Monday, February 18, 2008

America, beautiful, but dumb

"The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse."
Susan Jacoby - Washington Post
David Seaton's News Links
America is literally like no other country in the world. To understand how original it is you only have to compare it to Australia and Canada. In fact one of the best ways of coming to grips with the American psyche is to begin by comparing these three, white settler, ex-British colonies.

America is extraordinarily original, therefore "exceptional", but not exactly like most Americans think. In fact "American Exceptionalism" is a doctrine which maintains that Americans, because of their innate "goodness", are destined to fulfill a special destiny.

Here is a sample of this mentality in a recent statement of Colin Powell's, which many see as an indirect endorsement of Barack Obama:
"I am going to be looking for the candidate that seems to me to be leading a party that is fully in sync with the candidate and a party that will also reflect America's goodness and America's vision."
Now there any number of positive adjectives that I could apply to
"my fellow Americans": energetic, creative, hard working, ingenious, enthusiastic, etcetera, but "good"?

General Powell is talking about a people who enslaved his ancestors, ethnically cleansed the Native-Americans, dropped atomic bombs on the helpless civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and uselessly killed about a million Vietnamese in a historically short space of time. Good? Certainly, any lucid historian would have to say about America what the British used to say about certain ladies, "she's no better than she ought to be".

So, I am not "proud" to be an American, simply, I AM an American. I love America because I love myself, not vice versa. I accept and cherish her gifts to me and assume her karma reverently. America is my idiosyncrasy, my mother tongue and a sortilege of skandas to schlep though the samsara. Never, in my whole life, often surrounded by people who detest what the United States represents, have I ever said -- with that smile of a fox eating shit off a wire brush -- that I am a Canadian... In the words of a great American, "I yam what I yam". I just don't want to live there, f'ya knowwhaddahmean.

After I lived away from America some time, I began to have enough distance to "see oursels as ithers see us" and realize how unique, eccentric, idiosyncratic and even a bit sinister America really is. However, like Susan Jacoby, whose text I quote today, lately I have begun to notice that America has passed originality to become simply weird. A country that produced Emerson, William James, Walt Whitman, Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison has become a universal byword for stupidity.

'Twasn't always so. Jacoby writes:
People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping "I'm the decider" may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged "Americans to spread out a map during his radio "fireside chat" so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president. FDR had told his speechwriters that he was certain that if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies had to travel to the armed forces, "they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin." This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and president but also of a different country and citizenry, one that lacked access to satellite-enhanced Google maps but was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today's public. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.
If we go farther back we can find masses of citizens, many frontiersmen, who way back in 1858 were able to follow the complex arguments of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So obviously this isn't something genetic.
Americans are being deliberately turned into idiots, because only idiots would act as America does today. What has happened? Who in America wants Americans to be so stupid? Why?

It is far beyond my modest abilities to forge a truly American, grand, paranoid, conspiracy theory of all of this. But I would humbly direct the attention of those sufficiently endowed in these matters to explore the confluence of interests between America's over bloated military spending, its suicidally self-defeating foreign policy and the enormous media conglomerates: news-sports-Hollywood, that create America's mental wallpaper, the texture of its stupidity. The answer is certainly there. DS

Susan Jacoby: The Dumbing Of America - Washington Post
Abstract: "The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations. This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an "elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office.(...) Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.(...) It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news. No wonder negative political ads work. "With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information," the cultural critic Caleb Crain noted recently in the New Yorker. "A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching." As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be.(...) The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation. There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. ("Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture," Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. READ IT ALL


RC said...

Is there any possibility of reversing the stupidity trend?
Gross stupidity occupies the mental space of other countries, not just the US, but perhaps those minds have always been less acute by fault of no education or need for education in agrarian and fishing based cultures.
I am just as or more unable than David to offer any observations about the US and the Ignorance Quotient as I have not lived there for the last 29 years.
But the country I do live in is massively ignorant and let us be plain, just good old stupid in many ways. It's not a comforting or humorous milieu, more enraging and aggravating than anything else.
I laugh so as not to cry about opinions I hear offered up every day and observing most of the influential individuals of this society as reported or as commenting in the press I am amazed that the country can survive their mentalities at all. Yet, the willful little nation trudges through its own little backwater as best it can and receives daily injections by the national opinionators of high test self esteem, that crack-like elixir that has come to fill the void left by the dissolution of consciousness.
Whatever will happen when that stuff runs short?

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Where do you live RC?
There are some countries that have always been dumb, but America is not one of them. It is the "dumbing down" that fascinates me.

Anonymous said...

On the decline in American awareness -- I can attribute some of it to the rise of television and the decline in newspaper and other reading, but then hasn't that been the same worldwide? What is different between American and any European nation?

Perhaps it is the examples from our respective political and media leaders. I recall a while back hearing that French president Giscard D'Estaing appeared on a TV show to discuss the stories of De Maupassant. He was not a scholar, but had a familiarity with the author. No current American politician would dare present himself as an intellectual. Adlai Stevenson was mocked for being an "egghead." Nixon talked about representing the "silent majority" who were supposed to be the good Americans. George HW Bush was mocked for being a preppie and a wimp; he tried to overcome that by eating pork rinds. Kerry was mocked for seeing "nuances" in issues. George W - Yale and Harvard educated - garbles his grammar and mispronounces words. A lot of folks think he is putting that on.

There has long been an anti-intellectual streak in American. Remember Henry Ford saying "History is bunk."

And in the Turner Diaries - an extreme right wing racist apocalyptic blueprint read by the Oklahoma City bomber - the high point is when professors are lynched.

University students were leaders in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 60s. Perhaps part of the antipathy of the leadership is that the intellectuals tend to be anti-government.

Another contributing cause could be the decline of mainstream churches to be replaced by mega-churches. It used to be that a church goer had to have some familiarity with scripture. Now with 10,000 seat churches marketed as entertainment or political rally that is no longer necessary.

Forensic Economist

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Forensic Economist,
That is a damn good commentary! Thanks.

kalsang said...

As a European in America, I agree with you. There are many positive things about this country, but I am constantly staggered by the uncultured, uneducated state of even apparently educated and cultured Americans. The anti-intellectualism is depressing, the popularity of books called things like "All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten" is un-nerving, and the shallowness of thought in the new election campaign is depressing.
My friends talk about how they love Obama. I love him too, but I think Hilary can actually run the country. She has experience, she's smart, she's been through the wringer and she doesn't flinch. Unfortunately it's all about charisma, appeal to the lowest intellectual denominator, and hypnotic words like 'change'.
How can the largest and most powerful nation in the world be run on stupidity, emotional impulse and a total lack of erudition? And yet, after 8 years here, I have to conclude that it is. Americans appear to distrust intellect, depth of thought, critical dialogue, knowledge, analysis. They seem to prefer myth, positive thinking, denial, and the conviction that somehow their god is going to make it all all right because they are special and have in some way deserved salvation. Somehow they manage not to see that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and the time to wake up is now.
Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Thank you for your very intelligent blog, which I have been reading (and linking to) for two years.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Thanks for the comment.
You say:
They seem to prefer myth, positive thinking, denial, and the conviction that somehow their god is going to make it all all right because they are special and have in some way deserved salvation.

This is true, why?
Because Americans who are famous for their "optimism", are in fact the most pessimistic and anxiety ridden people in the world.

Brian G said...

I really lol'd at your blog about most American's being dumb, this idea, to myself anyway, is more of a product of popular T.V than reality. Because of the likes of Paris Hilton, many outside the U.S believe that everyone in the U.S idolizes her. I find it as an insult to me. I am a college student and I am highly intelligent, despite what some bad grades might say. I might not be able to do quantum physics but there are only a few in each country who can. The problem I have is that the news never ever reports good news, they just report Jamie Spears had a baby not the local kid who got the scholarship to Harvard, and people harness in on that bad news and make a mountain out of a mole hill.
The one thing I've learned in life, and I'm sure I'll have many more to come considering I'm only 20, is that everyone views things from different perspectives, and these perspectives cause people to take different actions or voice different opinions. That's the difference between Jews and Christians, Israel and Jordan/Pakistan, and Left and Right wingers.
Your whole thing with Charisma and Obama and Americans; you should take a look back in history and see what other non-American people fell for the charisma of their leader. Hitler was a very charismatic character, and German's weren't able to separate what Hitler said to the truth, pathetic honestly. Those German's were so dumb.
Oh and probably the most important thing I have to say, if you are still reading. You don't have to be smart to make a difference. Police, firefighters, sanitation workers, postal workers, and many other occupations have a serious impact on your lives.
But then again what difference does it make if you're smart or not, we're all going to end up 6 feet under... or wherever

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Thank you for your comment, you just made my point for me.