Sunday, March 30, 2008

Infotainment and US Anti-Intellectualism

Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times has an excellent opinion piece today called With a Few More Brains. Rather than re-write, I'll just quote directly:

A 34-nation study found Americans less likely to believe in evolution than citizens of any of the countries polled except Turkey.

President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying "the jury is still out." No word on whether he believes in little green men.

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth ...oh, oops.

"America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism," Susan Jacoby argues in a new book, The Age of American Unreason. She blames a culture of "infotainment," sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies.

He notes how Bill Clinton deliberately disguised his intelligence for fear of alienating the American populace. Politicians who come across as too intelligent suffer at the polls. (WTF!) Susan Jacoby asserts, "Our country is barely smarter than a fifth grader - no wonder it's drowning in religious fundamentalism and political ideologues on both sides."

Jacoby's earlier book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was named a notable book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Times Literary Supplement (London) and The Guardian named it Outstanding International Book of the Year.

The article concludes with:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.



Blogger Dustin said...

I remember thinking this was the case back in school. People would ostracize "nerds". Might this just be nerd hating all grown up? I also would like to submit the idea that everyone is equal as a contributing factor. Everyone is not equal, and having that pointed out breeds resentment. Isn't resentment how this kind of thing gains traction? I mean, isn't that the driving force behind the whole conservative movement?

3/31/2008 7:27 AM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

I would say that the issue involves substantially more than resentment or rejection of those who are bright. I think x4mr used the stupidity photo because it’s hilarious and visually captures the danger of a serious situation. More than smart vs. stupid, it involves open vs. closed, learning vs. ignorance, growth vs. stagnation.

The religious fanaticism that clings to creationism, a 6000 year old universe, rejection of evolution, is essentially no different than the suppression of Galileo or Newton. Don’t bother me with the truth, I would much prefer to be right and better than you, and I am unwilling to change. Not to talk like x4mr or Landmark, but the position involves an “ontological immaturity” and obstinacy. Deep down, they know they are talking sheer nonsense when they say Noah put dinosaurs on the Ark, but never underestimate the power of denial. They will adopt whatever position is required to preserve their world view. They will, in fact, die rather than modify their outlook.

The article (and x4mr as a proponent of education would likely agree) is spot on when it points to education as a solution. A person does not have to be particularly bright to reject religious extremism. One good course that exposes them to other cultures and other religions handles it for all but the truly challenged. A decent comparative religion course doesn’t invalidate whatever religion one practices, but it does show the non-exclusivity of human spirituality. Even a mediocre student exposed to some math and science is going to get that the earth is not 6000 years old.

I’ve not read Jacoby, but if she is right that the country has the education of a fifth grader, that explains a lot of its behavior. Bill O’Reilly is an absolute idiot, and he is one of the most popular news shows on the air.

The country had an explosion of knowledge in the 60's and 70's. Now we have Eggplant. Look at the results.

3/31/2008 11:33 AM  
Blogger Dustin said...

Just to clarify, Conservatism as I understand it is a school of thought that holds past ideas and culture in higher regard than more modern ideas and culture. The driving force is to resist change, and look to the past for solutions. By no means do I think "conservatives" are stupid.

I do not understand how something as simple as a scientific observation has become such a political hotpoint, or even how it has been suborned (by all appearances) by a political ideology. I think that the mistake is that "science" is being touted as some diametrically opposed belief system, when it's actually just a tool. I suppose the questions that it raises imperil some beliefs, but I personally do not think they are mutually exclusive.

Maybe I am naive to think that all of this is simply a misunderstanding. (whether or not that was intentionally perpetrated is a different discussion altogether.)

I have a hard time buying that the answer is "conservatives are responsible for this!" as convenient as that may be, and frankly, it strikes me as intellectually lazy.

3/31/2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

I would split up the conservatives, Dustin, into categories based on semantics. William F. Buckley was highly educated and highly intelligent, yet he was a conservative icon. His conservatism followed from convictions grounded in beliefs about economics, politics, and human governance. Randy Graf's campaign manager, RT Gregg, was very conservative. He and I talked for two hours over cigars about certain literature (including Ayn Rand), American History, and social organization.

Without really getting into it, for some the semantics of conservative have to do with individual liberty and the reach of government. Let everyone pursue self-interest and all will be fine. Corporate behavior, as far as I am concerned, has profoundly cemented the demise of any legitimacy to that view. If permitted, ExxonMobile will cook this planet to extinction without the slightest hesitation.

I don't have to tell you about the mortgage fiasco. Such developments shift me from the right to a central view that regards corporations with extreme skepticism. The default is to push every barrier and screw everything and everyone for as much as possible subject to calculated probabilities of possible repercussions. Corrupt whatever can be, oh, excuse me, hire a lobbyist. But I don't go so left that personal accountability gets lost into utopia vision where the safety net can insure prosperity.

Back to topic, I confess I haven't read Jacoby either, but her basic premise makes perfect sense. A study asked 100 adult women to name the Secretary of State. A staggering 17 of 100 could answer. The same women were asked to name two of the four of Angela Jolie's daughters. Over 70 could name two, and 54 could name all four.

Intentionally or not (and maybe Jacoby gets into this), we are being "sheepified." Let's get everyone talking about Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, American Idol, and Survivor.

Now let's have the public discuss health care, global warming, the deficit, Iraq, tax reform, and the funding of progress.

I don't consider conservatism responsible for brain death. Brain death does, however, fuel religious fanaticism, sometimes linked to "social conservatism."

We're not all the way there and obviously this is oversimplified, but to me the USA occurs as moving in the direction towards a nation of clueless sheep offering themselves to the winners of wars fought between wolves for the spoils.

3/31/2008 4:55 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

I don't mean to go off track or hijack the thread, but just today we see the crumbling of the "let the free maximize their profit" Adam Smith invisible hand view with the Bush administration's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen's plan to overhaul the regulatory apparatus that oversees the nation's financial system.

It wants to create a mortgage commission to oversee mortgage brokers.

This is the GOP Bush Administration talking. I thought they wanted smaller government and free rape and pillage passes for all companies?

The tide is turning. As the article said about a certain cycle having run its course, I pray it is right. The election of Reagan slaughtered responsible government seeking to serve citizens, replacing it with a government for hire to the highest bidder. Regulations and controls were dismantled, and we witness orgy after orgy. Remember the S&L? Now it's subprime, Enron, Bear Stearns.

Who pays the tab? You and me, or better said, our children.

3/31/2008 9:37 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...


they aren't actually creating anything new. I'm inclined to believe Krugman on this one when he says they are rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. I have seen this move in bureaucracy before. just "reorganize" everything, and you can make it look as if you are doing something without actually having to. It's smokescreen.

thanks for the clarification X, I suppose I didn't understand what the argument actually was.

4/01/2008 7:27 AM  

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