Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oklahoma's politicians may be an embarrassment,

but maybe there's deeper problem - one in which Brent Reinhart is only a symptom. Leonard Pitts Jr. sez:
But here’s the main reason Rinehart’s work offends: It is astonishingly stupid.

Voters should support him because an angel does? His opponents are in league with Satan? Old Scratch is working to ”get kids to believe homosexuality is normal” and Rinehart is their only defense? And I haven’t even mentioned the creative punctuations and multiple misspellings.

I am not an Oklahoma County voter, so maybe you wonder why I care about Rinehart’s campaign. I don’t. What I do care about is what I will call the ongoing stupidification of America, of which this is but one glaring example among many. Think of the congressman who advocated bombing Mecca to teach Muslims a lesson. Think of the ”zero tolerance” policy that required a 10-year-old to be suspended for bringing to school the tiny toy gun from his GI Joe. Think of the ”Jay Walking” segment on The Tonight Show where average Americans cannot answer basic questions of civics and history. Think of those cable shows where we are theoretically entertained by coarse women vying for the affection of washed-up rock stars. Heck, read your junk e-mail.

And then tell me you don’t feel the nation’s collective IQ dropping like stocks.

I am not talking about ignorance. Ignorance is a lack of information; we’re all ignorant in one way or another. Nor am I talking about people prone to punctuation or spelling errors; we all make mistakes.

No, I’m talking about stupidity, which I define as an inability to analyze, draw conclusions from, or otherwise use information even when one has it. And stupidity is often characterized by smug indifference. When a CNN anchor drew Rinehart’s attention to his spelling errors, his reply was, ”I don’t necessarily care.” This is, I feel constrained to remind you, the elected representative of 220,000 people.

For as much as we obsess over black vs. white and red vs. blue, I suspect the defining division of this technology-driven era will be between those who have and can exploit information and those who do not and cannot. Between intelligence and its opposite. One wonders how long we can continue to equate stupidity with ”keeping it real,” being a regular Joe or Jane, and hope to continue leading the world.

There’s a movie, Idiocracy, which posits a post-intelligent future in which the stupid have inherited the Earth. It’s not a great film, but there is a truth to it. You watch the characters watching a reality show that consists entirely of some guy being kicked in the testicles and you realize you wouldn’t be surprised to see that show on VH-1 tomorrow.

Why not? In recent years, we have seen intelligence demonized as the sole province of the ”elite,” a term that once described accomplishment, but is now used to condemn anyone who looks like he might have accidentally cracked a book or had a thought.

Not long ago, I gave a commencement address in which I told young people I am less concerned with what they think than that they think. Because we are losing that skill. Me, I find that alarming.

When I have some moments to reflect, I go back to my teens in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and realize that one could see what Pitts describes coming. It was pretty obvious then that large swaths of the culture seemed to already revel in wallowing in their stupidity. As I understand it, there has historically been an anti-intellectual vibe in the US. In the academic world, we are at least in theory supposed to be fostering critical thinking - it's pretty clear that we're fighting a losing battle.

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