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Literature

The consequences of nonsense

Talking with Charles P. Pierce, author of Idiot America

As a journalist for Esquire and the Boston Globe Magazine, you’ve surely come across a lot of book-worthy topics. Why did this one jump out?

It began as an Esquire piece in 2005 [about the Creation Museum; see review]. As I worked through that piece, I thought that there would be a good and worthwhile book in trying to make as clear as I could the consequences of believing in, and acting on, nonsense. I think you’ll notice in the book that I differentiate between the greatness of America in producing people who are completely crazy—and it’s a wonderful thing about us. But if we act upon it as a society, and if we accept these ideas whole into the mainstream, actual people get hurt, and actual damage is done.

To clarify, when you talk about “idiot America,” you’re not really talking about people gifted by nature with a low IQ. You’re talking about willful ignorance and a mistrust of expertise …

Well, not so much a mistrust of expertise, which can be helpful. Rather, I think it’s a feeling that the more expert you are in something, the less you know about it. It’s one thing to distrust expertise. It’s another thing to simply say that because someone has spent his life dealing with something, he’s less to be relied upon than how I feel about it. And that’s a problem. Idiot America, as I say in the book, is a place we will into being. It’s a state of collective drift. It’s not even the people who believe what I consider to be nonsense. It’s not the people who go to the Creation Museum. It’s the society at large that’s determined that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least equally valid.

How much of this is human nature, and how much is unique to the American character?

I think we do have something in our national DNA—and I think it’s a good thing—that makes us enthusiastic about ideas that are off the plumb a little bit. And I think it’s really good; I mean, it’s how we wound up with Little Richard. It is also essentially American in that we try to be a little fair-minded in what we do, and in addition we don’t pay as much attention to the prerogatives of governing ourselves as we should.

You address talk radio a lot in the book. Do you think those technologies—talk radio, the Internet—have increased the amount of idiocy, or do they just bring into relief what was previously untapped?

That’s a really good question. I have no idea how you would quantify that to say they’ve increased it. They do amplify it. They do bring it into the mainstream. If you are a megasuccessful radio talk-show host, your ideas, undigested, become an important part of the national dialogue, whether or not you know what you’re talking about. And that’s a problem.

One of the scariest lines in the book is when you note, archly, that because Gordon Liddy has an audience, he must know something.

That’s exactly what I mean. And that was the whole principle behind the talk-radio conference that I went to [Chapter 5: “Radio Nowhere”]. Because there wasn’t any workshop at that conference about any issue you might talk about on your radio show. It was about how to do a better radio show. And if you do a good-enough radio show, then what you’re saying must be true.

In the book I address what I call the three great premises of idiot America, and the third one is that “fact” is what enough people believe, and “truth” is how fervently they believe it—whether it’s true or not.

You’re almost as skeptical about Obama as you are Bush—

I haven’t had enough time to get as skeptical, but I’m sorta wandering down that highway. [Laughs] I do believe he does tend—out of what is a good-hearted willingness to hear all points of view—to enable nonsense. It’s something that’s been forced upon people who want to be president of the United States, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I mean, I recall when he was running for president, and he went out to Rick Warren’s church in California—now, why Rick Warren got to vet presidential candidates I have no idea, but let’s stipulate that he did. And he asked Obama, “When does a baby get human rights?” Now, nobody really knows that. That’s a question for philosophers. As I say in the book, if you want a president who knows the answer to that question, vote for Thomas Aquinas. But he [Obama] couldn’t say that, so he had to cobble together some kind of vaguely faith-based answer and move on to the next topic, and I don’t think that’s a good thing—and given the problems we have in this country, I don’t think it’s the best part of his personality.

In the book you try to rehabilitate the idea of the American crank.

One of the heroes of my book is a guy named Ignatius Donnelly, who was a congressman and one of the creators of modern pseudo-science. I mean, all those specials you see on the History Channel having to do with Atlantis, they all come out of his work. I think it’s good that this country can produce guys like that, and I think they’re important because they challenge our national imagination. They challenge us to think in different ways. The important thing is to keep them in their place, and for them to keep their place. Which is to stay proudly and deliberately out of the mainstream, and either make society come to them or arrange that their ideas become so integrated into society that the crazier parts fall away and the helpful parts stay. And now we have a situation where every crank has a radio show, a television program, a book contract or a suit in federal court. It does no one any good. It doesn’t do the crank any good; he just becomes a guy in the debate who’s wrong. And there should be a prouder place for him than that.

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