Thursday, October 2, 2008

Just How Stupid Are We?

The premise behind this book by Rick Shenkman is a very simple one - if you're under the impression that American representative democracy is in dismal shape, and want to know why, just look around you, at the people you see and work with every day - and you might want to take a gander in a mirror while you're at it. I'm not sure that I agree with Shenkman's use of the word "stupid," as "willfully ignorant" seems to be a more apt description. But "Just How Willfully Ignorant Are We?" makes for a clunky title, so "stupid" it is.

This is a short read, a little shy of 200 pages (in hardback) including a list of sources - this is a book that you can take down on a lazy weekend day. But Shenkman covers a lot of ground. He deals with the general lack of detailed historical and political knowledge that plagues the American public, pointing out in some cases appallingly basic facts that people claim ignorance of in polls and studies. (About 30% of the population doesn't know what the Holocaust was? Really? Only one in five can correctly tell you the number of seats in the United States Senate? A significant portion don't understand that amending the Constitution is the process by which changes are made? Wow.) Despite the huge amount of data at the fingertips of anyone who has a live web connection, many Americans don't bother to reach out and rake the information in. And, of course, where there is political advantage to had in ignorance, politicians encourage it.

After having made the point that the average American voter is ignorant, Shenkman goes on to explain that the electorate's tendency to believe what they want to believe short-circuits their rationality. Conservatives lionized Ronald Reagan, seemingly having forgotten that he ballooned the federal deficit - and they punished George H. W. Bush when he was forced to raise taxes to try and reign it in. Reagen became a myth, and Shenkman deals next with the American fondness for myths, most especially the myth of "The People," which holds that the average American person on the street is wise, intelligent and savvy about what government should and should not be doing. This in turn, segues into the idea of the people should be in control, even though, as Shenkman points out, the public's attention is fickle and tends to deal with very visceral, here-and-now issues, rather than the big picture.

And part of the problem is Television. Despite everything we understand about television, we seem to have a hard time understanding that we can't take everything we see at face value. Television is very capable of leaving out important context, and just as capable of being misleading, yet the public still tends to be uncritical of what they see on the Boob Tube. (Perhaps the biggest myth that we subscribe to is that we are never the Boob being referred to...) Shenkman, a former television managing editor, is able to provide some interesting insight into why even local newscasts are not as informative as one might otherwise think. As television has seemed to sap the collective IQ, politicians have responded by speaking to us at a lower and lower level. Despite the fact that we generally understand that it requires a college degree to have the skills to be middle-class these days, and many of us are involved in work that requires a certain level of technical understanding and education, the average political speechwriter targets their politico's words to a seventh-grade audience - where once upon a time, politicians wrote their own speeches to the twelfth-grade level. But as politics has come to turn more on emotion - facts are discarded in favor of "higher truths" - it has become less important to be eridute than it is to be emotionally engaging.

Unwilling to deal with the facts, and wrapping ourselves in comforting myths, we have difficulty seriously engaging current events and recent history - Shenkman devotes a chapter to how the public discussion of September 11th, 2001 has gone off the rails. Following that is a long chapter on why the myth of The People goes unchallenged - why it's so very hard to get away with the honest critique of ourselves that is required if things are going to change. Politicians flatter the public and attack their opposition by making appeals to "The People," which becomes an impossibly large and amorphous demographic, encompassing those persons that the listener identifies with, leaving out those they dislike, and managing to be a convenient catch-all that is utterly meaningless. The idea that criticism equals hatred, or at least hostility runs high, and so it becomes completely off-limits to criticize "The People."

Here, I'm going to take a little time out from what is already an overlong posting, and make a point. The problem with works that are critical of people, and require them to change is that most of them are never going to allow themselves to come into contact with it. I snagged Shenkman's book off of a grocery store shelf not because I felt the need to understand myself, but because I was interested in his critique of everyone - which meant that I could neatly avoid much in the way of personal responsibility. Being acutely aware that popular culture shies away from criticism of the public (the movies "Starship Troopers" and "V For Vendetta," for example were both made into affirmations of the audience, even though their source materials - a novel and a comic series/graphic novel respectively were indictments of the audience) I gravitate towards same, somewhat secure in the knowledge that I won't feel beaten up on when I'm done. While there were occasions when I realized that I, too, was lacking, I didn't come away with a newfound understanding that I'm a charter member of the willfully ignorant.

The book winds up with a chapter of advice and guidelines for getting out of the trap that many of us have so carelessly walked into. Being that our stupidity isn't a genetic condition, or a result of things simply being too difficult for any layperson to grasp, we can make ourselves into a people educated and thoughtful enough to be active participants in our democracy.

All in all, a read well spent.

But there are some parts of the book worth taking exception to. Shenkman sometimes indulges in shortcuts that don't help anything. "In 1986," he writes "Only 30 percent knew that Roe vs Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier." The only problem is abortion was already legal in some states - Roe vs. Wade established a privacy right, within which a woman's choice to have an abortion could not be outlawed by either the Federal or State governments. Yes, I'm nitpicking (I do that a lot), and also simplifying - this is, after all, a book review. But the misconception that the very legality of abortion rests solely on Roe vs. Wade is incorrect, and based on an incorrect understanding of the decision. Stating things properly is wordier - but when you're clucking at people over their ignorance, feeding their misconceptions is sloppy.

And I disagree with his premise that a rational voter is a cynical one, treating any utterance by a candidate that might be suspect as a lie, designed to garner votes. While George H. W. Bush's pledge of "No new taxes" may have been ill-advised when he said it, for the public to not have bitten his head off when he broke it seems to say that one should expect random falsehoods from candidates about their plans, or that we shouldn't expect them to refrain from unworkable promises.

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