Writer: America rushing to embrace ‘stupid’

Other nations are noticing that the people of the United States and science aren’t on good terms.

In a scathing article in Maclean’s, writer Jonathan Gatehouse asks if the most powerful nation on Earth has lost its mind?

In South Carolina, he says, a school girl’s attempt to have a state fossil was derailed by debate over evolution. He also cites the ongoing dispute against vaccinations, the collective shoulder shrug surrounding domestic spying, the banning of classic books in schools, and, of course climate change.

“Everywhere you look these days,” he writes, “America is in a rush to embrace the stupid.”

Ouch, eh?

There’s a reason, he says, that politicians turn to poor grammar when they want to appeal to the masses.

They don’t appear to be getting much smarter as they age. A 2013 survey of 166,000 adults across 20 countries that tested math, reading and technological problem-solving found Americans to be below the international average in every category. (Japan, Finland, Canada, South Korea and Slovakia were among the 11 nations that scored significantly higher.)

The trends are not encouraging. In 1978, 42 per cent of Americans reported that they had read 11 or more books in the past year. In 2014, just 28 per cent can say the same, while 23 per cent proudly admit to not having read even one, up from eight per cent in 1978. Newspaper and magazine circulation continues to decline sharply, as does viewership for cable news. The three big network supper-hour shows drew a combined average audience of 22.6 million in 2013, down from 52 million in 1980. While 82 per cent of Americans now say they seek out news digitally, the quality of the information they’re getting is suspect. Among current affairs websites, Buzzfeed logs almost as many monthly hits as the Washington Post.

The advance of ignorance and irrationalism in the U.S. has hardly gone unnoticed. The late Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize back in 1964 for his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which cast the nation’s tendency to embrace stupidity as a periodic by-product of its founding urge to democratize everything. By 2008, journalist Susan Jacoby was warning that the denseness—“a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations”—was more of a permanent state. In her book, The Age of American Unreason, she posited that it trickled down from the top, fuelled by faux-populist politicians striving to make themselves sound approachable rather than smart. Their creeping tendency to refer to everyone—voters, experts, government officials—as “folks” is “symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards,” she wrote. “Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls.”

That inarticulate legacy didn’t end with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Barack Obama, the most cerebral and eloquent American leader in a generation, regularly plays the same card, droppin’ his Gs and dialling down his vocabulary to Hee Haw standards. His ability to convincingly play a hayseed was instrumental in his 2012 campaign against the patrician Mitt Romney; in one of their televised debates the President referenced “folks” 17 times.

But one scholar contends this isn’t a uniquely American thing. It’s a reaction to voters’ inability to change the direction of things and set policy. He asks whether citizen “engagement” really matters anyway.

“If your vision of democracy is one in which elections provide solemn opportunities for voters to set the course of public policy and hold leaders accountable, yes,” Larry Bartels, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, wrote. “If you take the less ambitious view that elections provide a convenient, non-violent way for a society to agree on who is in charge at any given time, perhaps not.”

(h/t: Christopher Tassava)

  • “In a scathing article in Maclean’s, writer Jonathan Gatehouse asks if the most powerful nation on Earth has lost its mind?”

    Yes, yes we have.

    I blame fluoridation.

    It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice.

    • Yosh

      Don’t be so stupid. The moon landing was the start of all our problems. We are never meant to go there. Wait, maybe fluoridation came first. I forget.

      • Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946. Do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk… ice cream. Ice cream, children’s ice cream…ice cream!!!

        • jon

          A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice.

          • joshschr

            You’re talking about pollution, right?

          • He’s talking about “Dr. Strangelove”.

  • John O.

    Gatehouse overlooks the obvious. Most persons with any level of intellect in today’s world are smart enough to not run for public office in the first place.

  • Guest
  • As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.

  • Chris

    I don’t know if this post will generate thoughtful comments or not, but I hope it is obvious that only a minority of Americans have embraced anti-knowledge in favor of cultural dogma/beliefs. The problem is that one political party depends heavily on that group. It might be 25% of the population, but as long as the other republicans cater to them, they have the power of almost 50%, which is amplified in the senate and means not a lot can really get done on some issues, like global warming, because of that minority of the population that makes us all look bad to the outside world. When six of seven GOP candidates in a primary debate raised their hands to say they don’t believe in evolution, that is a perfect illustration of the problem, because they almost certainly do believe in evolution, they are just afraid to say so.

  • Jon

    “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.”

    – Isaac Asimov

  • Joe

    You don’t need objective truth to buy and sell, just objective value, the American god.

  • Dave

    “Barack Obama wants everybody to go to college. What a snob!!” (cheering, applause)

    — Rick Santorum

    • Joe

      Rick Santorum wants everyone who doesn’t believe what he believes to go to one of the poorly managed “mental health facilities” he has part ownership in, where they will probably end up abused and denigrated. And he’ll blame Obama for increasing your access to mental health care!

      • Mike T

        Rick, Paul Ryan, Sarah, Boehner…. all want to get approval from their religious belief system before doing anything. They tout the constitution but want their version of religious. A theocracy doesn’t work but that is what too many politicians think is good. The whole Judeo/Christian concept is a premise that needs to go away. The Mayans and inca and numerous other cultures were perfectly civil without that influence. Get religion out of politics and we will make a lot of progress toward an enhanced life.

  • MinnSusan

    My spouse, a middle school teacher, was just telling me about how frustrated he is with some of his students who are smart and clearly capable, but won’t do their work or try at all in order to be accepted by their peer groups and, sometimes, by their parents. He said it’s a real problem in the school that they’re trying to address.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    In a word: Yes. That’s where every race to the lowest common denominator ends.

  • Roger

    Hmm. One only need look to the residents of Toronto who voted for a true ‘stupid’ mayor. Yet these voters apparently felt a closer affinity to him than the more ‘progressive’ (elite?) politicians.

    • Toronto’s mayor is an addict and not necessarily “stupid.” Those who elected him are the stupid ones.

  • pulpstick

    A noted President once warned of a “Military Industrial Complex” but no where do I hear of an “Intellectual, Academic Consortium” that is intent on maintaining the status quo.