Charles Pierce’s 2009 book, Idiot America was a Christmas gift. So I read it. Basically it says anyone who doesn’t share his views – on politics, science, religion – you name it – is an idiot. No, worse – a lunatic. (He’s politically leftie, anti-fundamentalist, probably an atheist but unwilling to say so.)
Pierce posits Three Premises of American culture: 1) any theory is valid if it sells (books, or candidates); 2) anything can be true if proclaimed loudly enough; and 3) a) Fact is that which enough people believe, and b) truth is determined by how strongly they believe it.
The two parts of Premise 3 are kind of redundant, as indeed are Premises 2 and 3. But, of course, premises must come in threes.
I fail to find this informative. Facts are facts and beliefs are beliefs; two different animals. Beliefs can be wrong. Duh. Pierce is giving us here not social science but merely rhetorical snark. And his premises are all (including both parts of #3) – if taken literally – as plainly false as any of the notions the book so relentlessly (and repetitively) excoriates.
And, yes, he calls people he disagrees with not just idiots – but also lunatics, crazy, insane, out of their minds, mad, and so forth. Pierce’s book is actually just a less sophisticated entry in a long line of insufferable tomes by lefties diagnosing non-leftie viewpoints as forms of mental illness. (The latest is Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, laughably arguing that conservatism is about nothing but keeping “the lower orders” down.)
Exemplifying Pierce’s shtick is his attack on “Intelligent Design” (or so-called “Creation Science”) believers. Now, I too happen to think creationism is wrong. But unlike Pierce I do not think its adherents are idiots or lunatics. How and why people can become ensnared in such beliefs is actually a very complex, fascinating and important subject, which Pierce pretty much ignores amid all his invective. Michael Shermer provides far more enlightening analysis in his books, Why People Believe Weird Things, and The Believing Brain.
One key factor, for instance, is confirmation bias – we embrace information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information, creating self-reinforcing feedback loops. Thus liberals and conservatives, believers and atheists, come to inhabit divergent mental universes. And, as Shermer explains, smart people are actually more likely to believe untrue things because they are more skillful at rationalizing their views!
So I try to stay mindful that, just as I feel certain regarding evolution versus creationism, others (some smarter than me) feel every bit as certain of their contrary view. I can say that one view is based on evidence and the other on moonshine. But so would they. How do we resolve this epistemological divide? Ultimately perhaps we cannot, because no human mind has a direct pipeline to truth, it’s always mediated by a great complex of fallible mental processing. This gives me at least a modicum of intellectual humility.
Not Charlie Pierce.
What really frosted me about this book was that for all its trumpeted devotion to “facts,” “truth,” and “reality,” Pierce repeatedly plays fast and loose with them. For example, he has the field day one might expect from a leftie regarding the Iraq War, harping on weapons of mass destruction. Pierce tells it as though all intelligent people knew from the get-go there were no such weapons and war supporters were idiots about this. Excuse me, that re-writes history. Practically all serious observers believed Saddam had the weapons, for excellent reasons. It was wrong, but not stupid (or a lie). And Pierce’s account omits any of the war’s larger context. Reading it, you’d suppose Saddam was running his country quite nicely, hurting no one and minding his own business until we barged in like a gang of home invaders.
I know some people do see it that way. They’re not idiots; but I think that view is as mistaken as any of the “idiocies” flayed in Pierce’s book. It’s confirmation bias again; indeed, Pierce’s book itself is a monument to his own confirmation bias.
Pierce quotes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a discussion about the TV show “24,” remarking that Jack Bauer may have broken the law in using torture to save Los Angeles from a terrorist attack, but he (Scalia) doubted a jury would convict Bauer. Then, a few pages later we find this: “Antonin Scalia . . . citing a fictional terror fighter as a justification for reversing literal centuries of American policy and jurisprudence. . . ”
Obviously, that’s a gross twisting of Scalia’s words. This is what I mean by Pierce’s playing fast and loose. It treats his readers as — dare I say it – idiots.
But of course the book’s very title casts this country as a nation of idiots. Some Americans just love to hate America. And some pose as tribunes of the common people while regarding them with smug contempt.