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Has “Idiot America” Become More Idiotic?

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In a 2009 interview with Charles P. Pierce about his book Idiot America, BuzzFlash wrote: “Pierce has written an irreverent, droll, insightful account of how the land of the enlightenment – which threw off the monarchical shackles of Europe – has come to value ‘truthiness’ and belief not grounded in reason or science. In short, a good deal of this great nation has become grounded in a parallel universe that has little to do with fact or enlightened innovation.”

At that time, we discussed with Pierce his three basic premises for how Idiot America came to be: “Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units; anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough, and fact is that which enough people believe. The truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.”

You can read BuzzFlash’s 2009 interview with Pierce by clicking here.

You can receive Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free with a minimum contribution to Truthout/BuzzFlash by entering our donors’ section here.

Mark Karlin: It’s been a good seven years since you first began to formulate your classic book, Idiot America. The first question has to be: Taking a look at the Republican primary candidates in 2012, including Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, have we become any less idiotic?

Charles P. Pierce.Charles P. Pierce. (Photo: P. Pierce: Judging by that remarkable field, at the very least, I wasted time writing that book. The seeds of that crop, by the way, had been ripening for 30 years. Remember that night that I mention in the book during the 2008 campaign when a third of that year’s primary field declined to admit a belief in evolution.

MK: Clearly, as you have pointed out by citing the likes of Richard Hofstadter, there has always been an anti-intellectual strain in America. In our last interview, you noted how that has been combined with “the zealot [who] is very often the hardest person to argue with, because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he knows what he believes.” Since you wrote your book, we’ve seen the religious right who doesn’t believe in evolution increase their influence over education in many areas of the nation. Do you think that this fanatical commitment to a denial of facts has crested or is it still in ascendance?

CP: It’s increasing in some places, decreasing in others. What’s happening in the Louisiana charter schools is a damned shame.

MK: You have discussed the significant role that television has played in creating an uninformed public. It appears televisions are everywhere now, even flat screen TVs in upscale restaurants. Is the visual image overpowering the written word to the extent that many US citizens exist in a virtual post-literate society?

CP: That’s a tough one. I think, over the last couple of years, the written word has made a comeback on the Internet. For example, I’m seeing more long-form narrative experiments there. The overall noise level, however, continues to increase. Do we really need TV screens to watch when we pump gas? Really?

MK: Do you believe that FOX “News” is helping to create an alternative universe Idiot America bubble? You discuss the inanity of being Sean Hannity in your book, for instance.

CP: The bubble exists, and it is goddamn dangerous. It clearly was dangerous to Mitt Romney as a politician because it kept him from believing he was in trouble, right up to the moment they called the election the other way. The bubble is created when we go into denial that there are consequences to believing nonsense. It seems right now that the mother of the Newtown shooter may have been living partly in the bubble of survivalist paranoia. FOX has contributed to both of these bubbles.

MK: Let’s look at the rabid denial that global warming exists. More than 80 percent of Republicans in Congress appear to believe that it does not exist – and many Democrats don’t seem to see any imperative in resolving it. Here we see a climate change denial propaganda machine – in large part financed by the fossil fuel industry and polluting companies – having, it appears, successfully debunked the growing degradation of our planet. Are we in an age when there are simply no facts; only, as you have noted, falsehoods turned into realties by those who scream the loudest and get the most coverage on television?

CP: Again, the real danger is that we’re in an era where we think there are no consequences to believing nonsense. That’s the reason I went to Shishmaref in Alaska for the book. The people there think the whole “debate” is goddamn crazy.

MK: Let me take a quote from our last interview with you and ask you to apply it to someone who appeared on the political horizon since then. You said, “And now we have entertainment where a dialogue should be. We got entertainment where our politics should be. We got religion where our science should be.” Is Sarah Palin a good example of this?

CP: I think she’s sui generis in almost every regard. I’m just sorry she came along too late for the book, although I had to rewrite almost an entire chapter at the end just to deal with the phenomenon of her.

MK: Are there any regional differences in Idiot America as far as numbers of people living in alternative realities?

CP: Living in them? No. Demanding that other people live in them? Yes. We have actual laws being passed in the South and West enshrining nonsense into law.

MK: A little more than 60 years ago the then-Soviet Union beat America into space with the Sputnik. The United States, as far as one can generalize, was aghast. When Kennedy came into power, we began a national scramble to become the most scientific nation on earth and to be the first to put a man on the moon, which we did. What happened since then? We’ve become the nation of anti-science.

CP: It’s amazing to me, and the answer is vast. The one point I would make is that scientists themselves lost the ability to explain what they were doing in such a way that the general public could understand. But the active contempt for science is a new deal, and the Founders would be sickened by it.

MK: In a 1961 classic book on our national mindset, Daniel Boorstin wrote about the emergence of pseudo-events in America. In The Image, Boorstin presciently discussed how we were becoming a people whose minds were molded not by reality, but by the manufactured event and image. Don’t our modern political campaigns rely heavily on pseudo-events rather than the reality of the issues faced by most Americans?

CP: No question. At the same time, we have more information than ever, and we seem less informed than ever. It’s a strange place to be.

MK: One of your final chapters is entitled, “The Principles of Automatic Pilot.” In it, you discuss how those who objected to the lies that were created to justify invading Iraq either didn’t speak up or weren’t listened to. You talk about those who understood terrorists better than anyone, but were ignored. How does this apply to “the principles of automatic pilot”?

CP: The metaphor was based on accounts from airplane crashes in which the pilots forgot to disengage the autopilot until too late. The actual human expert was defeated by the machine. The Iraq war was a bloodier example of what’s going on with the climate crisis. The more you knew, the easier you were to dismiss.

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