[13 August 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Is America really getting dumber or does it just seem that way? True, there are unmistakable signs that America is a nation of morons—the popularity of Nascar and the success of Rush Limbaugh are the first couple of examples that pop into mind—but that only proves how stupid Americans are, not how stupid they’ve become. It could be that the eight-year reign of George W. Bush simply brought all the cretins and simps out of the woodwork and into public service all at once, creating the illusion of dumbing down, when in reality, Americans may have always been this dumb and just never noticed it.
The idea of mental de-evolution in modern Western society dates back at least to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and has been touched upon since by dozens of authors, including Cyril Kornbluth, whose 1951 short story,The Marching Morons, instilled the fear of a dumb planet into a generation of sci-fi fans. Pop music has given us manifestos by DEVO and Green Day, and in the movies, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy postulated an incredibly stupid USA circa 2505, where the food supply collapses because idiot farmers insist on pouring energy drinks on their crops instead of water.
Stories of America’s descent into imbecility have intrinsic power, as they tap into apocalyptic fears and put a twist on the cherished myth that at one point in history, people were both smarter and more virtuous than they are now. Such a belief is conservative because it looks to the past for salvation, and it is universal because every great society inevitably believes in the legend of its own Golden Age.
Pierce’s entry into the mythos is an expansive vision of Duhmerica, replete with religious lunatics, blathering pundits, clueless politicians and a mass of drooling rubes who service them. Pierce goes a step beyond mere portraiture, however, positing his “Three Great Premises” which have allowed American idiocy to thrive over the last 100 years or so. Premise One: Any theory is valid if it moves units or otherwise makes money. Premise Two: Anything can be true if it is said loudly enough. Premise Three: Fact is that which enough people believe. These three principles, Pierce argues, interact inside the cavernous echo chamber of the mainstream media to form a kind of feedback loop in which only the most inflammatory, frivolous and lizard-brained ideas are amplified, drowning out the more sane and rational voices in American society.
It’s a theory that’s hard to refute, especially if one spends any time at all watching American cable news, where debate over the most serious and pressing issues has either degenerated into nonsense or evolved into some kind of new surrealist art form—it’s impossible to tell which at this point. The only bright spot on the national EEG meter often seems to come from the businesspeople who are savvy enough to make money from the whole spectacle. But that’s only if you consider capitalizing on the ruins of national discourse a bright thing to do.
Pierce, a veteran writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic and many other highbrow journals, uses a snappy style and an uncommonly sharp wit to gouge away at the purveyors of American dumbness. His crabby prose is a vital ingredient, as it is often called upon to muscle the reader through a narrative that gyrates wildly between topics as disparate as the JFK assassination and the Terri Schiavo saga.
In addition to a swelling cast of morons, saps and charlatans, Pierce also employs a pair of unlikely protagonists to tell his story, founding father James Madison and 1800s Atlantis freak Ignatius Donnelly, whom Pierce simultaneously lauds and ridicules. Neither one is really up to the task of guiding the reader, however, and their inclusion does nothing to stave off the impression that Pierce is trying to stitch together a crazy quilt of a book with scraps of unused or already published material. Still, that material is enjoyable, and the book is loaded with poignant observations, such as the uncanny resemblance of A.M. talk radio to its television analogue, professional wrestling.
Idiot America is an enjoyable read for the well-suited mindset of the reader, that is. Conservatives and Evangelicals will rightfully feel attacked, but then, as Pierce points out, they don’t seem to care about such attacks any more because they don’t care about reasoned debate anymore, finding faith and empty rhetoric simpler and far more comforting. Liberals will no doubt find something to be offended over (although there are surely more examples of liberal idiocy in the US than Pierce chooses to compile.) And moderates will find a lot to chuckle over and agree with, even if they have to endure a few detours through Weirdsville, USA, to get there.
But there’s also the problem of timing. During the Bush years, it felt refreshing and vindicating to read about how stupid Americans were and how crappy everything was. But lately, laughing at America’s collective intellect is about as much fun as kicking a sick dog. Maybe it’s all those intravenous hope injections we’ve been getting from the impossibly optimistic Obama administration.
Maybe it’s outrage fatigue, or a byproduct of a time that seems almost too perilous to be funny. In any case, Idiot America is a worthwhile history lesson and a useful reminder that, even in the post-Bush world, the idiots who believe that early humans rode dinosaurs to work everyday are not out of the race yet, they’re just winded and a little off-course. A few lucky breaks and a little more treachery could put them right back in the lead if we’re not careful. Of course, Americans not stupid enough to let that happen again. Are they?