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Literature

How the other half lives

Idiot America explores people’s unquestioning faith in dangerous ideas

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Idiot America—we’ve all been there. It’s that other country, overlaid on top of this one, that you hear on talk radio and Bill O’Reilly’s show, and it’s probably occupied by a few people you know: the cousin who swallows whatever Michael Savage feeds him; your Jesus-quoting co-worker who believes the hospice workers and death-bent liberals murdered Terri Schiavo; citizens who dismiss global warming because their gut tells them those hundreds of scientists are wrong or lying. It can be a scary place, Idiot America, because idiocy often has real consequences.

On assignment for Esquire in 2005, writer Charles P. Pierce visited the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky. Because its builders had to deal with A.) the Genesis timeline, which indicates the world is a few thousand years old; and B.) dinosaurs, the museum boasts dioramas of dinosaurs wearing saddles, because they were domesticated by primitive man. Thus Pierce’s new book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, was born.

In obvious ways, of course, the saddled dinosaur represents a flight from reason into a comprehensive belief system that relieves you of the responsibility to think critically about the world; religion offers a lot of ready-made talking points. But more than that, to Pierce it represents the triumph of feeling over thinking; the triumph of the idea that if enough people believe something, it must be true, or at least valid: “If something feels right,” he writes, “it must be treated with the same respect given something that actually is right. If something is felt deeply, it must carry the same weight as something that is true.” So it’s not the people who believe the museum’s hogwash that Pierce is after; it’s the larger society that grants them legitimacy because of how strongly they believe.

From Hebron, Kentucky, Pierce treks to the outposts of Idiot America: a talk-radio convention; the hospice where Schiavo died; an Alaskan island being eaten alive by global warming; the offices of some of the many experts ignored by the Bush administration in the run-up to war. He also ranges through history, returning frequently to the life and writings of James Madison, presented here as a voice of reason, popping up in ironic counterpoint to whatever idiocy Pierce is about the describe.

From all this, Pierce has formulated what he calls the Three Great Premises of Idiot America: 1.) Any theory is valid if it moves units; 2.) Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough; 3.) Fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Through this filter, he pushes a lot of what is, necessarily, rehash; old news. Some of it is quite good, such as his chapter exploring the dynamics of media exploitation and political cynicism attending the Schiavo case. If you didn’t follow every fold and wrinkle of it back then, some of this stuff will bowl you over. Same with his account of the Dover, Pennsylvania, intelligent-design flap.

Other stretches are less convincing; the chapter on global warming, notwithstanding his journey to Alaska, is thin and doesn’t surprise you with new insights. And here and there are patches of the sort of overcaffeinated prose that typically masks a lack of depth or freshness.

A secondary purpose of Idiot America is to celebrate the idea of the genuinely useful American crank, and here Pierce excels. He means those peripheral visionaries who float wild ideas from the margins and challenge the national imagination; if their ideas get traction, it’s because they have some radical new value. If not, the crank remains isolated beyond the mainstream, aloof from a society that doesn’t understand him.

This is as opposed to someone like Rush Limbaugh, a crank who has been absorbed, undigested, into the mainstream solely because he has an audience and is therefore presumed to know something. He doesn’t stimulate our national imagination, he stifles it. Pierce: “The crank is devalued when his ideas are accepted untested and unchallenged into the mainstream simply because they succeed as product.”

Pierce has a few cranky chromosomes in his own DNA, and so he has written an entertaining polemic that will largely reinforce what you already know, or, if you happen to be a citizen of Idiot America—if you agree with the preacher in Dover who complained, “We’ve been attacked by the educated, intelligent segment of our culture”—it will underline what you don’t.

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