Charles Pierce is a frequent guest on NPR‘s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” though I didn’t know this until after I read this book (go figure).
Despite the inflammatory title, Idiot America isn’t a criticism of the country, but rather a condemnation of the way in which idiocy or nescience has become something to be proud of; it’s a sort of extension of Thomas Frank’s question of authenticity. And it troubles Charles Pierce to no end.
I was a little surprised, immediately, at how meandering the whole affair was. I had expected path and acerbity—more like a series of caustic essays than anything else. But Pierce invariably prefaced every point he wanted to make with a long (comparable in length to the point itself) story about a historical figure or situation which paralleled something contemporary. Unfortunately, few of these stories were particularly elucidating, but served as distractions: by the time Pierce got around to making his point, I had forgotten what he was talking about.
Here’s how Pierce himself describes “Idiot America” as a concept:
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 Hofstader teased out of the national DNA, although both of these 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 the 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 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 the rest of us, poor fool.
Most of Pierce’s examples are stock criticisms of the conservative right, such as the Terry Schiavo (wherein Bill Frist, if you’ll remember, diagnosed Terry’s condition based on a video montage provided by her mother and father….), and in themselves unconventional: I’ve read whole books about darn near each case, in fact, from the Dover Trials to lobbyist-funded scientists to to right-wing radio demagogues. Pierce then compares them infavorably against historical “cranks” such as Ignatius Donnelly: the point, as I take it, is that people with crazy ideas are an integral part of the American cultural fabric, so long as these crazy people are marginal. When you put a tie on them, stick them in front of CNN’s cameras, and pretend as though their opinion matters because they have a crazy idea and are willing to appear on TV, you’re beginning to talk about the disintegration of culture as we know it.
To phrase it contemporaneously (and surely Pierce himself would have mentioned it had it been a televised matter when he was writing the book), consider the issue of Orly Taitz, a dentist/realtor/lawyer who is leading the mad rabble known as the “Birthers,” who insist Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. The perfect example of a “crank” whose ideas would normal be entertainment for those of us with functional brains, Ms. Taitz is instead put on TV as though she has equal footing with normal reporters1 or people without tinfoil hats.
But I disgress: Idiot America has its own set of examples. Some, I feel, are somewhat laborious. I’m unsurprised, given that the book is really an extended version of a essay Pierce wrote several years ago. Its padding, I think, I somewhat deleterious to its aims. You could easily read Idiot America and enjoy it; by that same measure, though, you could also read the original article and come away on about the same footing. The choice is yours.
- From this I exclude Lou Dobbs, who I think is now batshit insane.[↩]