Idiot America?

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.

7 Responses to “Idiot America?”

  1. Lee Says:

    For breadth, I give some time to listen to extremists of various sorts — who are recognizable because they are sure that their opposition is either incompetent or evil. This helps me because it lets me know what my fellow citizens are exposed to, but also because casting an argument in the extreme can shed some light on the subject.

    [FSR comment: I too expose myself to viewpoints I strongly disagree with — just to make sure I’ve got the answers to why they’re wrong.]

  2. Dan Van Riper Says:

    You say this guy is a “leftie.” I have no idea what that could mean. He sounds like he spends too much time getting opinions from the corporate media. Or, to be more accurate, his opinions are standard allowable reactions to the corporate media propaganda.

    Reminds me of back in the 1990s when radio content provider Dan Lynch was transcribing propaganda for the Hearst Times Union (Albany NY.) When polls clearly demonstrated that the American public was not buying the slander campaign against then president Bill Clinton, Lynch wrote a column with a title in which he called the American people stupid. Let’s see. We rejected the expensive coordinated corporate media campaign full of lies, and we’re stupid. Right, Lynch.

    The American people can be very wise in their decisions. But when the American people stare deeply into their TVs for hours upon hours every single day of their lives, why yes, they become very stupid. They absorb corporate propaganda and begin to act against their own self-interests. And some of them put out dumb books like this one that are of no importance.

    [FSR comment: Let me see. You have no idea what “leftie” could mean. Pierce gets his opinions from “corporate media” — or his opinions are against “corporate media propaganda” — at least what’s “allowable” (by that media, presumably). Americans can be “very wise” but television makes them “very stupid.”
    It is indeed a standard leftie trope that Americans are brainwashed to “act against their own self-interests.” This comes down to saying they’re not materialistic enough. What the left never seems to grasp is that people don’t only vote their interests; they also vote their values. And people can have values that are inconsistent with their self-interest.]

  3. Dan Van Riper Says:

    Mr. Robinson-

    In response to your comment. I guess I could say that denial of the simple verifiable fact that the “mainstream” media is owned and minutely controlled for content by corporations, not one of which professes loyalty to the US Constitution, well, that denial is well known as a “right wing trope,” i.e. a politically correct position approved by the foreign corporations. And IMHO that attitude of giving primary loyalty to foreign corporations smacks of treason.

    I said, “I’d say that,” but I don’t know what “right wing” means. So I won’t say it.

    So what the hell is “left” and “right?” And I defy you to define the word “liberal” as a negative. You say you’re not a “modern liberal” as if “modern liberal” is an ideology. But I say that ideology is in your imagination.

    So go ahead. Give me a precise definition of “liberal” as “bad.” Please. I’ve been waiting for someone to do it.

    [FSR comment: my responding would not be productive.]

  4. Ron Bolden Says:

    Dear Frank,

    Just a brief comment on evolution versus creationism. I don’t think that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. I can happily live with the concept that there was an original creation which has evolved over aeons of time. A friend of mine who I respect considers that some concepts must be ‘kept in tension’ as it is not possible to ‘prove’ either ‘correct’.

    [FSR response: Thanks for your comment. While some religious believers do posit an original divine creation followed by biological evolution, most scientists who accept the reality of evolution see no need to tack on a deity. And while I agree that creationism cannot be proven correct, the same is not true of evolution. It has been proven correct.]

  5. Dan Van Riper Says:

    [FSR comment: my responding would not be productive.]

    Yes, it would be productive, Mr. Robinson. Like all the other rad righty corporatists, you can’t tell me why you “hate liberals.”

    Why, I’ll bet you can’t even define what you mean by “liberal.” (The kind you’ve been told to hate, that is.)

    This is important, because if you can’t define what you mean by bad “liberals” then all you are left with is a hatred of the founding principles of our nation. Or is that your point of view?

    So tell me, what makes a “liberal” bad enough to hate?

    [FSR comment: Had you read a few more of my blog posts, you’d know I don’t “hate liberals.” Had you read the “About Frank Robinson” link you’d note that I consider myself a “liberal.” And if you look in the mirror I think you will see what ideological hatred looks like.]

  6. A Change of Mind on Gay Marriage « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] in political idea wars, that deeply invested viewpoints are pretty impervious to changing. I’ve previously discussed, for example, confirmation bias – we welcome information that supports our beliefs, and discount […]

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