“Idiot America” and What It Means To You

Posted by on February 11, 2012 in Book Review, Featured, Thoughts | 5 comments

Just finishing up that great book on the current popular and political climate that is the USA, “Idiot America – How stupidity became a virtue in the Land of the Free” by Charles P Pierce, and I’m seeing some parallels between the USA and Australia. Though many of the initial conditions in America have not been replicated here, Australia being founded from a stance of convenience for the British colonisers, and America from a need to escape from religious, social and political prejudices. This makes a large difference to where we are now in history, but many of the points about what is happening now are equally valid.

Pierce’s “Idiot America” is founded on 3 basic principles:

Premise One: Any theory is valid if it moves units or otherwise makes money. Premise Two: Anything can be true if it is said loudly enough. Premise Three: Fact is that which enough people believe.

This rise of stupidity in the USA, as illustrated in several historical and current events, comes from one of the basic founding gestures of America, the idea of freedom; freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship. This gave rise to the idea of “the American crank”, an illustration of people’s rights to believe what they want and profess it as fact, regardless of what the facts may be. The “crank” is as much a part of the American culture as is the flag-waving veteran, the homemaking grandmother, and the right to carry a firearm. These folks are loveable for their follies in their own environment, and necessary to add colour to a hugely diverse country, and in some cases a tourist attraction, but are were never taken seriously (the extension of the medicine man and the charlatan in the days of the old west), but give these people a loud enough bullhorn and people start trumpeting the craziness right alongside them.

All it takes is one crazy idea, for instance, that 9/11 was an inside job, publicise it and bring in just enough doubt, and suddenly you have a conspiracy with enough people following it to give it weight under Pierce’s “Premise Three: Fact is that which enough people believe.” Add to this, truth becomes a “fact” once it has been trumpeted loudly enough.

Without spoiling the book for you, I’m going to move forward to show how this is replicated here in Australia to some degree.

In my interview with Lawrence Krauss from November 2010, he said this in relation to the crackpottery which is so rife in America:

“Well I know, and it’s true, but some people tell me it’s just an American problem, but what I tell them is that The United States exports everything, both good and bad, so just wait.”

And this is true, we see it again and again in our media, and in our pop culture; Meryl Dorey and  The Australian Vaccination Network with their tireless chatter about how immunisation is bad for society, while we see a rise in pertussis and measles in areas where vaccination is low; the knee-jerk reactions against “boat people” and how they are apparently invading our shores in their millions, threatening to destroy our way of life; the fallacy of the downtrodden religious, while they still enjoy their privileged position above reproach in politics and society. And there are more. We give these people a soapbox from which to stand and bellow their insanity, and once they reach enough people, their ideas become ingrained as fact, at least within subcultures and groups of the convinced.

This is not constrained to Australia and the USA either, the charlatan and the mystic, the conspiracy theorist and the Nazi apologist, the people who claim the weird and fanciful are everywhere, and in this increasingly connected world, more people hear their howls of indignation when we try to apply empirical truth to their “Third Premise” version of reality. While the American “crank” and the Australian “larrikin” are very important parts of our histories, we must take them with a grain of salt, as history has shown us, and not follow the latest trend of conspiratorial nonsense, at least not on face value.

Pierce’s book, while simply adding to the piles of things wrong with the world, shows us how people can take an idea like creationism, and turn it into Jesus on the back of a velociraptor, and how Dan Brown’s novels become accepted as history by an unquestioning mainstream. It’s a highly entertaining book, and it would be very funny if it weren’t also true.

The fact that the cover features a picture of George Washington astride a tyrannosaurus-rex, holding a sword as if to say “ONWARD HO!” should give you an idea to what awaits you within these pages. Highly recommended reading.

“Idiot America” is available for purchase from my bookstore.

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  1. It’s kind of scary to think that stupidity is something that can be exported.

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  2. Sigh. This would be an entertaining book if I didn’t live in America. Those 3 premises are too true to be funny…Especially the 3rd one. The scariest part is that America is still a very powerful, influential nation. With a public willing to believe anything, and increasingly hostile to science and reason, summed to the limitless corporate influence on the public sphere, all neatly wrapped in religious folly, the whole planet ends up being imperiled. Think climate change denialism, for example. Not to mention the blind faith in free market capitalism and its power to resolve all issues.

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  3. Nice review and, as Adriana said, would be funny if not so terribly true. Far, far too many people went from finding Homer Simpson to be a funny, adorable cartoon protagonist to wanting to be Homer Simpson. It makes you want to pull your hair out or yell at inanimate objects or sigh heavily and comment to your pets about how fucked we are.

    I think this should be read alongside Michael Specter’s Denialism – unless of course you think the resulting depression will make you suicidal.

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  4. A warm ember burns in every man’s heart for stupidity–
    as long as it heats his favorite porridge.

    Every man and woman will gleefully scorn an opponent’s laughably obvious idiocies–
    but blindly defend the sacred scraps of his or her own foolish meal.

    As go the individuals, so go the nations.

    The crucial question:
    Is whatever is NOT blatantly & universally accepted as stupid allowed to rise or capable of rising to the surface, despite all cultural, political & military missteps and manipulations?

    Is clear debate and non-vicious, nonviolent talk allowed about everyone’s pet idiocies?

    If so, to that degree, that society is free and healthy.

    Who knows? New truths might emerge by opening formerly taboo subjects & points of view for discussion.

    It’s a shocking thought:
    No matter what we think, believe or un-believe, it’s okay for it to change! Now just let’s convince the Pope, the Pentagon & IRS about this…

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  5. The general rule seems to be; Trust in those who loudly distrust the folks you’re iffy about.

    In politics this translates to Trust in those who loudly distrust the government of the day.

    In health… Trust in those who loudly distrust doctors & medical science.

    In religion… Trust in those who loudly distrust infidels.


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