Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This Is Pretty Good

Who was it who said that you can never underestimate the intelligence of the American people? Eh, anyway, dealing with the same theme:

Obama tests America's cult of ignorance
By Kevin Horrigan

Early on in Robert Harris' new novel, "The Ghost," a literary editor says to an author who ghost-writes celebrity memoirs, "Tell me. When did it become fashionable to be stupid? That's the thing I don't understand. The cult of the idiot. The elevation of the moron."

I worried about this question last week as I listened to Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race. I wondered, is America going to get this? Isn't this speech way too carefully constructed and nuanced? Shouldn't he have explained what he meant by "Jim Crow"? Shouldn't he have explained who William Faulkner was?

What's he doing giving this speech at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday morning? Doesn't he know about prime time? Why did he write this speech himself? Doesn't he have speechwriters and focus groups who can test this stuff? Shouldn't he be shouting and waving his arms instead of standing coolly behind a lectern and talking in measured cadence? Why isn't he pandering?

In what surely ranks as, among other things, one the boldest political gambles in modern times, Sen. Obama decided that the American people were willing to wrestle with complex ideas about the most divisive issue in nation. If it turns out he's right, it will be a signal moment in recent intellectual history.

The trend surely has been in the other direction. In her controversial new book "The Age of American Unreason," author Susan Jacoby argues that the "scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functioning democracy. During the past four decades, America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic."

In other words, she argues, it's become fashionable to be stupid.

Here is a nation founded by an eerily atypical cadre of intellectuals — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and their ilk — who not only had read the Greeks but also had absorbed them, who had read Locke and Voltaire and were building a nation along Enlightenment principles.

Here is a nation that has been led by that archetypal American hero, the self-made man: the Lincoln who strides out of the backwoods with an ax on his shoulder and a book in his hand; the Truman who failed as a farmer, failed as a haberdasher but somehow, because he read widely and deeply, had the wisdom to help rebuild a shattered world.

And now, here is this same nation, led by a man who can't correctly pronounce the word "nuclear" and who once told an interviewer that he avoids reading newspapers because they're full of "opinions."

This is not to say that President Bush is stupid, only that he is profoundly intellectually incurious, willing to substitute belief for science, ideology for fact. And in this, he is typical of his age.

"Just before the 2004 presidential convention," Jacoby writes, "the journalist Ron Suskind reported a chilling conversation with a senior Bush aide who told Suskind that members of the press were part of what the Bush administration considers 'the reality-based community' — those who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality."

The aide bragged that "when we act, we create our own reality."

These "realities" — that the Iraq war has been a stunningly successful response to 9/11, that FEMA did a heck of a job in responding to Hurricane Katrina, that tax cuts for the rich benefited all Americans, that tapping telephones in Tuscaloosa stops terrorists in Timbuktu — speak for themselves.

In much the same way, many Americans create their own reality from what they choose to believe, be it fundamentalist preachers preaching that the world is 4,000 years old to street rumors about AIDS being a white plot unleashed to devastate black communities. The A.C. Nielsen Co. reports the average American watched 4 hours and 30 minutes a day of television in 2006. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that the same average American spends 26 minutes a day reading.

Oh, and the choices TV offers! You don't ever have to watch anything hard or unpleasant if you don't want to. If you choose, you can watch people getting tattoos for an hour or two each day. You can devote yourself 24 hours a day to sports news or celebrity news or news that you agree with, and commentators who tell you only what you want to hear. And when they make fun of egghead professors and book learning — global warming, what a joke! — you can revel in your own anti-intellectualism.

Politicians know all of this, of course. That's why they use 30-second attack ads that pander to short attention spans and that reinforce distorted beliefs. TV news directors know it, too; to avoid driving off any more of their dwindling audiences, they try not to use any more than 10 seconds of any candidate's remarks. In 2000, Jacoby reports, the average political sound-bite was down to 7.8 seconds.

So there was Barack Obama, making a 37-minute speech on a very unpleasant subject, replete with literary and historical allusions, in the middle of a Tuesday morning, trusting that Americans somehow would stop and pay attention to it. Even if you don't plan to vote for the man, you have to hope he was right.