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.