Saturday, July 05, 2008

Book review: Just How Stupid Are We?

There are a few shibboleths in American politics, mostly created by politicians fearful of electoral retribution. Probably the most salient these days is being, or more accurately, being seen as soft on "national security". Another is raising taxes, no matter how vital taxation is to our national economic well-being. Rick Shenkman, in this relatively extended essay, takes aim at one he asserts underlies them all: the stupidity of the American voter. (Shenkman conflates the two descriptions of ignorance and true stupidity, but in effect, there is no difference, so this is a minor quibble.) That Americans are plainly ignorant of civics and history, let alone the more sophisticated study of political science, almost goes without saying. Poll after poll demonstrates our citizenry's unrelenting decline in the awareness of the world around them and its context. Shenkman rightfully devotes just a few pages specifically to proving this charge; the book is more concerned with the effects of this stupidity, which have almost destroyed our capacity for keeping our republic alive.
While Shenkman points to the role crafty political strategists (Karl Rove et al), our failing educational system, and our mass media have played in this phenomenon, he makes the argument that these are all merely reflective of the underlying willingness of the public to be fooled by crass appeals. We are unable to see through these charades and elect wise leaders because we aren't bright enough to know any better, and we aren't able/willing to put in the time and effort to educate ourselves any further. The portrait Shenkman paints of the public is a bleak one, but unfortunately, election after election is proving him right.
On the night of November 7, 2000, I stayed up all night waiting for the final result (which would obviously not come), finally giving up around 3AM. I had seen enough to know, however, that regardless of who won, the fact that such an idiot as Smirky could have gotten that close was an incredibly dispiriting sign. I was in the first quarter of library school, and one of my classes (covering the larger civic and political responsibility librarians have in the "information age") had a listserv to which we could all post messages. I wrote a long, impassioned screed about whether I had chosen the correct career, because if 1/2 the populace could conceivably vote for that clown, there was a serious lack of care about knowledge in the country. (At the time, remember, the most popularly stated reason for voting for Smirky was that he was the candidate "you wanted to have a beer with.") What was the point, therefore, of becoming an "information professional", when so few people even bother to become informed? So, I've been predisposed to agree with Shenkman's analysis all along.
The main issue for Shenkman isn't necessarily that people are stupid, however, it's that no one is talking about it. Politicians and pundits on both sides fall all over themselves trying not to upset "The People", currying favor with "The People", and pretending that "The People" are the sole wise, just, and correct arbiters of how the country should be run; arresting the slide to tyranny and the destruction of our way of life--let alone the whole world we are antagonizing--has become nearly impossible. How can we address this problem coherently if no one is willing to even state that there is one? Shenkman argues forcefully for a return to civics education for all as the primary means of recreating political and social awareness, and it is here that I think his book runs into problems.
Shenkman places an unhealthy trust in the same media he acknowledges has been failing us to help us. His argument that schools should require civics classes is a good one, but from whom do we get our information? He wants everyone to read newspapers to access the current events of the day, but critical assessment of almost every major newspaper reveals severe and increasing right wing bias, so how will that help? The right wing has been the political beneficiary of the "dumbing down" of the populace; they have zero motivation to arrest it. Current events testing in elementary, secondary, and collegiate education levels is a decent enough proposal, but who decides which events to cover, and whose analysis of them would we rely upon to give us insight? Shenkman blithely suggests that we can use "other sources" to augment newspapers to provide the raw materials for study, but which "other sources"? The Drudge Report? Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity? (Of course, I would argue that Daily Kos provides an actual fair and balanced look at political, science, and some economic topics, but my guess is that it would be an impossible sell to any governing board of education, unfortunately.)
I don't have the answer, either, so it looks like we may have the makings of an underpants gnomes crisis. For those of you wondering what the heck I'm talking about, one South Park episode showed a group of gnomes whose business plan read:
1. Collect underpants
2. ?
3. Profit

In this case, it would be:
1. Idea: teach civics
2. ?
3. Informed electorate

(Ok, it's not as elegant as the original, and way less funny . . .)

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