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Kvetch, Part One

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Okay, now to the books I’m reading, which are a little confusing here, because there are three of them.  I’ve noted before that I tend to get sent things, and one of the things I always get sent are the latest volumes on how bone-headedly stupid the average American really is.  This has given me a few very good volumes and some decent ideas.  I really do have to thank whoever sent me my first book by E.D. Hirsch, for instance.

This month, what this has resulted in are these:  Bruce Thornton’s Plagues of the Mind:  The New Epidemic of False Knowledge; Benjamin Barber’s Consumed:  How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citzens Whole; and Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America:  How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.

Before I really get going here, let me point out that, as far as I can tell at the moment, all three of these books seem to be making largely the same argument from largely the same premises, in spite of the fact that Thornton is definitely a conservative and Barber is definitely a liberal.  My guess is that Pierce is also a liberal, although his approach, at least up to the point I’ve managed to read, is wide-ranging enough to make you wonder.

Okay, not quite.  Pierce is fully capable of spotting liberal lunacy as well as conservative lunacy, but he seems to spot all the conservative lunacy and makes glancing remarks towards some of the liberal lunacy as if he’s happy to drink the Kool-Aid.

That said,  I’m more than a little sympathetic to books like these, because anybody who’s paying attention must notice that there’s an oversupply of stupid out there, and especially stupid of the conspiracy theory variety.  Conservatives and Liberals both respond to losing Presidential election by declaring that the other side is plotting to suspend the Constitution.  The loony left believes that Bush engineered 9/11 in order to declare martial law.  The loony right thinks the U.S. Census is designed to put all conservative Christians into concentration camps so that they can be either “reeducated” or offed.

There are people who argue that none of this bodes well for the American polity, and I think they’re right, but the fact is that stupidity and conspiracy theories are not confined to the political.  There are plenty of people out there who insist that high tension wires cause brain tumors, vaccines cause autism, and silicone breast implants cause breast cancer, in spite of a wealth of proof that all those things are false. 

Then there are the kind of things I think of as quasi-political–political  only because our politics has reached the stage where any question of our national identity is now a matter of court cases and town meetings.  There is, for instance, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, build by Ken Ham, an Australian  Creationist who founded the organization Answers in Genesis.

The Creation Museum is one of those things I’m going to have to get into the car and go look at one of these days, because by now I’ve heard so much about it I’ve got to see it.  Reports are that there are not only exhibits showing people and dinosaurs living together, but dinosaurs saddled up for people to ride and use as pack animals.

I mean…um…

Pierce’s book has the largest number of these oddly sort of political sort of  not weirdnesses–the people who believe they’ve found Atlantis or that they know when the world is going to end or that they’ve figured out that eating nothing bu chokeberries and arrowroot will give you eternal life. 

But it is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. 

Part of that is because Pierce write good humor–in fact, absolutely hysterical humor–and he sometimes goes for the joke instead of the point.  Part of it may be an artefact of my particular prejudices.  He mentions, favorably, Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason, which I personally found completely awful, lightweight, badly argued and in need of a good dose of serious research, nevermind a rereading of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which she  misread so badly that you can’t figure out what it’s actually about from her descriptions of it.

But most of all,  the book is weak because it skirts around the central premise–which is that this book is a symptom of the infantilization of the American public, and it’s the infantilism, not some inherent dearth of IQ points, that really is the problem.

In the end, all three of these books are about the endless adolesence of Americans, and first world people generally.  And all three of these books–yes, including Bruce Thornton’s–blame it in the end on “consumer capitalism.” 

And the three of them have made me rethink everything I’ve said on this blog about education, and culture, and all the rest of it.

So let me leave you with Charles P. Pierce for the moment, and I’ll get on to the other two in the next few days.

But it all comes down to a paradox that goes like this–you pay for genius with stupidity.

Written by janeh

April 20th, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Kvetch, Part One'

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  1. I don’t know if stupidity, either inherent and required in order to get geniuses, or acquired, is a necessary condition for a capitalist society. I’m not even sure what stupidity or genius actually is. Most people, even those who are clearly brilliant in some things they do, come somewhere in between. Even those who struggle through school in ‘special’ classes can often display enough intelligence to relate to other people and function at a basic level in society.

    What you seem to be talking about in the first part of your blog isn’t stupidity in any absolute sense, either as the absence of IQ points or the claimed need to produce lots of mentally slow people in the hopes you’ll throw up the occasional genius. It’s the tendency of people – and not just individuals, groups of people – to succumb to entirely irrational beliefs. I know some writers put religion in that category, but I’m thinking more about the sort of passionate but short-lived fantasies that tend to sweep groups of people, especially in times of stress in societies. I don’t think those are limited to capitalist societies or the stupid members of any society, I think they’re related to groups of people large enough to form mobs and under enough stress to engage in mob thinking. I know almost nothing about mob psychology, but I’ve read that some of the witch hunts appeared to operate this way. Possibly some of the heretic hunts did too – both the religious ones, and the political ones some countries have been prone to.

    When I was a teenager, I read a lot of popular junk, including almost everything I could find on UFOs. Later, I read things that pointed out the parallels between seeing UFOs and seeing fairies, and the way a lot of the famous UFO sightings were by people who were marginalized – that is, they didn’t have a lot going for them, and they got a lot of attention.

    People seem to have an emotional need for excitement and importance and meaning in their lives, and if they can’t find it in their ordinary lives, they’ll look for it elsewhere, using the ideas in their society, ideas about space travel and the dangers of modern science.

    And if they’re under a particular stress – the death or disability of someone dear to them, like Conan Doyle and some parents of autistic children, they’ll look to slightly unusual aspects of their society for solace – spiritualism or dangerous injections. After all, the official sources of succor – religion and science – have failed them.

    So it’s nothing to do with IQ, and everything to do with people reacting with emotion rather than reason to their own grief or unhappiness or even just dissatisfaction, with the reactions and beliefs amplified and spread by our need to function as members of a group; to win others to our cause, or to join up with others who seem to have an answer. Rationality may be a distinctively human characteristic, but we’ve got others, too, and they all play a role in our society.


    21 Apr 10 at 5:46 am

  2. I think we’ve got three things here–call them the stupid, the crazy and the conspiratorial. Conspiratorial today.

    The first time someone “explained” to me that the President was about to declare a state of emergency so he could hold power past the election, it was 1972, and Nixon was allegedly going to nullify the tremendous McGovern blowout of that year. The next time it was 2000, and Clinton needed blood on the streets to retain office and not have his crimes catch up with him. Then again in 2008, because Cheney wanted to retain power. (And what sort of conspiracy theory posits an American VICE President at the top of the food chain?)

    Anyway, if we can get through 2012 and 2016 without a re-run, I’ll relax. It does feel as though America has more conspiracy theorists, but it’s not as though they were in short supply in the 1970’s.

    If they are growing, I suspect it’s two things. First, politics are more “polarized”–I might have said “binary,” but in any event the distinctions are clearer–fewer conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Second, they’ve become more centralized. A combination of Supreme Court decisions and Federal power grabs means electoral politics below the national level just aren’t as important.

    The combination means that a conservative today is MORE out of power than he was, say, in 1961 when the Democrats held both houses and the presidency, and a liberal was a lot more out of power in 2001 than in 1953. And conspiracy theories tend to be a game the our of power play. Which is why it’s so popular in the Arab world.

    Stupidity and craziness later.


    21 Apr 10 at 4:16 pm

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