Idiocracy: The Corruption of the American Dream

This is a guest post by my friend David Drake, who writes over at Carriage Wit.


*Note: When I use the word “Santorum” in this piece, I am talking about the politician, not the more common definition that shows up when you google the word.

I detest American politics.  I would probably protest other countries’ politics too if I followed them.  However, I cannot stop myself from paying at least a little attention to them.  This little bit from Santorum made me wish I’d stayed blissfully unaware:

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the blatant hypocrisy of a man with an undergraduate degree from the highly ranked Pennsylvania State University and no fewer than two GRADUATE degrees (an M.B.A. and a law degree) calling Obama a snob for valuing higher education.  The idea that universities are indoctrination mills churning out a legion of Obama clones is so easily refuted that a simple glance at two random college graduates….let’s say…Obama and Santorum…will show that college does not guarantee uniformity of thought or policy.  Or even guarantee thought at all.

I want to focus on the larger problem here.  Namely, Santorum’s meteoric rise as a contender for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.  This is symptomatic of a disturbing cultural trend: The tendency of Americans to vilify intelligence and glorify ignorance.

First, let me make one thing clear:  I do not think Americans are innately less intelligent than any other people. I think stupidity is common to the human species in general.  The problem is that, in America, ignorance is seen as a positive thing.

I’m a bit of a Francophile, and I’ll use France now by way of contrast.  France is a country that values its intellectuals.  Philosophers are rock stars to the French.  When Sartre was alive, his opinion was sought out on matters of social policy, on politics, on whatever.  People recognized that he was a smart guy and that it might be nice to know his thoughts on the matter.

In America, this sort of rapt attention is reserved for Kim Kardiashian and Snooki’s twitter accounts.

Carl Sagan picked up on this way back in 1995. “One trend that bothers me is the glorification of stupidity, that the media is reassuring people that its all right not to know anything – that in a way it’s cool.  That to me is far more dangerous than a little pornography on the internet,” he warned.

We see it in schools where the smart kids are afraid to answer the teacher’s questions for fear of looking too smart in front of their peers.  We see it in politics, where Americans will always vote for the guy who looks like he would have a beer with them and not the guy who sounds ‘too smart’ (or like a SNOB, to use Santorum’s word). We see it when girls are told not to act too smart around a boy she likes, or she’ll scare him away.  “Just giggle and smile and laugh at his jokes, boys don’t want girls who are smarter than them”, their mothers warn. From a very young age and at every stage of social development, American children are taught to hide their intellect for fear of making others feel inadequate.

Where did this begin? I believe what Sagan calls the ‘glorification of stupidity’ its in reality the bastardization of the American Dream.  What once was the idea that every citizen had the chance to become more successful than his parents, to rise beyond her circumstances, or to achieve that white-picket fence epilogue to a life well-lived, has been subtly transmuted into something far less inspiring.  The American Dream was what once allowed a child to say, with every confidence, that he would grow up to become President, or an astronaut, or a scientist.  Now it has become an ambiance of marked scorn for even daring to have such lofty ambitions.  Why would you want to be an astronaut? Are you too good for us here on Earth? We’re cutting NASA’s funding anyway.

These principles of equality and fairness have been tainted by contact with the least common denominator.  Ambition is met with derision. Credentials are scoffed away.  With the democratization of knowledge through google and wikipedia, everyone feels entitled to the role of ‘expert’.  With the advent of blogging and self-publishing, everyone is first an author, then a specialist.  Why waste time on a Ph.D. when a cursory (and shallow) facade of expertise can be produced with a few minutes spent on a search engine?

True academics and vetted intellectuals are seen as elitists.  Seeking to become one is somehow an affront to those who are content not to develop their intellect.  It is as if attaining a higher education was pushing the rest of society somehow lower, when in reality the relative distance only increased in a positive direction.  Education improves society.  The academic achievements of my peer elevate him, they do not diminish me.  That science nerd who made you feel dumb in high school may one day cure your cancer.

Now we find ourselves in a society where Plato’s Philosopher King would be booed out of office in favor of someone who is acceptably average.  Instead of putting the power to help us all into the hands of the most capable, we prefer to put it into the hands of those who make us feel comfortable with our own mediocrity.  The same jealous spirit that moved the mobs of Alexandria to burn its libraries and murder Hypatia animates modern man.  Those same feelings of distrust, fear, and hatred motivate bullies to punch the ‘brainiacs’ and push Santorum to get cheap laughs at the very notion that America could be improved if more people were taught critical thinking skills.

I currently live and work in South Korea, which, like most Asian countries, puts such an importance on education that the children spend countless hours after school with expensive private tutors, at great cost to their families.  If America wants to retain its competitive edge, we would be wise to give education at least some of that value, rather than scorn.  If we do not, we cannot complain to our leaders when China overtakes us.

After all, our leaders are just average Joes like us.  That’s why we elected them.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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