Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Idiocracy: The Corruption of the American Dream

*Note: When I use the word "Santorum" in this piece, I am talking about the politician, not the more common definition that shows up when you google the word.

I detest American politics.  I would probably protest other countries' politics too if I followed them.  However, I cannot stop myself from paying at least a little attention to them.  This little bit from Santorum made me wish I'd stayed blissfully unaware:

Let's ignore, for a moment, the blatant hypocrisy of a man with an undergraduate degree from the highly ranked Pennsylvania State University and no fewer than two GRADUATE degrees (an M.B.A. and a law degree) calling Obama a snob for valuing higher education.  The idea that universities are indoctrination mills churning out a legion of Obama clones is so easily refuted that a simple glance at two random college graduates....let's say...Obama and Santorum...will show that college does not guarantee uniformity of thought or policy.  Or even guarantee thought at all.

I want to focus on the larger problem here.  Namely, Santorum's meteoric rise as a contender for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.  This is symptomatic of a disturbing cultural trend: The tendency of Americans to vilify intelligence and glorify ignorance.

First, let me make one thing clear:  I do not think Americans are innately less intelligent than any other people. I think stupidity is common to the human species in general.  The problem is that, in America, ignorance is seen as a positive thing.

I'm a bit of a Francophile, and I'll use France now by way of contrast.  France is a country that values its intellectuals.  Philosophers are rock stars to the French.  When Sartre was alive, his opinion was sought out on matters of social policy, on politics, on whatever.  People recognized that he was a smart guy and that it might be nice to know his thoughts on the matter. 

In America, this sort of rapt attention is reserved for Kim Kardiashian and Snooki's twitter accounts.  

Carl Sagan picked up on this way back in 1995. "One trend that bothers me is the glorification of stupidity, that the media is reassuring people that its all right not to know anything - that in a way it's cool.  That to me is far more dangerous than a little pornography on the internet," he warned. 

We see it in schools where the smart kids are afraid to answer the teacher's questions for fear of looking too smart in front of their peers.  We see it in politics, where Americans will always vote for the guy who looks like he would have a beer with them and not the guy who sounds 'too smart' (or like a SNOB, to use Santorum's word). We see it when girls are told not to act too smart around a boy she likes, or she'll scare him away.  "Just giggle and smile and laugh at his jokes, boys don't want girls who are smarter than them", their mothers warn. From a very young age and at every stage of social development, American children are taught to hide their intellect for fear of making others feel inadequate.  

Where did this begin? I believe what Sagan calls the 'glorification of stupidity' its in reality the bastardization of the American Dream.  What once was the idea that every citizen had the chance to become more successful than his parents, to rise beyond her circumstances, or to achieve that white-picket fence epilogue to a life well-lived, has been subtly transmuted into something far less inspiring.  The American Dream was what once allowed a child to say, with every confidence, that he would grow up to become President, or an astronaut, or a scientist.  Now it has become an ambiance of marked scorn for even daring to have such lofty ambitions.  Why would you want to be an astronaut? Are you too good for us here on Earth? We're cutting NASA's funding anyway.

These principles of equality and fairness have been tainted by contact with the least common denominator.  Ambition is met with derision. Credentials are scoffed away.  With the democratization of knowledge through google and wikipedia, everyone feels entitled to the role of 'expert'.  With the advent of blogging and self-publishing, everyone is first an author, then a specialist.  Why waste time on a Ph.D. when a cursory (and shallow) facade of expertise can be produced with a few minutes spent on a search engine?  

True academics and vetted intellectuals are seen as elitists.  Seeking to become one is somehow an affront to those who are content not to develop their intellect.  It is as if attaining a higher education was pushing the rest of society somehow lower, when in reality the relative distance only increased in a positive direction.  Education improves society.  The academic achievements of my peer elevate him, they do not diminish me.  That science nerd who made you feel dumb in high school may one day cure your cancer.

Now we find ourselves in a society where Plato's Philosopher King would be booed out of office in favor of someone who is acceptably average.  Instead of putting the power to help us all into the hands of the most capable, we prefer to put it into the hands of those who make us feel comfortable with our own mediocrity.  The same jealous spirit that moved the mobs of Alexandria to burn its libraries and murder Hypatia animates modern man.  Those same feelings of distrust, fear, and hatred motivate bullies to punch the 'brainiacs' and push Santorum to get cheap laughs at the very notion that America could be improved if more people were taught critical thinking skills. 

I currently live and work in South Korea, which, like most Asian countries, puts such an importance on education that the children spend countless hours after school with expensive private tutors, at great cost to their families.  If America wants to retain its competitive edge, we would be wise to give education at least some of that value, rather than scorn.  If we do not, we cannot complain to our leaders when China overtakes us.  

After all, our leaders are just average Joes like us.  That's why we elected them.


  1. Reminds me of how proud Herman Cain was to not know where Ubekibekibekibekistanistan was.

  2. SLOW. CLAP.

    Seriously, the level of anti-intellectualism, ESPECIALLY directed towards women, is disgusting and ridiculous! I'm jealous you're in another country...

  3. Zach: Herman Cain is another great example. I used to use George W. Bush quotes to give my French high school students examples of grammatical errors to correct.

    The unearned pride of 'I don't know the answer and I don't want to know it' is frustratingly omnipresent in the states these days. :(

    Claire: I could do an entire post again on how this relates specifically to women. I do not believe women are less intelligent on some chromosomal level, but we certainly train them as a society to ignore their own brains in favor of attracting a guy. Its like Gaston throwing Belle's book in the mud because its not natural for a woman to read...We've become, as a society, a Disney caricature of misogynistic villainy.

  4. Just. Yes. By all accounts, yes. I can't think of a single thing to add to this. Awesome.

  5. Well said, Sir.

  6. You must be an intellectual because this post was very well-crafted. Have you read David Hume's "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion"? This is exactly what he talks about! He would be so disappointed with American society right now.

  7. No I haven't read it. Sounds like I should though. I'm actually a little unsatisfied with this post. I wrote it after an all nighter and I didn't take the extra two minutes to proofread it. I already spotted a typo. Usually at the end of an angry rant I like to click post and go to sleep just to get it off my chest. Its therapeutic!

  8. What's scary is us Americans have bombs and ain't afraid to use 'em. We are a War like people. War on Drugs, War on Poverty, War on intellectualism, War on Women, War on having a Black man in the White House. War on Charity while quoting Jesus. War on differing opinions, War on different political parties, War on our Constitution, War on comedy, War on other religions, War between the States etc. Like my Drill Instructor said every night he put us to bed: "Pray for War". He was a genius, knowing that our Congress didn't have the balls to declare a war. Now the President has the War Powers Act; so we are all exempt from the responsibilities of all these wars while we play our xbox war games and comsume meaningless products and forget the 1% that actually fight our wars. Those who come home blind and legless with nightmares that will last a life-time as we do what our former president asked us to do after Sept. 11th 2001. "Go shopping".