Just how stupid are we? Pretty stupid, it would seem, when we come across headlines like this: “Homer Simpson, Yes — 1st Amendment ‘Doh,’ Survey Finds” (Associated Press 3/1/06).
“About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.
“The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.”
Shenkman helpfully gives us some context:
Five defining characteristics of stupidity, it seems to me, are readily apparent. First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country’s long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
And that big youth vote that has certain people all jazzed? It may not mean such great things in the long run:
At least, you may think to yourself, we are not getting any dumber. But by some measures we are. Young people by many measures know less today than young people forty years ago. And their news habits are worse. Newspaper reading went out in the sixties along with the Hula Hoop. Just 20% of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 read a daily paper. And that isn’t saying much. There’s no way of knowing what part of the paper they’re reading. It is likelier to encompass the comics and a quick glance at the front page than dense stories about Somalia or the budget.
Hmmm… yet when I was in junior high, I got the bulk of my political information from Mad Magazine. It was the closest thing we had to The Daily Show in those days. At least you got an idea of who the jerks were, which may be the key antidote to ignorance. Ignorant people don’t get any such ideas. Before we invaded Iraq, for example, many of us were making the same arguments time has confirmed. But too many thought we were the ones who were out of touch. We were saying —
1. There are no WMD
2. Saddam Hussein has nothing to with Osama bin Laden, much less 9/11.
3. By hook or by crook, the neocons in the White House want a permanent US presence in the region.
4. We’re going to be stuck in Iraq like Br’er Rabbit got stuck to the tar baby.
the latter point implying —
5. We’re playing into bin Laden’s hands. Didn’t you see the interview he did with ABC in 1998? Do you recall what he said about the Soviet Union becoming unglued in Afghanistan? Anyone? Anyone?
Nobody in Congress can honestly say they were “deceived by faulty intelligence.” Only an ignoramus would believe such drivel. And if point #5 is true, only an ignoramus would be impressed with the fact that “the United States has not been attacked since 9/11” — because we’ve been doing a fine job of destroying ourselves on our own. Errrrrrrr…
And that’s another problem, unfortunately. Smugness. The last paragraph reeked of it, no? Smugness, which divides us from each other, can be worse than ignorance. (Note to self: nobody likes a smartass, so if you like ignorance digging in its heels, go on being a smartass.)
But don’t we like the smug feeling we get when we can name more than two of the freedoms in the First Amendment when, hahahaha, most people can’t? There’s a spiritual issue here, for sure.
Here’s a dose of humbling just in time. You could try this sixty question quiz about the United States of America. It might just do the trick of desmugging you. Some of the multiple choices are downright funny. But then along comes a question or two where you might just have to guess! So even if you do OK or very well, it’s not a total sleigh ride.
Happy Independence Day!