America the Stupid
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Jan. 5, 2019
Ignorance is not bliss. It’s ignorance — impervious to window dressing, and made all the worse if it’s willfully engaged. Were it truly rapturous, Fox News viewers would exist in a perpetual state of orgasmic euphoria. But alas, they live in a world awash in hate, anger, and fear, leaving their collective amygdalae (the fear center of the brain) swollen to the size of an overripe cantaloupe.
There is a reason why Trump proudly proclaimed, “I love the poorly educated.” It’s why he obsessively watches and promotes Fox News. The exploitive power of mass ignorance is a potent weapon in the hands of an aspiring autocrat. He understands that with just the right concoction of manipulative lies and fear mongering, his confidence game can take in seemingly smart people by toying with their latent prejudices. If you dexterously put the scare in them, then tell them you can protect them, you will own them — and their vote.
Among the myriad insecurities of Trump supporters is a feeling of intellectual inferiority. This president gives them a pass on their insufficiencies by demonstrating, multiple times per day, that it’s OK to publicly revel in their cerebral incapacity, as if it’s some moral asset to be celebrated. Trump champions their mental ineptitude. They look in the mirror and see a little bit of Trump in themselves. As Fran Leibowitz so sardonically put it, “He’s the poor man’s idea of a rich person.”
Offended? Let’s take a dive into the numbers.
Several years ago, Fairleigh Dickinson University found that people who exclusively watched Fox News were less informed than those who consumed no news at all — and it’s worth noting, this survey predates the radical paradigm shift the network took when it went 24/7 pro-Trump. The analysis determined that the most informed were those that listened to NPR and watched Sunday morning political shows.
Another study out of PEW Research discovered certain key characteristics were present among those able to correctly distinguish fact from opinion. The well-informed respondents in their survey shared a keen sense of political awareness, digital acumen, an interest in the news, and a trust in the media. The latter item requires the ability to suss-out reliable sources found in solid journalism. That category does not include a bunch of blonde ladies in short dresses, sporting significant décolletage, crossing and uncrossing their legs while telling their viewers Trump is a magnificent masculine beast of a patriot.
Out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center is even more concerning news: Americans know precious little about their Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Thirty-seven percent of our ranks can’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment. One-quarter of those who walk among us can’t identify all three branches of government, and one in three can’t peg a single one. As if that isn’t bad enough, among the most disturbing findings is that over half of our fellow citizens believe the Constitution does not afford undocumented immigrants any protections. Au contraire; they are entitled to due process and the ability to seek justice in the courts — something the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. doesn’t seem to understand or care about. Against the backdrop of the border wall and immigration policy battle, this is deeply disturbing.
Any discussion of America’s civic ignorance wouldn’t be complete without mention of conspiracy theorists. They are found on the left and the right, but overwhelmingly they capture the imagination of larger numbers among conservatives. There’s a new theory everyday, and the old ones never seem to die. It’s safe to bet that every reader knows someone who promotes one or more of these hare-brained notions: the Holocaust never happened, 9/11 was staged by some nefarious group, Sandy Hook families and Parkland survivors are paid actors, the moon-landing was a hoax, Hillary is a child-sex trafficker, and the perennial classic, President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya. Contrails? Don’t get me started. Fashion yourself a nice tinfoil hat for that!
Most recently, a dangerous conspiracy theory has taken hold on the right. They are promoting the idea that the Mueller probe is some “deep state” effort to unseat Trump. Republican lawmakers are riding the wave of this bogus claim for their own craven purposes.
Why are Americans so deficient in their reasoning? Turns out, we are not unique. The root of the problem is not solely due to overactive fear centers in the brain, inherent prejudices, nor our country of origin.
It’s a condition termed the Dunning-Kruger Effect — a common cognitive defect wherein individuals who are intellectually incompetent are unable to recognize that fact. They lack the intelligence to understand what they don’t know. Bluntly put, stupid people are relieved of the burden of knowing they are stupid. Armed with the false knowledge that they have mastered a subject, they are unmotivated to further inform themselves.
This seems so very bleak. But it’s not. We will power through the stupid-storm. Starting with ourselves, let’s make sure we exhibit best practices by exploring more than one source of reliable information before shaping and speaking an opinion on a topic. Encourage family and friends to do the same. If they offer an opinion, ask them to source it, as reputable journalists do everyday.
We won’t be able to improve the cognitive skills of everyone, ’cuz as the saying goes, you can’t fix stupid. Still, it’s worth trying.
Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally known artist, and a public-policy wonk and political essayist at www.democracy-tree.com.