Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it. – Mark Twain
Our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three branches of government…You know, the House, the Senate, and the executive…my dad fought 76 years ago in Europe to free Europe of socialism. – Tommy Tuberville
Mr. Tuberville is a retired college football coach, a climate change denier and Alabama’s new Senator. He is also an ignoramus, or at least he plays one on TV. Either way, he’s a perfect symbol for our next query: Are Americans really that freaking stupid?
I’ve explored a related question – Why are Americans so freaking crazy? – here. And I’ve argued that many New Age Yoga types have bought into the QAnon con job because they seem to lack the ability to discriminate between reality and convenient, self-serving narratives here.
It’s a no-brainer: an educated populace is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Long before, Plato argued that men who didn’t know right from wrong shouldn’t be allowed in government. But all Greek men were expected to participate in the public sphere. Those who didn’t were known as idiotas.
So what is a well-informed populace? How do we make sense of seventy million people voting for Trumpus, more than in 2016, when they had four years to hear at least some of his 20,000 lies? Yes, I try to have compassion for those who vote against their interests. But no, I don’t have the patience to talk about meeting such people halfway. Are they stupid or just terribly misinformed? And yet – what about all those Democrats who swallowed the Russiagate lies, or those who supported Bernie Sanders’ platform but allowed the DNC to convince them that he was unelectable?
In 2010, half of us believed the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. Seventy percent couldn’t name their senators or congresspersons. Twenty percent either thought that Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ or were not sure, and 40% wanted the government to “stay out of Medicare.” Forty percent didn’t believe in evolution and could name only four of the Ten Commandments. Nineteen percent thought that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Twelve percent of American adults believed Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
More recently, one in three Americans would fail the citizenship test. Twelve percent think Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War. One in three believe God decides who wins sporting events. One in four believe the Sun orbits the Earth and can name all three branches of government. A third cannot name any First Amendment rights. Eighteen percent say that Muslims don’t have the same rights as Christians. Forty percent (including 25% of those with college degrees) believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. Forty percent believe that there is a war on Christmas. We think Muslims are seventeen times as large a portion of the U.S. population as they actually are, and we think, wrongly, that most immigrants are in the country illegally. A tenth of adults have never heard of the Holocaust. Only 15% of Republicans believe that climate change is a serious problem, and 75% of them believe that the recent election was rigged.
If these lists seem skewed toward evangelicals, well, duh! That “forty percent” keeps coming up. But such folks, numerous as they are (25-35% of the U.S. population), are not the only demographic to seriously misunderstand reality. We are similarly ignorant about one of our most fundamental mythological values: social mobility, or the opportunity to get ahead. The likelihood of advancing in social class has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But 56% of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George Bush’s 2003 tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them. In 2000, 19% of us believed we would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought they already were. Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will).
We could go on. Even without referencing the recent presidential vote, it’s clear that large numbers of us don’t know very much. But here’s the real question: are Americans really so naturally dumb, or have we been socialized to be both uninformed and apathetic? As a progressive, I side with those who argue that we are naturally intelligent, and that the few profit by keeping the many unaware. As a mythologist, I suggest that we are in a time when our myths are collapsing, and with them, our fundamental institutions, including media, religion and government. And as we’ll see, one institution in particular – public education – was specifically designed to dumb us down.
James Madison agreed with Aristotle that full democracy would lead to the poor uniting and taking the property of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was to reduce inequality, while Madison, articulating the basic contradiction of American mythology, proposed reducing democracy. This originally meant keeping citizenship away from people of color and women, the vast majority of the population. Once legal discrimination ended, it meant keeping people from voting, or distracting people from caring about voting. It meant turning tens of millions of us into idiotas.
The media, writes Noam Chomsky, functions “to keep people from understanding the world.” An efficient system of control, a brainwashing under freedom, combines relatively free speech and press with patriotic indoctrination and marginalization of alternative voices, leaving the impression that society is really open. By limiting debate to those who never challenge our mythic assumptions of innocence and benevolence, our system maintains the illusion that we all share a common interest.
Those who control government and media allow such debate, but only when the boundaries of acceptable thought are clear. In this context, the “loyal opposition” legitimizes these unspoken limits by their very presence. The system works precisely because of our traditional freedom of expression. It distributes just enough wealth to limit dissent, while it heightens anxiety, isolates people and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty.
Ignorance is a major component of the myth of American innocence, and for seventy years, television (a third of which is advertising) has functioned to keep it that way. American children view 20,000 commercials a year. The generations raised on TV have been the first to be less well informed than their elders. This is partially a result of the impact of technology and partially due to decades of well-financed right-wing shock jocks, the loss of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of religious programming and Fox News – an entire industry, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, that is
…devoted to convincing white people that liberal elitists look down on them…plus a political party whose leaders all understand that that idea is key to their political project and so join in the chorus at every opportunity.
But it’s also partially due to the fact that the grand old giants of the mainstream media have long been complicit in keeping Americans unaware of the massive violence perpetrated by the American empire, and failing that, in justifying it in terms of American innocence and good intentions.
This is the original “fake news”, and it comes in two forms. The first, of course, is outright if discrete lying or propaganda. The second, more subtle, is censoring, ignoring and marginalizing of ideas until they can do so no longer, at which point they begin to demonize (often with false equivalencies). Bernie Sanders is only the most recent example. The MSM know very well what not to say, and who butters their bread. As David Rockefeller candidly admitted in 1991,
We are grateful to the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time Magazine…whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost 40 years.
I’ve compiled many articles about how the MSM serve both the American empire and the myth of American innocence here. We know the purpose of fake news: to generate internet traffic and revenue. The worst offender, the Washington Post (owned entirely by the CIA contractor Jeff Bezos), regularly publishes terrible, sensationalistic articles that get massively re-tweeted, and then posts tiny retractions in its back pages. Glen Greenwald writes:
Whether the Post’s false stories here can be distinguished from what is commonly called “Fake News” is, at this point, a semantic dispute, particularly since “Fake News” has no cogent definition. Defenders of Fake News as a distinct category typically emphasize intent in order to differentiate it from bad journalism. That’s really just a way of defining Fake News so as to make it definitionally impossible for mainstream media outlets like the Post ever to be guilty of it (much the way terrorism is defined to ensure that the U.S. government and its allies cannot, by definition, ever commit it).
But this attempt to manage our minds is, of course, much older than the internet. And here’s an argument for our innate intelligence. Throughout the entire twentieth century, the mass media was forced to inundate the public with massive, daily anti-communist, then anti-Muslim and now anti-Russian and anti-Chinese propaganda in their effort to override our more cooperative and compassionate natures. But even so, by 2015, it was clear to millions that the MSM had long been the voice of the oligarchs. Trumpus flipped the notion to criticism of the “liberal” media and then shortened it to “the media.” And, since progressive news groups went underfunded and marginalized, Fox and its even loonier descendants appeared to be the only alternative.
Now, the algorithms used by all the major social media platforms encourage rapid dissemination of unreliable information and the confirmation bias that results from seeing only what the viewer already believes in. Trumpus’ base have been in a curious position for years in this regard: they are intelligent enough not to believe the MSM, but having been propagandized by decades of right-wing media, they look at him and simply don’t believe their eyes.
But let’s remember that in any large, capitalist nation the function of both mainstream and far right media is similar and twofold: to make money, and to serve the deep state by keeping people docile – or, failing that, by manipulating their prejudices. And we are not talking about something theoretical. Yes, it’s Thanksgiving and Trumpus appears to be conceding. But as Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting writes, the MSM have been
…slow to accurately convey the reality and significance of Trump’s election theft efforts…failure to report the facts much earlier is inexcusable…they cannot credibly feign ignorance…they have also run cover for the Republican Party’s complicity in enabling and actively assisting Trump’s efforts, as Trump cannot steal the election on his own.
The cliché is true; we are divided. Most of us now fall into two groups – those who consume the lies and denial of the MSM, and those who consume the lies and fear mongering of right-wing media. Since left-wing media is so underfunded, and since social media severely marginalizes it, most people are simply unaware of it. The second factor deeply impacted the past two elections in which 55% of white women decided that privilege was more important than reproductive rights, sexual autonomy, access to health and child care or solidarity with women of color. Even if such decisions produce short-term benefits, in the long run they’re killing us.
Blame it on the black folks, blame it on the Jews, blame it on anybody not like you.
You can blame it on the reds, you can blame it on the greens,
But you never put the blame on the man who pulls the strings.
…Why? Because you’re stupid. — San Francisco Mime Troupe
Next, Part Seventeen: Is it only the media, or is education itself the problem?