Thoughtful, studied consideration does not reign supreme in American politics, and frankly, I can’t think of an era it did. Conversely, I also can’t think of an era like ours where crankery and ignorance was entertained so prominently and with such deference.
Author Isaac Asimov may have best characterized the mindless beast of legitimized stupidity in a 1980 column for Newsweek magazine.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been,” he wrote. “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” blew up like a keg of gunpowder when he dropped it on what he perceived to be the increasingly thick skulls of his fellow Americans in 1963.
Hofstadter argued that anti-intellectualism was a function of America’s cultural heritage from European colonialism and evangelical Protestantism, and not necessarily a by-product of small-d democracy.
In 1985, Neil Postman’s crowning achievment, “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” provided a most precient analysis of the current media-driven lobotimization of American public discourse.
Postman’s work drew a distinction between the Orwellian vision of a totalitarian government seizing individual rights and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where freedom and rights were voluntarily sacrificed in favor of medicated bliss, or Soma, which Postman compared to television.
Postman traced the development of human culture from its oral tradition origins to centuries of ever-expanding literacy culminating in the “Age of Reason,” to the point at which we now stand, as a televisual society.
Postman played on Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that “the medium is the message” by asserting that “the medium is the metaphor.”
Oral, literary and televisual cultures diverge radically in the processing of information, Postman argued. With the printed word, he said, complicated truths could be rationally conveyed. Reading exacts intellectual involvement at once interactive and dialectical.
Television demands nothing beyond passive viewing, a submission to the physical fact of its audio-visual presence, but nothing more.
With its focus on ratings and commercial feasbility, he said, television does not necessarily involve, much less encourage, honest intellectual engagement or rational argument.
This becomes a danger to society, Postman said, when the conveyance of important information manifests as just another form of entertainment. Television as entertainment alone is not dangerous, he said. But when the stakes are raised, when the direction of the commonwealth is in play, “infotainment” just won’t do. In fact, it’s actively harmful.
In 2009, Charles P. Pierce published “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”
Pierce’s work suggests that with the emergence of the television as our culture’s primary mode of communication, the appeal to “the gut” instead of the brain became paramount.
“The gut,” as it were, became the basis for the Three Great Premises of Idiot America.
To wit: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units. Anything can be true if somebody says it loud enough. And fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
The 2016 Election acts as tremendous verification for anti-intellectual theory, and a calamitous tipping point for our televisual culture.
Postman noted in his book that many of the presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries would not have been recognized visually by the average citizen walking down the street. What would’ve been recognized by the average citizen was their words – their quotes.
Our earliest presidents were among the most prominent pampheleteers of their time. The Republican Party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln, overcame the poverty of his Kentucky childhood as an obsessive reader, an auto-didact who “intellectualized” his way into the highest office in the land. Another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote 47 books, and claimed to read an average of one per day.
In 2016, the Republican Party has nominated a television celebrity for president – a man whose ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” has said, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”
The Republican Party has nominated a man who gained fame as a garish billionaire with a bad haircut, solidified that fame with a reality TV show, and made his foray into the political realm by tweeting crank “birther” accusations about the incumbent president being a Kenyan-born Muslim usurper.
In a primary debate, Trump failed to identify the nuclear triad, which is the strategic delivery system for America’s nuclear arsenal. He claims that only he can defeat Daesh (ISIS), but he doesn’t know the difference between the Kurds – American allies – and the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Donald Trump didn’t know what the Brexit was until a couple weeks before Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. He says he forms his foreign policy ideas with the power of his mind and by “watching the shows.” He has no compunction about dabbling in the fringes of crankdom, claiming that his primary opponent Senator Ted Cruz’ father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination. Trump has been quoted promising to “restore the U.S. Constitution” including “Article XII,” which doesn’t exist. (The U.S. Constitution has a total of seven.)
Cranks have been with us always, but marginalized. With the nomination of Trump, crankery is mainstreamed. Anti-intellectualism has reached a high water mark. We’ve hit peak crank. A Trumpean ethos has taken hold, saying it’s OK to form strong opinions based on instinct because we’re American and we don’t need facts to know that we’re right.
It’s as though we are bording a plane and choosing between pilots, but one of the “pilots” has never flown. He doesn’t know what the buttons do. He doesn’t know what the throttle is. He doesn’t know what the gauges tell. He doesn’t know how planes work. But he’s promising to “make this plane great again. Believe me, it’s going to be the best flight of your life. That I can tell you.”
It’s not a risk any rational human being should be willing to take.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.