Sunday, January 04, 2009

Still dumbing down

Finished Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" this morning. I was a tad disappointed, in part for reasons that appear to be built into this sort of book: the inevitable tone of a nanny, and the sense that what she considers to be "unreason" is really just believing something that she doesn't. I had much the same reaction to Allan Bloom's less readable "The Closing of the American Mind," although he came at the issue from a very different ideological framework. Still haven't read more than a few pages of Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," which Jacoby's book attempts to update. I think Hofstadter's book may be sitting on a shelf in the attic, but my own anti-intellectualism has kept me from digging it up so far.

Whatever her book's failings, Jacoby is on solid ground when she raises concerns that Americans are becoming too plain ignorant to govern themselves wisely. After all, we are five years and counting into a war in Iraq, and most Americans still can't find the country on a map. What's worse, many Americans don't think it's important to be able to find Iraq on a map.

Similarly, most Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice, and most don't know that the court's job is to settle constitutional questions. Pretty scary.

Most Americans don't even read a newspaper every day anymore. Jacoby acknowledges a certain irony in this lament: Newspapers were once far from an elevated way to learn about national affairs, but they are so far above their apparent replacements that their loss could be devastating. (She doesn't think much of the blogosphere, which she finds nasty and mutually self-reinforcing.)

All of which leads me in a roundabout way back to my posts of Dec. 26 and Dec. 29, in which I castigated a conservative talk-show host for spouting unscientific nonsense about global warming. I went a few rounds with an anonymous commenter about this before he (or she) finally concluded: "Actually, I'm open-minded about the issue. I'm willing to be convinced that we need to take strong steps to control greenhouse gases. But I'm skeptical of a lot of reporting on the issue."

Fair enough. And pretty much what I think. Which may have been (or perhaps should have been) my point. So much of what passes for political discourse in this country tends to drive apart people on matters about which they fundamentally agree. The irresponsible rhetoric of people like Bill Cunningham and Sean Hannity keeps us from seeing that we really can work together on important matters.

It's sort of like the "chosen one" rhetoric about Barack Obama that I took such vitriolic exception to before the last election. It wasn't just that the rhetoric was false -- nobody, outside of a wacko or two, really thinks Obama has supernatural powers. What made the rhetoric so offensive was that it functioned as a sort of anti-knowledge. That sort of talk actually made the people who listened to it dumber than they were before they started listening. We don't need to get any dumber.

Then there is this sort of rhetoric in today's Gazette. Unlike global warming or the morality of abortion, the question of whether it's more dangerous to drive with or without a seatbelt really isn't open to debate. It's a settled matter. The Dec. 25 Outpost quoted the Montana Seatbelt Coalition as saying that the failure of some Montanans to wear seatbelts costs every driver in the state $51 a year in higher taxes and health insurance costs. The figure may be debatable, but the premise isn't. The letter writer wants me to pay higher taxes and insurance rates out of consideration for his dumb friend's irrational fear about wearing seatbelts.

He writes, "I think my friend and I have enough information to make our own decisions." But his friend, we can be sure, couldn't cite a single scrap of information, outside of perhaps a few anecdotes, to bolster his case. The evidence just doesn't exist.

And Jacoby's argument resounds: Some of us don't know enough to make decisions about how to govern ourselves.

UPDATE: Think you know where Iraq is? Prove it.


Anonymous said...

Very hard to disagree with anything you say, including the comments on the blogosphere. But I wonder - each age tends to think of itself as distant and improved from those past, but do things ever really change? Was the average American during De Tocqueville's visit much different? I've seen these supposed test questions for eighth graders from days gone by that make it seem as though the typical eight grader back at the turn of the 20th century was smarter than the average Joe now, but I wonder if we're looking at a small sample - comparable say, what an eight grader at Exeter might know now compared to the rest of us.

In other words, I think progress is an illusion, and that people are as people have always been, and that younger generations always look inadequate to older ones. And there always seems to be enough really smart people to make science move forward and screw up everything else.

Kirk Dooley said...

Some outfit did a survey dealing with the top 75 cities in the country in terms of folks reading newspapers, the number of bookstores, and the quality of the public libraries to determine how literate the citizenry is. Of the bottom 10 cities, four are in the Phoenix metro area (Phoenix, Glendale, Chandler and Mesa), along with Tucson. (Perhaps this explains the numskulls that keep getting elected to public office around here--starting with a sheriff who sends a SWAT team, armed to the teeth with body armor to arrest three mop-wielding janitors for being in the country illegally.)

Methinks Barnum would have to rethink the time between the birth of suckers, if he was alive now...

Anonymous said...

A couple of points -

(1) It was the Democrats themselves putting forth the image of Obama being the Messiah -

(2) I consider NOT wearing a seat belt civil disobedience, and they can ticket me every morning and I still won't wear one.

Why? Because I think it should be up to the driver.

I'm willing to be responsible for the choices I make, and I can legally engage in far more dangerous activities on the streets than wearing a seatbelt in my Blazer.

If I were so inclined, I can jump on a motorcycle, tomorrow afternoon, with patches of ice on the side streets, and ride up Grand Avenue without a helmet, and break no law. It'd be dumb, and borderline suicidal, but legal.

I saw an idiot riding a bicycle on Avenue B yesterday, and he wiped out once while I was watching - but it was legal.

Yet they'll tell me to wear a seatbelt, inside my 3,500 lb steel SUV?

That's the argument as far as I'm concerned, giving up freedoms for the greater 'good' or not.

I'll take not.

David said...

1. When did Democrats put forth the image of Obama as Messiah? I missed that one.

2. If you are willing to be responsible for the choices you make, would you be willing to sign a waiver protecting me from having to pay for emergency and medical care you may require for your unwise actions?

David said...

That's a good question, which Jacoby doesn't deal with very satisfactorily. It's pretty hard to make exact comparisons between general public knowledge now and a hundred or so years ago. The main differences I see in my 50 years or so of paying attention are:

1. The general shortening of the attention span, such as sound bite and speech length.

2. The growing gap between high culture and pop culture.

3. A growing sense that it's perfectly OK not to know stuff. For instance, I can imagine many of my students saying that if they needed to know who the Supreme Court justices were, they could look them up on the internet. That, of course, misses the point.

Anonymous said...

I've got insurance - couldn't cost you a penny no matter how you slice it - LOL

How about a waiver from drinkers, smokers, motorcyclists, or even bicyclists who want to use Grand Avenue or the surrounding side streets in the winter?

David I think your memory is getting short on the Obama campaign -

Remember the temple the Dems built for him at their convention?

How about the shills placed in the crowds last summer to faint on cue? I've seen 6 different videos of six different events - and they look scripted -

Here's a few quotes:

"This is bigger than Kennedy. . . . This is the New Testament." | "I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too often. No, seriously. It's a dramatic event."

-- Chris Matthews

“I would characterize the Senate race as being a race where Obama was, let’s say, blessed and highly favored. That’s not routine. There’s something else going on. I think that Obama, his election to the Senate, was divinely ordered. . . . I know that that was God’s plan."

-- Bill Rush

"My job this morning is to be so persuasive...that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack,"

-- Barack Obama

David said...

Of course it costs me. Insurance rates don't distinguish very well between stupid people who don't wear seat belts and smart people who do. Insurance companies do punish drinkers, smokers and motorcyclists. Most bicyclists, to my knowledge, aren't insured for bicycle accidents.

As for your Obama quotes, I think it is pretty clear that Obama was kidding. Matthews was at least partly kidding (and is not that good a Democrat). I don't know about Rush.

Anonymous said...

Technology is the driving force behind short attention spans, not the least of which was the remote control, which allowed us to channel surf and avoid advertisements, which then got much shorter and louder. Movies aimed at young people are now cut in a similar manner.

There's an OK movie out now called "Seven Pounds" will Will Smith and Rosario Dawson. It won't win any awards as it is a little bit contrived and pandering, but the thing I noticed about it was that the scenes were long and there were very few quick cuts. It's almost as if it were aimed at adult viewers.

Kirk Dooley said...

Speaking of dumb things to come out of legislatures:

As of January 1, any license plate frame that covers up the name of the state on a plate in part or in total is illegal in the state of Arizona. (The law was included in an amendment on a bill authorizing dozens of vanity plates that passed three years ago, but didn't become effective until this year. Despite this, nobody knew about this law until last month..)

According to the legislator who sponsored this, he did so because cops wouldn't be able to tell whether a plate was from AZ (we have over 100 specialty plates, from ones for the universities to ones that benefit spay-neuter clinics--which I have). The fact that the only thing that can't tell the difference between an Arizona plate and one from Illinois, Iowa, Wyoming or Montana with the state covered up are the photo radar scanners. (Word of warning--having your picture snapped by photo radar cameras will cost you $160 per photo. But they won't put any points on your record--unless you're from out of state. And the cameras are everywhere in this state--we need the money, since nobody's buying anything around here these days.)

And the majority of these now illegal frames were provided by...the car dealers. Deliver me, Lord, from idiots and morons. ;-)