Just How Stupid Are We?

No, this is not a post about Black Friday.

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I borrowed the headline of this blog from the title of a book I picked up at the library this week. Just How Stupid Are We? is an attempt by NYTimes writer Rick Shenkman to determine how we end up with the leaders we get. (EdNote: The book was published in 2008.) I brought it home because it’s one of those books where the author begins each chapter with a quote and, in this case, they happen to be pretty thought-provoking. I often use quotes at the beginning of blog posts and I so liked these that I wanted to share them.

Also, the book’s theme goes along with my recent readings and personal reflections on Democracy with a capital D. James Madison questioned it when he helped craft the Constitution. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen questioned it one hundred years later. And here we are again.

So, I’ll share the quotes Mr. Shenkman cites, and then list the chapters in order to whet your appetite for the rest. You can then choose to take a deeper dive on your own by ordering the book from Amazon, or visiting your local library.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
John F. Kennedy

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Thomas Jefferson

A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”
— Scott Simon

If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’ no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.
— Nikita S. Kruschev

There’s nothing as trustworthy… as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.
Slogan of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in the film A Face in the Crowd

Don’t shoot too high, aim lower, and the common people will understand you.
— Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Karl Rove deserves to be remembered as the man who thought Americans should have enough education to understand his fables but not enough to doubt them.
— Eric Rauchway in Altercation

Whenever war is declared, truth is the first casualty.
— Arthur Ponsonby in Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War (1928)

Hain’t we got all the fools on our side in this town? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?
— Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn

Do not be too severe upon the errors of the people but reclaim them by enlightening them.
— Thomas Jefferson

This last quote by Jefferson leads off a chapter titled “Hope.” I suppose that after ruminating for nine chapters on the pervasive lack of sense in this country he’d best try to end on an upbeat lest we go away too maudlin to function. The subtitle of the book is Facing the Truth About the American Voter.

Frankly, I’m pretty sure that anyone who has seen a couple “Man on the Street” Leno sketches is quite cognizant of the caliber of the masses in understanding current events. When we discuss international issues I’m guessing two-thirds of us wouldn’t be able to identify three-fourths of the countries of our world on a map. Half wouldn’t even know what continent the countries were on.

Which begs the question, “Why, then, do we have such faith in Democracy?”

It’s unclear what the aim of Rick Shenkman’s book actually is. He makes a solid case for the problem, but does not seem to be persuasive when it comes to his basis for hope. Here are the chapters:

— The Problem
— Gross Ignorance
— Are the Voters Irrational?
— The Importance of Myths
— Giving Control to the People
— The Power of Television
— Our Dumb Politics: The Big Picture
— Our Mindless Debate About 9/11
— We Can’t Even Talk About How Stupid We Are
— Coda: Hope

Chapter nine is one of the most important chapters in the book, in my opinion. He opens by noting that in the past 30–40 years as our politics was getting dumber and dumber, “criticism of The People, who are ostensibly in charge of our politics, largely vanished from public debate. Are they stupid? We mustn’t say.”

Shenkman’s frustration stems from the fact that we won’t, or can’t, address the obvious. Are we too touchy? Too afraid we’ll offend? Or is it that we’re just too resigned to things they are and don’t want to talk about it?

The issue, I suspect, is that we have such a large middle and upper class that is so invested in the current way things are that we’re unwilling or unable to risk scrapping what we have for what we cannot envision. The transition will be, undoubtedly, a mess. Who will decide what an evolution away from Democracy should look like? There will be all kinds of Elites offering reasons to accept their ideas as to what is best for us. Who will decide since we’ve already negated the competence of The Public? And by what authority? No one will fall for “The Divine Right of Kings” any more.

Then again, as much as we dislike the way things are, we also might find ourselves in agreement with Winston Churchill’s pointed pip: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”

And so it goes.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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