I once heard Noam Chomsky make a funny and somewhat prescient point during a radio show – it may also appear in his books, but I'm not sure – about American intelligence. He said that he firmly believed that Americans have the mental capacity to understand politics, inequality, the media, and all of the various and sundry problems of contemporary America. His evidence, he noted half-humorously, was AM radio sports talk call-in shows. He noted that people who probably cannot name their Congressman or describe what the 1st Amendment says can easily rattle off facts with amazing detail about the 1985 Bears or the batting averages of the 1961 Yankees. In other words, we are not dumb but our priorities are badly out of whack. We know a lot about things that are irrelevant and we spend our available time educating ourselves about frivolous things – sports, TV shows, celebrity gossip, and so on.

For many years I felt like this anecdote summed up our problems quite nicely, so much so that I referenced it in class more than once. We have a world of information at our fingertips and we choose to spend hours on Facebook or staring at LOLcats. We have libraries full of free books and we would rather watch TV. We could watch the news but instead we watch When Animals Attack 5. Over time, though, the more I thought about his quote the less true it sounded. As a devoted sports fan and one-time writer for an online sports forum, I have more than enough direct experience to contradict his suggestion about sports fans. Go ahead and browse an online comment section for your favorite sport, especially if it is something low-brow like soccer or football. The overwhelming majority of what is said makes absolutely no sense. Most of it is worse than YouTube comments. Likewise, those sports call-in shows do not prove anything like what ol' Noam suggests. Facts are either recited incorrectly, distorted, or ignored altogether. Arguments are incoherent, childish, and bilious. In short, it isn't a bunch of people devoting their non-negligible intellectual skills to a topic of little relevance. It's just a bunch of retards screaming, fueled by anger and entirely uninterested in making sense. It would be bad enough if Chomsky was right and we all understood sports but not politics; the sad reality is that we don't know jack shit about either. That guy who can't explain why he hates Barack Obama is not the slightest bit better able to explain why he hates Brett Favre or the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

It is highly likely that in the past few days you have been forwarded a link to a Pew survey establishing how little Americans know about religion. The media and smug types like us love these surveys because they make us feel superior and they confirm what we already believe about the world around us. "Ha ha! Can you believe that 35% of adults can't name (the Vice President / which party controls Congress / the religion of the Pope or Dalai Lama / etc)!" In the recent Pew survey, people who claim to be Catholics can't explain basic dogma – like, the kind of stuff 8 year-olds learn in Sunday School – and Protestants can't pick Martin Luther out of three choices when asked to identify the leader of the Reformation. So that person you know at work or in the neighborhood who can't make a rational argument about anything social or political but is obviously quite religious…well, there's a decent chance that he or she sounds every bit as stupid talking about religion.

Concurrently, Matt Taibbi dropped his Tea Party piece over at Rolling Stone, focusing heavily on how his subjects are utterly incapable of processing the most basic information that contradicts their rage- and fear-driven worldview. You can't explain to them that there are no Death Panels, that white Christian men are not an oppressed minority, and that a person who works for the government and has a wife on Medicare should not be publicly protesting "the out of control welfare state." They stare back as though they have been bonked over the head by a cartoon mallet, the glass-eyed, empty look of a person who, at the most basic and insurmountable level, simply does not get it. It is the look of a person totally incapable of processing the notion that something he or she believes might be incorrect.

The real issue, and I mean the real, honest-to-god Problem With The World Today, is that Americans as a nation are dumb. Really fucking dumb. The Pew survey, the Tea Party, or the afternoon baseball call-in show on WFAN underscore the point that Americans will fail a quiz about any topic you can throw at them. Americans will make crappy, emotional, illogical arguments about whatever subject holds their interest, from the Supreme Court to the World Cup. We have systematically devalued and dismantled education in this country to the point that the Japanese, Europeans, and so on aren't just beating us at math and science. They can beat us at essentially anything, because most of us can't comprehend things we read, retain simple facts, or construct an argument that adheres to the basic rules of logic. We are ignorant of the past, the present, and even our own professed belief systems. We often bemoan apathy, our national lack of desire to understand the government, law, economy, or politics. But the problem is not simply that we don't want to know; if our slipshod grasp of the few things in which we do profess an interest are any indication, we wouldn't get it even if we tried.

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64 Responses to “THE HEART OF THE MATTER”

  1. nanute Says:

    " I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure." We seem to be spitting out intellectuals with an 8th grade reading comprehension level. But, by god they know their sports.

  2. grendelkhan Says:

    justin, you can check out the full survey results if you want to see the results in a bit more detail, or take the religious-knowledge quiz yourself. (I fully confess that I had no idea who was involved in the First Great Awakening.)

    Elder Futhark: but never ever did I ever think / that it's worthwhile to reply.

    Or to get my handle right, apparently. I've certainly been told. And it was in a thread about how intellectually lazy Americans are! Delicious! That's metonymy, isn't it? You making up your own facts and, when asked to explain, relying on snappy rhetoric to distract from the fact that you're not saying much?

  3. Paul W. Luscher Says:

    Well, to steal from Thomas Jefferson:

    "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God hates Darwin Award winners…"

  4. waldo Says:


    is …a person who, at the most basic and insurmountable level, simply does not get it….a person totally incapable of processing the notion that something he or she believes might be incorrect.

    I once had an online conversation with someone who justified the US war on Vietnam Laos and Cambodia by saying " We were helping our friends". Also.

  5. yank that lever Says:

    Ah, the 'every vote counts' canard. Your presidential vote has, depending on your state, about a 1 in 50 million chance of counting, in the sense of deciding an election. If only vicitimized idiots play the progressive slots or buy megamillions lottery tix, what are you geniuses doing voting – under party supervision, yet, for canned, prescreened alternatives that do nothing for your rights or standard of living?! Voting is a busybox for helpless babes in corporatist woods.

  6. eau Says:

    @yank – I wonder, are you advocating defeatism or anarchism?

  7. jjack Says:

    The ability to accept that something you believe might be incorrect is astounding. I can think of about a million examples on this topic, but the most ridiculous has to be when I worked for an oilfield contractor in an arctic region. Their biggest specialty was building ice roads — road literally made out of ice — for exploration. The obvious problem with this is that shorter winters lead to a shorter period of time where a road made out of ice can exist without melting. There was even a graph posted on the bulletin board which clearly depicted the shortening frozen seasons in the area since the 1970's with an obvious downward trend. Despite this, everyone there was a climate change denialist.

    In their defensive reaction against anything that might raise difficult questions about the industry they worked in, everyone there was actually perpetuating the problem that will eventually put their company out of business.

  8. Rene Says:

    I often want to tell America what my teachers always told me: you're smart, you could do so much better if you just *applied* yourself.

    Your post makes me so sad. I find most of what you write to be incredibly on point and insightful. Ginandtacos is like my new political Bible since I'm too lazy to research original sources and form my own opinions.

    I work in a deli for this British family. They've been in the country for five years and they're really just your average family, but they have such a natural kind of common sense and useful education that I find myself so surprised that they don't come from a wealthy background or hold a lofty degree of some kind. The wife said she's never seen such strangely shaped bodies as she has in America, but that a friend of hers back home has started to comment on the level of obesity in England. The number of churches on every corner shock them, too. The (white) cleaning lady in our building didn't know timezones existed outside of America, which bewildered us both.

  9. Mike the Mad Biologist Says:

    The problem I have with "Americans have become stupid" is that we have always been stupid. Not that long ago, the vast majority of Americans believed that black people were inherently inferior. Now, not so much.

    Regarding any single issue, stupidity can recede when confronted with a lot of hard work.

  10. Coises Says:

    There are three things I notice particularly about America and politics. (I lack the experience to know to what extent they apply in other countries.)

    1. We have an inordinate belief in

  11. Coises Says:

    Hmmm… apparently the comment system does not like curly quotes. Let's try that again…

    There are three things I notice particularly about America and politics. (I lack the experience to know to what extent they apply in other countries.)

    1. We have an inordinate belief in "common sense" — as if anything that is true should be explainable in one minute to a person with no particular background in the subject. It's almost a pervasive kind of magical thinking: that any intelligent person (and most people do believe themselves to be smarter than most people) can understand the important points of anything with no particular training, effort or time.

    2. We are encouraged to have an opinion about everything political. If the war in Iraq comes up as a subject of discussion, saying, "I haven't really studied the situation, so I don't know if we have a good reason to be there or not" isn't a response most Americans would be comfortable giving… though I suspect it must be true in most cases.

    3. Our political system gives most of us no practical reason to apply our intellectual resources to politics. Voting is much like rooting for the home team — it might look good to your friends and give you a sense of satisfaction and social membership, but it has no plausible chance of affecting any outcomes. Other than occasionally at the municipal level, "participatory democracy" is beyond the realm of practical possibility for the vast majority of over-worked Americans — it takes far too much time and effort to leverage one person's commitment into any meaningful effect. I'm sure most Americans put more real thought into what car they will buy next than for whom they will vote: which is as it should be, because the former choice will make a difference to them! If we could find a way to restructure the democratic system so that the vote one cast made an individual difference — rather than being one drop in a vast ocean — I think we would see people get politically "smarter" rapidly. One day, perhaps, someone will think of a way it can be done, so that individuals have an individual stake in the quality of their political decisions. Until then, frankly, I think there is little hope that democracy will do much better than it is doing now. Nothing now conditions us to learn to make "better" (in the sense of results) political decisions… only to have "better" (in the sense of socially functional) political opinions.

  12. Mike Says:

    Indeed I agree with you in all honesty since there really isn't a better way to express that.