not. It's a politically savvy challenge to the poor bastards who are trying to teach high school biology.

-- Charles P. Pierce, humorist and author, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

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BuzzFlash readers have been flocking to support reader-accountable progressive journalism and community by buying Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free from the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace -- and with good reason.  Pierce has written an irreverent, droll, insightful account of how the land of the enlightenment -- which threw off the monarchical shackles of Europe -- has come to value "truthiness" and belief not grounded in reason or science.  In short, a good deal of this great nation has become grounded in a parallel universe that has little to do with fact or enlightened innovation.

Pierce told us that BuzzFlash was one of the first Internet sites he reads regularly.  We have to admit here at BuzzFlash; we have found a soulmate.

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Charles P. Pierce

BuzzFlash: I understand that you decided to write Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free during a visit to the creation museum. Can you discuss that?

Charles P. Pierce: Actually it's a little bit more complicated than that. I realized, as I was going through my past work, that there were a couple of things that kept running through it. I think I was most struck by what eventually coalesced into the thesis of the book, when I was watching the extended media spectacle around the Terri Schiavo case, where people stubbornly, and I think stupidly, self-destructed on so many different levels that it just looked like people willing themselves over a cliff. At about the same point, I was reading a newspaper and saw a thing about the building of the "creation museum." In an update, they talked about what would be the fundamental belief of the creation museum - that humans and dinosaurs had coexisted somehow, and they mentioned there was an exhibit where they had dinosaurs with saddles on them, showing you how men would have ridden dinosaurs when they both coexisted.

I e-mailed my editor at Esquire, Mark Warren, with a three-word pitch, and I sent a link to the story. I still can't remember which newspaper the story was in, but the pitch was "dinosaurs with saddles." We went from that.

BuzzFlash: At the creation museum, which is in Kentucky, are there actually dinosaurs with saddles, which I assume is to prove that humankind and dinosaurs lived contemporaneously?

Charles P. Pierce: Correct. And to give the kids something to do. There's so much grim moral lecturing done at the place that the kids have to have some kind of fun for the outing. So the kids climb on the dinosaurs and get their picture taken.

BuzzFlash: When you talk about Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is this in any way related to when Colbert has talked about "truthiness"?

Charles P. Pierce: I think that is a brilliant word, by the way, and I congratulate him and his staff for coming up with it. Truly, it is a very, very, very precise word for what they're talking about. It's about the ability of a position or a thesis or an argument to appeal to that very visceral, gut level that has no bearing on the world we're actually living in, but seems to be true. I'd say it's certainly an element of what I'm trying to get at.

BuzzFlash: The publisher mentions your three basic tenets for the book, which we think are fantastic. The first is that any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up rating, or otherwise move units. On the best-seller lists, or the morning TV shows, or even many of the evening ones -- the big books do seem to be based on emotional appeal. They become factoids or truthy, just because they've sold a lot. If they sell a lot, they must be true. How do you feel about that?

Charles P. Pierce: I think you're absolutely right. You know, let's face facts. We're all selling books. I'm selling a book. We'd all like to sell lots and lots of books. So let's be honest up front. But we do tend to measure credibility very often by sales, or by ratings numbers.

I think the illustrative sentence, for all three of what I call the great premises of Idiot America came from The New York Times, which was talking about the intelligent design movement. And the sentence that appeared on the front page of The New York Times is called the intelligent design movement -- "a politically savvy challenge to evolution." Which is self-evidently ridiculous. It's like deciding that you're going to have an agriculturally savvy challenge to Newtonian geometry. It doesn't work.

It doesn't matter how many people vote for the candidate of the Alchemy Party ticket. He's not going to be able to change lead to gold. It doesn't matter how many people in the Gallup Poll think they should be able to flap their arms and fly to the moon -- they're not going to be able to do it. So when you have The New York Times, on the front page, posing a self-evidently ridiculous notion like a politically savvy challenge to evolution -- actually it's not. It's a politically savvy challenge to the poor bastards who are trying to teach high school biology.

BuzzFlash: It does seem that we thought the Scopes trial was resolved, but now we've actually gone back to before that.

Charles P. Pierce: It's important to remember, by the way, that Scopes lost his trial. But, yes, I think we're also dealing with the kind of anti-intellectualism and a contempt for expertise that certainly Richard Hofstadter wrote about, and that Susan Jacoby wrote about in her book, The Age of American Unreason. There is a very powerful element of that in our national discourse.

It has a lot to do with the fact that so much of our national discourse on important issues takes place in an entertainment context. The worst thing you can do, is to know what you're talking about. If you know what you're talking about, you're not going to speak in sound bites. You are very rarely going to speak in sound bites if you know what you're talking about. If you know what you're talking about, most problems are very nuanced and very complicated.

BuzzFlash: Your second premise, tying into that, is that anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough. Now of course, political content aside, I think of Bill O'Reilly, who just steamrolls people and shouts, and talks extremely loudly. Sean Hannity, to a certain extent, is like that, too, although he's a bit smoother. The point is, if you speak loudly and emphatically, people think there may be some truth there because you feel so strongly about it.

Charles P. Pierce: The zealot is very often the hardest person to argue with, because he doesn't know what he doesn't know, but he knows what he believes. Because so much of what our discussion of almost everything important takes place on television, we've moved the focus from your technique of arguing into the techniques of salesmanship -- which are terrific if you're trying to get people to buy soap, but really bad for making public policy. Your ideas are not superior -- your sales technique is. I think that's a very dangerous way to run a democracy.

BuzzFlash: As your third premise states, fact is that which enough people believe, and truth is determined by how fervently they believe it. What The New York Times headline was saying applied to evolution. But if enough people say that an orange is an apple, then you start believing an orange is an apple.

Charles P. Pierce: We as a society begin to adapt ourselves to the notion an orange is an apple. There's a couple of episodes in the book that tend to illustrate the third great premise. One is about the Flight '93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Some people suddenly made a great noise in the wilder precincts of the right blogosphere that this was somehow a tribute to the hijackers, and this was a crescent, because it was something pointed toward Mecca, and on and on and on. Well, you know, it's one thing to yell about it on the blogosphere when you've got an easy afternoon and nothing to do. But, ultimately, they had to adjust the design. People got in arguments about this. It had tremendous impact on the community of the survivors of the people who were on Flight 93. And it acted in a way deleterious to public policy.

The other example, of course, is the alleged NAFTA superhighway, which is a concoction of the anti-immigrant crowd, that took a highway in Texas and turned it into this thoroughfare going up the center of the continent that was aimed to create the one-world nation of North America. This notion actually made it into political campaigns. This underscores our third premise that people believe  fervently, it has a real impact on real politics on real people.

BuzzFlash: What happened? We were a country that was born of the Age of Enlightenment. We became a democracy to cast off the tradition of monarchical rule of Europe. We became great innovators, the most powerful engine of production in the world for decades. And all this came from innovation, from science, from research, from the great Thomas Edison type of inventor with the inquisitive mind who looked at science and then pushed at the edge of the envelope to go a little further.

What happened? It would seem, or so I thought, we would become more knowledgeable. Perhaps we did twenty, thirty years ago with more technology, more access through high speed, personal computers, which were only a dream forty years ago.  But in many ways, as a nation, what that's about is the instantaneous transmission of data. It's kind of a high-speed technology, broad band-driven world now.

Charles P. Pierce: I think that's a very profound question and it would take more time than we have to get into it as thoroughly as anybody would like. You have to remember, there always was, as we grew the nation, a helpful skepticism towards experts. There was always a skepticism towards powerful people. There was always a skepticism toward an "elite" which was doing X, Y and Z. This is going all the way back to the formation of the republic. I don't think that's a bad thing.

The second thing I would point out is this has always been a great country in which to be completely out of your mind. We have a great tradition of cranks in this country, and they're wonderful people. And one of the ones I describe in the book is a guy named Ignatius Donnelly, who was a congressman from Minnesota, who, after he was a thoroughly unsuccessful congressman in Minnesota, and a really unsuccessful real estate baron, turned his gaze to quasi-scientific or para-scientific research. He is responsible, pretty much, for everything we think we believe about Atlantis. And we value those people, and those people were important, because they did push the outer boundary of what it was acceptable to believe.

But what we've done now, the faster the news and communication came, the less time we had to reflect on what we were learning. We were more knowledgeable. We knew more stuff. We just had less and less time to digest it and chew it over, and integrate it into some sort of coherent whole. So instead of a crank, a guy like Ignatius Donnelly in Minnesota, trying to get people to believe what his researchers have instructed him about Atlantis, all these people now have book contracts and media tours. They've run into the mainstream, but they haven't run into the mainstream in any way that their loopy ideas can be integrated. They just stand alone in the middle there, and things get out of sorts.

And now we have entertainment where a dialogue should be. We got entertainment where our politics should be. We got religion where our science should be. We're a very disorganized country right now.

BuzzFlash: You talked about entertainment before. What role has the entrance of America into the television age played? Now about three or four generations have grown up on television. In a way, the visual image is so powerful that many people are virtually in a post-literate age.

Charles P. Pierce: The one thing television has done that's relevant to my book is that it turned us into a nation in which we are defined in everything, in every one of our human transactions, as either salesmen or consumers. We are not reflective thinking citizens in a self-governing democracy anymore. We are salesmen or consumers of ideas, which we tend to buy whole. We wind up with unreflective dialogue with people who are essentially pitching themselves to the niche.

BuzzFlash: One reason I bring up television is that the people who started Twitter were considering a reality TV show based on tweets and Twitter. It started to be like the mirror in the barber shop, where you can't tell the image from the real person because everything is reflecting back on itself. A reality TV show which is entertainment is supposed to be reality, and pretty soon your own life doesn't seem real.

Charles P. Pierce: You're absolutely right, and I think one of the institutions that is falling down on the job of preventing this from happening is my institution, which is the media. I've been a reporter of one kind or another for thirty years. As an institution, the worst thing that ever happened to the American media was that we accepted as axiomatic the notion that perception is reality.

That's a salesman's axiom, okay, it's not a journalist's axiom. The journalist's job, if the perception does not match up to the reality,  is not to cover the perception as though it were the reality. The journalist's job is to hammer and hammer and hammer the reality through to the readers and to the people watching the television. You hammer that reality until the perception conforms to it. Otherwise you're dealing with unreality.

BuzzFlash: As we all know, President Obama gave a national security speech recently, and Dick Cheney, who's been on a sort of torture pushback media war, as we call it on BuzzFlash, gave a speech deliberately or immediately after the President's speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where his wife is a fellow. AEI has been the institution during the Bush years that the administration officials would go to to give key foreign policy speeches that were partisan.

And the way the media played this back-to-back of former Vice President and a current President was as if it was the World Wrestling Federation matchup. On "The Daily Show," they actually played clips from a number of stations, including the regular corporate stations and cable. And this is how it was -- the mano a mano. It's Darth Vader versus Superman. It's so-and-so versus da-da-da. It's the Superbowl. What you got out of this was you didn't even know they were talking about national security. It just was that drama, that entertainment, that conflict, as though it was a sporting event.

Charles P. Pierce: I agree. And I don't think the print media covered itself with glory in that particular episode, either. Again what you're doing is you're creating essentially a television product to sell to people. This is your daily conflict right here -- these two guys. Forget the fact that one guy has no power, no credibility, and low popularity ratings, even though they're improving. And the other guy is President of the United States. You could set this up as a mano a mano thing.

Frankly, I don't see our way out of this, because this is the way television, especially, but also modern media, generally, have constructed the world. They've constructed the world into camps. And, believe me, I've covered sports for a long time. Sportswriters are better at covering teams than political writers are, because sportswriters are covering actual teams. They don't have to invent their own out of the actual events going on around them.

BuzzFlash: When we had the so-called teabagging protest April 15, I was on a commuter train, and there was a woman going to a teabagging protest in Chicago, where BuzzFlash is located. She was writing on a poster with a Magic Marker and it said, "No taxation without representation." I thought to myself for a moment -- I was thinking, what does this person think? She probably has two senators, a congressperson, a state representative, a state senator. She has a representation. Her favorite candidates might have lost the last election. Obviously she's disgruntled. But she has representation.

The Revolutionary War was fought because we were being taxed and we didn't have representation by those who were taxing us, meaning the monarchy in England, King George. This seemed to me one of the real-life encounters with truthiness -- a slogan that has no meaning, but there's a great deal of passion behind it. I believe that lady probably believed she had no representation.

Charles P. Pierce: I think that she's enormously sincere in her concern. And you're right. She's misappropriating the slogan. But you have to understand, one of the great sales jobs that was done over the last twenty or thirty years began with the Ronald Reagan campaign in 1980, which I covered when I was starting out. So I saw the dynamic beginning to work. It was to sell a specific idea to people that the government is an alien entity over which they have no control, and in which they have no say, demolishing the idea of a political commonwealth.

Yes, there are political institutions and political events and political ideas which we own in common with each other. I guarantee you, if you went to this woman, she probably would know who her senators were. She'd probably know who her congressman was and who her state rep was, but she would see them as working for a company somewhere. They'd be completely indistinguishable from the machine shop that laid her off, or the insurance company who won't return her phone calls.

And in government, I won't deny, the institutions are creaky and rusty, and a lot of them haven't been used in awhile. But the fact is, this is a woman who has been fed probably a steady diet of that viewpoint from one direction, telling her that the government is an entity in which she has no say. And that her fellow citizens of the political commonwealth do not exist. She's going to use that slogan because she really does feel unrepresentated.

BuzzFlash: Do you feel any hope we can reverse this trend?

Charles P. Pierce: You know, I say in the book that "Idiot America" is an act of collective will. It is America. It is not the "Creation Museum" and people who go there. It is America which is the nation that, through lassitude and ignorance and good-hearted kind of sloppy naivete believes that these ideas should have a place in the mainstream beyond what they actually deserve. It will take a collective will for us to decide to be intelligent enough to govern ourselves again. I think we're seeing a little bit of stirring in that regard, but it's hard to do in times when people are just trying to get the mortgage paid.

BuzzFlash: Charles, thank you - a wonderful book, wildly popular among BuzzFlash readers.

Charles P. Pierce: One of my first stops in the blogosphere when I venture in there. I'm happy to hear that.

BuzzFlash: And we're very excited to interview you, and highly recommend the book. Thanks again.

Charles P. Pierce:: Thank you very much.

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Resources:

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. Buy liberally from the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

Charles P. Pierce bio

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Read 1725 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 June 2009 01:45