Now that George Bush is headed out the door and Republicans are foundering, it's not surprising there's suddenly a lot of talk about American stupidity. The Washington Post, the New York Times and Salon.com have all recently run essays about the dumbing down of the United States.
While Bush is a frequently mentioned exemplar of the trend, the immediate inspiration for all the essays is Susan Jacoby's new book, The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby, who has also been appearing on TV programs, argues that willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism have always played a cyclical role in American life, but she contends that the problem has become extra-acute in recent years.
She particularly cites the fusion of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. The combination creates a kind of arrogance that, for example, has the majority of Americans favoring the teaching of creationism in public schools alongside evolution.
It doesn't matter that evolution is evidence-based while creationism is a product of religious belief. In the dumber-than-ever American culture, it's only "fair" that opinions without factual basis be given the same hearing as fact-based theories. If you dare to question this bizarre "logic" that literally contradicts the meaning of science, you are immediately branded an "elitist intellectual" or an opponent of free speech.
As Jacoby notes, intellectuals can be liberal or conservative and both are equally capable of irrationality. The most obvious case is the neocons, highly educated thinkers whose fanatical ideology made it impossible for them to see the obvious fact that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Nor could they anticipate the post-invasion "quagmire" that many with clearer heads predicted.
Actually, it only required remembering Vietnam to predict what has occurred in Iraq, and Jacoby notes that loss of memory is also part of the new dumbness. Memory, particularly historical memory, is not cultivated in the schools and, in a world of 24/7 "infotainment," the entire culture suffers a kind of attention deficit disorder that makes memory difficult.
The stupidity has become so ubiquitous that it's not even evident to a lot of people in the media. In fact, many media people are perfect examples of the dumbing-down process. Junk science, like disregard of the facts pertinent to global climate change and the Bush administration's literal distortions of government-funded studies, is dutifully reported without question. When reporters and pundits are asked why they fail to confront and correct misinformation, they stupidly argue that "objectivity" requires that they remain silent.
The media's anti-intellectualism was evident in the 2000 presidential election, when even left-leaning New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich depicted Al Gore as a boring, pointy-headed intellectual. In 2004, Kerry got the same treatment.
Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal was still swooning over George Bush's plain-speakin' manliness and idiocy in 2004:
"He's normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. ... You know him. He's not exotic. But if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help. He'll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, 'Where's Sally?' He's responsible. He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world."
Now Peggy blames George Bush for ruining the Republican party. I guess, with the logic typical of her type, that means George Bush is secretly an intellectual.
The scariest aspect of the new dumbness is that few people seem to care. As any teacher of college freshman will tell you, writing skills and critical thinking have declined precipitously.
Public school students fall further behind their peers in other nations in areas such as math and science, too. Their ignorance of geography is shocking. Most can't even find Iraq on a world map. In fact, many (including adults) can't even identify the Middle East. You would think an educational system devoted to the citizens of a democracy with a global role would bother to teach enough geopolitics to read a damn map.
But who has the time, when you're busy developing a science curriculum based on the book of Genesis?
We fool ourselves if we think America's diminished status is just a result of our foreign policy. As the world grows smaller, we are seen more clearly, and people are realizing George Bush is not an anomaly. He is a perfect example of what has become of our collective national mind: arrogantly anti-intellectual, materialistic and unable to sort truth from wishful thinking.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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