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"Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free"

Wednesday, 12 December 2012 09:13 By Charles Pierce, Anchor Books | Book Excerpt
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Idiot America.The following is the foreword to the classic "Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free" by Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce. Completed toward the end of the second Bush administration and published in the first year of the Obama era, it remains a defining - and wry - look at how culturally and politically much of the United States has come to value ignorance over knowledge. As Pierce observes in the book excerpt following this introduction,"The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise ... It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about."

You can obtain the paperback edition of "Idiot America" with a minimum contribution to Truthout by clicking here

"Dinosaurs with Saddles"

There is some art—you might even say design—in the way southern Ohio rolls itself into the hills of northern Kentucky. The hills build gently under you as you leave the interstate. The roads narrow beneath a cool and thickening canopy as they wind through the leafy outer precincts of Hebron, a small Kentucky town named, as it happens, for the place near Jerusalem where the Bible tells us that David was anointed the king of the Israelites. This resulted in great literature and no little bloodshed, which is the case with a great deal of Scripture.

At the top of the hill, just past the Idlewild Concrete plant, there was an unfinished wall with an unfinished gate in the middle of it. Happy, smiling people trickled in through the gate on a fine summer's morning, one minivan at a time. They parked in whatever shade they could find, which was not much. They were almost uniformly white and almost uniformly bubbly.

Their cars came from Kentucky and Tennessee and Ohio and Illinois and from as far away as New Brunswick, in the Canadian Maritimes. There were elderly couples in shorts, suburban families piling out of the minivans, the children all Wrinkle Resistant and Stain Released. All of them wandered off, chattering and waving and stopping every few steps for pictures, toward a low-slung building that seemed to be the most finished part of the complex.

Outside, several of them stopped to be interviewed by a video crew. They had come from Indiana, one woman said, two impatient toddlers pulling at her arms, because they had been homeschooling their children and they'd given them this adventure as a field trip. The whole group then bustled into the lobby of the building, where they were greeted by the long neck of a huge, herbivorous dinosaur. The kids ran past it and around the corner, where stood another, smaller dinosaur.

Which was wearing a saddle.

It was an English saddle, hornless and battered. Apparently, this was a dinosaur that performed in dressage competitions and stakes races. Any dinosaur accustomed to the rigors of ranch work and herding other dinosaurs along the dusty trail almost certainly would have worn a sturdy western saddle. This, obviously, was very much a show dinosaur.

The dinosaurs were the first things you saw when you entered the Creation Museum, the dream child of an Australian named Ken Ham, who is the founder of Answers in Genesis, the worldwide organization for which the museum is meant to be the headquarters. The people here on this day were on a special tour. They'd paid $149 to become "charter members" of the museum.

"Dinosaurs," Ham said, laughing, as he posed for pictures with his honored guests, "always get the kids interested."

AiG is dedicated to the proposition that the biblical story of the creation of the world is inerrant in every word. Which means, in this interpretation, and among other things, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans (hence the saddles), that there were dinosaurs in Eden, and that Noah, who certainly had enough on his hands, had to load two brachiosaurs onto the Ark along with his wife, his sons, and his sons' wives, to say nothing of the green alligators and the long-necked geese and the humpty-backed camels and all the rest.

(Faced with the obvious question of how Noah kept his 300-by-30-by-50-cubit Ark from sinking under the weight of the dinosaur couples, Ham's literature argues that the dinosaurs on the Ark were young ones, who thus did not weigh as much as they might have.)

"We," announced Ham, "are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!" And everybody cheered.

This was a serious crowd. They gathered in the museum's auditorium and took copious notes while Ham described the great victory won not long before in Oklahoma, where city officials had announced a decision—which they would later reverse, alas—to put up a display based on Genesis at the city's zoo so as to eliminate the discrimination long inflicted upon sensitive Christians by the statue of the Hindu god Ganesh that decorated the elephant exhibit. They listened intently as Ham went on, drawing a straight line from Adam's fall to our godless public schools, from Charles Darwin to gay marriage. He talked about the great triumph of running Ganesh out of the elephant paddock and they all cheered again.

The heart of the museum would take the form of a long walkway down which patrons would be able to journey through the entire creation story. The walkway was in only the earliest stages of construction. On this day, for example, one young artist was working on a scale model of a planned exhibit depicting the day on which Adam named all the creatures of the earth.

Adam was depicted in the middle of the delicate act of naming the saber-toothed tiger while, behind him, already named, a woolly mammoth seemed on the verge of taking a nap. Elsewhere in the museum, another Adam, this one full-sized, was reclining peacefully, waiting to be installed. Eventually, he was meant to be placed in a pool under a waterfall. As the figure depicted a prelapsarian Adam, he was completely naked. He also had no penis.

This seemed to be a departure from Scripture. If you were willing to stretch Job's description of a "behemoth" to include baby Triceratops on Noah's Ark, as Ham did in his lecture, then surely, since he was being depicted before his fall, Adam should have been out there waving unashamedly in the paradisiacal breezes. For that matter, what was Eve doing there, across the room, with her hair falling just so to cover her breasts and her midsection, as though in a nude scene from some 1950s Swedish art-house film?

After all, Genesis 2:25 clearly says that at this point in their lives, "the man and the woman were both naked, and they were not ashamed." If Adam could sit there courageously unencumbered while naming the saber-toothed tiger, then why, six thousand years later, should he be depicted as a eunuch in some family-values Eden? And if these people can take away what Scripture says is rightfully his, then why can't Charles Darwin and the accumulated science of the previous hundred and fifty–odd years take away the rest of it?

These were impolite questions. Nobody asked them here by the cool pond tucked into the gentle hillside. Increasingly, amazingly, nobody asked them outside the gates, either. It was impolite to wonder why our parents had sent us all to college, and why generations of immigrants had sweated and bled so that their children could be educated, if not so that one day we would feel confident enough to look at a museum full of dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs at Aqueduct and make the not unreasonable point that it was batshit crazy, and that anyone who believed this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and their own money. Instead, people go to court over this kind of thing.

You can obtain the paperback edition of "Idiot America" with a minimum contribution to Truthout by clicking here

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.

The title of this book very nearly was Blinking from the Ruins, and it very nearly was merely a tour of the extraordinary way America has gone marching backward into the twenty-first century. Unquestionably, part of the process was the shock of having more than three thousand of our fellow citizens killed by medievalist murderers who flew airplanes into buildings in the service of a medieval deity, and thereby prompted the United States, born of Enlightenment values, to seek for itself the medieval remedies for which the young country was born too late: Preemptive war. Secret prisons. Torture. Unbridled, unaccountable executive power. The Christian god was handed Jupiter's thunderbolts, and a president elected by chance and intrigue was dressed in Caesar's robes. People told him he sounded like Churchill when, in fact, he sounded like Churchill's gardener.

All of this happened in relative silence, and silence, as Earl Shorris writes, is "the unheard speed of a great fall, or the unsounded sigh of acquiescence," that accompanies "all the moments of the descent from democracy."

That is why this book is not merely about the changes in the country wrought by the atrocities of September 11, 2001. The foundations of Idiot America had been laid long before. A confrontation with medievalism intensified a distressing patience with medievalism in response, and that patience reached beyond the politics of war and peace and accelerated a momentum in the culture away from the values of the Enlightenment and toward a dangerous denial of the consequences of believing nonsense.

Let us take a tour, then, of one brief period in the new century, a sliver of time three years after the towers fell. A federally funded abstinence program suggests that the human immunodeficiency virus can be transmitted through tears. An Alabama legislator proposes a bill to ban all books by gay writers. The Texas House of Representatives passes a bill banning suggestive cheerleading at high school football games. And the nation doesn't laugh at any of this, as it should, or even point out that, in the latter case, having Texas ban suggestive cheerleading is like having Nebraska ban corn.

James Dobson, a prominent Christian conservative spokesman, compares the Supreme Court of the United States with the Ku Klux Klan. Pat Robertson, another prominent conservative preacher man, says that federal judges are a greater threat to the nation than is Al Qaeda and, apparently taking his text from the Book of Gambino, later sermonizes that the United States should get on the stick and snuff the democratically elected president of Venezuela. And the nation does not wonder, audibly, how these two poor fellows were allowed on television.

The Congress of the United States intervenes to extend into a televised spectacle the prolonged death of a woman in Florida. The majority leader of the Senate, a physician, pronounces a diagnosis from a distance of eight hundred miles, relying for his information on a heavily edited videotape. The majority leader of the House of Representatives, a former exterminator [Tom DeLay at the time], argues against cutting-edge research into the use of human embryonic stem cells by saying "An embryo is a person. . . . We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth." Nobody laughs at him, or points out that the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the inventor of the baby-back rib.

And finally, in August 2005, the cover of Time—for almost a century, the clear if dyspeptic voice of the American establishment—hems and haws and hacks like an aged headmaster gagging on his sherry and asks, quite seriously, "Does God have a place in science class?"

Fights over evolution—and its faddish camouflage, "intelligent design," a pseudoscience that posits without proof or method that science is inadequate to explain existence and that supernatural sources must be studied as well—roil through school boards across the country. The president of the United States announces that he believes that ID ought to be taught in the public schools on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, during one of these controversies, a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up.

"We've been attacked," he says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture."

And there you have it.

Idiot America is not the place where people say silly things.

It is not the place where people believe in silly things.

It is not the place where people go to profit from the fact that people believe in silly things. That America has been with us always— the America of the medicine wagon and the tent revival, the America of the juke joint and the gambling den, the America of lunatic possibility that in its own mad way kept the original revolutionary spirit alive while an establishment began to calcify atop the place. Idiot America isn't even those people who believe that Adam sat down under a tree one day and named all the dinosaurs. Those people pay attention. They take notes.

They take time and spend considerable mental effort to construct a worldview that is round and complete, just as other Americans did before them.

You can obtain the paperback edition of "Idiot America" with a minimum contribution to Truthout by clicking here

The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects—for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an "expert" and, therefore, an "elitist." Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He's brilliant, surely, but no different from all the rest of us, poor fool.

How does it work? This is how it works. On August 21, 2005, a newspaper account of the intelligent design movement contained this remarkable sentence:

"They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive."

"A politically savvy challenge to evolution" makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn't matter what percentage of people believe that they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly: none of them can. It doesn't matter how many votes your candidate got: he's not going to be able to turn lead into gold. The sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news in it is where it appeared.

On the front page.

Of the New York Times.

Consider that the reporter, one Jodi Wilgoren, had to compose this sentence. Then she had to type it. Then, more than likely, several editors had to read it. Perhaps even a proofreader had to look it over after it had been placed on the page—the front page—of the Times. Did it occur to none of them that a "politically savvy challenge to evolution" is as self-evidently ridiculous as an "agriculturally savvy" challenge to Euclidean geometry would be? Within three days, there was a panel on the topic on Larry King Live, in which Larry asked the following question:

"All right, hold on, Dr. Forrest, your concept of how you can out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?"

And why, dear Lord, do so many of them host television programs?

You can obtain the paperback edition of "Idiot America" with a minimum contribution to Truthout by clicking here

Copyright of Charles Pierce. Reprinted with permission of the author.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Charles Pierce

Since July 1997, Pierce 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. In the fall of 2011, Pierce left the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, where he had been since 2002, to become a staff writer for Grantland as well as the lead writer for esquire.com's politics blog. He appears weekly on National Public Radio's sports program "Only A Game" and on the Stephanie Miller Show and is a regular panelist on NPR's game show, "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me."


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