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American Idiocracy: Coming Soon to a Presidential Debate Near You!

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There’s this movie I watched not too long ago called Idiocracy. It’s not a great, or even good, movie. But taken as a cautionary tale, there is much to chew on, particularly given this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates as seen in the several debates already taken place.

The movie places its protagonists, two not very bright young men 500 years into their future, and into an America where anti-intellectualism is vaunted above pretty much everything else, and opinions, ideas and even thoughts are boiled up from the cauldron of television advertising slogans. (And I don’t mean political sound bites; I mean advertising, as in food chains!)

There has been more than a whisper of anti-intellectualism in this country for a while now; it’s nothing new. And yet, as we approach the 2012 presidential election we face a slate of Republican hopefuls who hold it up as a proud banner. It’s more than mispronouncing Uzbekistan, or mis-remembering Paul Revere’s ride, or misquoting the Constitution (or was it the Declaration of Independence?) It’s more than stumbling on words for which most high school debaters would lose points, and it’s more than reveling in being voted most anti-science person in the room.

It doesn’t take a genius to be president, and we’ve had many perfectly good — even great — presidents who were far from it. And we’ve had brilliant men who’ve been unsuccessful presidents (Jimmy Carter comes immediately to mind). But it’s a recent phenomenon, I think, in which being blatantly uninformed and unschooled in the basics of science, world history, and even American history, is a plus.  

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote philosopher George Santayana more than a century ago. I learned that lesson when I was a junior in high school taking the obligatory American history course. “What’s the point of  studying history?” we would ask our patient teacher. Part of his answer came from Santayana; the other part was his steadfast insistence on American exceptionalism and what we can learn from it. Our country, he would tell us, is special — unique. But not in the way our 2012 Republican candidate field might have us believe.

American exceptionalism lies in our historical broadmindedness, a drive to dream big and build bigger; to open our arms to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” of which my grandparents were a part. It is the country that in the throes of the Great Depression had the imagination to put an ailing country to work to build the parts of America that still amaze us: the national parks, the incredible monuments, the dams, the bridges, the roads. It was “American know-how” that made this country great.

American exceptionalism has nothing to do with a faulty notion that America is inerrant. Or that America’s greatness has anything to do with our ability to vanquish real and imagined enemies from the face of the earth. American might originates in our intellectual spirit. But how can the intellectual spirit thrive when we have national leaders who almost militantly believe that science is the evil opponent of God, and that history is to be scoffed at — not remembered (at least not correctly).

American Idiocracy, coming soon to a presidential debate near you!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • jamminsue

    Barbara, well-said

  • I’m not really surprised, Barbara, your clever collage of nonpersons fails to include a mug shot of our Chief Executive. I know, I know, he’s a Harvard graduate and thought law before venturing into politics, so his academic credentials are presumed to be impeccable.

    A rather odd criterion, I may well add, when it comes to one’s qualification for office (hardly a guarantee against ineptness or deficiency in character, BTW) and a safe topic to boot. But I understand, of course. It’s a favorite, fail-safe strategy on the part of the liberal mindset to be blaming Republicans for being dumb while Democrats, the party in power, are not smarter by any stretch of the term and the country goes down the drain.

    As I commented on the Housethread, TV is a diversion from the important issues of the day. And while you responded by saying we need diversion in order not to succumb to doom and gloom, here you go again offering us another diversion, this time masquerading under the guise of cogent political analysis.

    Forgive these harsh words, it’s not personal, but I feel compelled to place this article in a larger context.

  • Arch Conservative

    Anti-intellectual? That’s a eupehmism for “not our kind” with our kind being a leftist right Barbara?

    The GOP field with the exception of one, is a pretty pathetic collection of individuals but for reasons Barbara did not even come close to in her post.

    Did you purposely not bring up “the one we have been waiting for” Barbara? Are we to infer that this is a tacit approval of the job he’s done?

    He latest and greatest accomplishment was the political postruing of announcing a near full troop withdrawal from Iraq. Despite the fact that on the campaign trail in 2008 Barry S. claimed the troop withdrawal would a be a top priority and one of the first things done during his administration he now most likely will expect us all to wonder at the awe that is he. It’s not like many more lives were lost on his watch in Iraq yet the same people who demonized Bush are giving him a pass for doing the exact same thing.

    They all suck except for Ron Paul.

  • Roger–Never mentioned anything about academic credentials. And the verdict on President Obama is yet to be written.

  • Apropos of Mike Judge, to change the topic however slightly, wasn’t he also the “creator” of Office Space?

    A rather clever comedy considering America’s taste, but then again, the Germans put us all to shame when it comes to intellectual seriousness.

    The “no child left behind” program may well satisfy the deepest urges of a technocrat or a statistician, enamored as they are with numbers, but it’s got nothing to do with teaching us how to think.

    It serves a purpose, of course, to keep the majority of the population dumb and uncritical, and the Democrats bear equal responsibility and the blame. Which isn’t surprising, come to think of it, because they, too, are the guardians of the gate.

  • marykir

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed while reading early US history is that anti-intellectualism seems to go back almost to the first British settlers and certainly back to the post-revolutionary period. My theory is this is because Americans don’t like being told what to do 🙂 The irony is that we are often taught to distrust one authority by another authority.

    Whether or not a person has the gift of faith, it’s a shame when his or her abilities to question and reason are not exercised or when the use of these abilities by others is disparaged.

  • Barbara does have a valid point:

    The loudest applause lines in the GOP debates come for the dumbest/most outlandish assertions. And such figures as [teasing non-candidate] Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain revel in their anti-intellectual image and use it to play transparently to the lowest common denominator in the crowd.

    Barack Obama’s academic credentials and tendency to speak in grammatically correct complete sentences are seen as negatives, signs of elitist condescension, by the same GOP primary crowd that cheers for obnoxiousness and fake populism [and, more than once in the lowest points of these very low debates, for death].

  • zingzing

    archie: “Anti-intellectual? That’s a eupehmism for “not our kind” with our kind being a leftist right Barbara?”

    no, it means hostility towards intellectuals and intellectual pursuits like science, education, learning the proper use of commas, how to spell “euphemism,” etc.

    roger: “Apropos of Mike Judge, to change the topic however slightly, wasn’t he also the “creator” of Office Space?”

    and beavis and butthead. which is absolutely brilliant.

  • And don’t forget “King of the Hill,” which may actually be closest to Judge’s Texas roots.

  • zingzing

    there was a time when king of the hill was the best animated show on television (by most objective standards at any rate).

  • @7 No she doesn’t, Handy, and I don’t mean it with disrespect.

    Being articulate and knowing your syntax has got nothing to do with leadership qualities (though no one would argue it’s unimportant). At best, you’re addressing a necessary condition, not a sufficient one.

    So yes, focusing on GOP’s faults is a distraction, a subterfuge, because it diverts our attention from all-important issues, the least of which being our steady decline.

  • I’m not talking about syntax and being articulate. I’m talking about dismissing reason and science as policy. And that attitude, Roger is the problem. Genius isn’t a prerequisite to being a leader (I said that rather certainly in the article). But when consensus among the Republican field is that climate change is a myth and history doesn’t matter, then there is, indeed, a problem.

  • The problem goes well beyond, Barbara, and you know it. Environmental issues are small potatoes compared with the political crisis and impasse we’re facing, the system ain’t working, and no one is interested in fixing it.

    So yes, pointing fingers at one party or another doesn’t cut it for me. Doing so brings us no closer to a solution than saying 100 Hail Marys till your tongue gets numb.

    And how exactly do the attitudes you speak of, namely, of unreason, figure in the present policies? I fail to see the connection.

  • Thing is Roger, yes, you’re right. We are at a huge political crisis. What does reason have to do with it? Put an anti-intellectual, anti-science (way beyond anything GWB might have felt), and policy will be made with no reason other than the desire to retrofit this country back to some 1950s image of what America should be.

  • “I’m not really surprised, Barbara, your clever collage of nonpersons fails to include a mug shot of our Chief Executive.”

    Me either since she’s writing about Republican Presidential candidates.

  • Is there a distinction I should be aware of?

  • This article would have been more punchy if it had mentioned some concrete examples of anti-intellectualism among the GOP field, of which there have been many.

    While Handy is correct that some of the loudest cheers at the debates have been reserved for the most egregiously idiotic posturing, it’s not quite that clear-cut. It’s also true that one or two of the most noxious mouthdumps, particularly those exuded by Perry, have elicited some of the loudest boos.

    Which suggests to me that there may be one or two brain cells still twitching inside the skulls of the Republican base.

    Although maybe not. In researching this comment, I discovered that in conservative circles, this apparently is what passes for debunking the claim that Republicans are anti-intellectual. I mean, seriously… come on.

  • Clavos

    …there was a time when king of the hill was the best animated show on television…

    “On television” lowers the bar considerably.

  • Never argued against reason, Barbara. Just fail to see how the presence or absence of reason impact the present

    For one thing, I wasn’t exactly aware of the fact that either Geithner or Bernanke or Eric Holder were the practitioners of unreason. So I still have to ask the rather stupid question — how are we better off?

  • Dr. D–this was strictly a rant. As you said, examples are many, but I had only about 10 minutes to write this before having to leave the house.

  • Disagree. Arch made some valid points, his critique of the present is on target, Dreadful admitted that much in so many words.

    Arch’s fault, he hadn’t connected the dots (yet). But neither have the liberals who think we can find the way out of this crisis.

    To Arch, government is the problem. To liberals, it’s Big Business. And until the twaine shall meet, they’ll be talking at cross-purposes.

  • Zingzing

    Clavos: “On television” lowers the bar considerably.

    True. But animated series don’t show anywhere else.

  • sounds more like he doesn’t watch animated shows as the bar is pretty high currently

  • Zingzing


  • Clavos

    sounds more like he doesn’t watch animated shows as the bar is pretty high currently

    Didn’t even watch ’em when I was a kid and they were called cartoons…

    But my reference to the bar was of TV in general.

    That bar is the lowest in the entertainment world, generally.

  • Not really, how about mime or Las Vegas cabaret? Both far below TV standards.

    Plus which, there are actually many intelligent TV shows around; maybe you need to update which channels and programmes you choose to watch…

  • Arch Conservative

    So why is it that for liberals this supreme appreciation for science and the adherence to it as a guiding principal magically disappears when regarding the late term abortions? Science says that in the later stages of pregnancy it is not a “ball of cells” but a living breathing being with a heartbeat, a full set of organs, the ability to feel pain, and some degree of viability outside the womb if it came to that. Ultrasounds taken during the later stages of pregnancy show this little creature, which oddly enough looks like eerily like an actual human being, as it moves and reacts to it’s environment, seemingly cognizant of it. Yet most liberals eschew science in this instance for their own political rhetoric.

    If one, who as a pro choice zealot who frequently belittles others for having differing opinions on other issues as being anti-science, desired to be objective and uniform in their application of the adherence to science, then they would admit that yes it is a baby but that they believe the choice of the mother to abort the baby is the priority. Instead they still insist that it is not a living human being, opting for political rhetoric rather than the alleged sacred adherence to science to defend their position. That is anti science and awfully damn hypocritical.

  • I don’t subscribe to the “ball of cells” argument. If someone chooses to have an abortion then by definition they are preventing the birth of a baby.

    That said, I also believe that people have the right to control their own fertility and abort a baby if they decide that is the right decision for them.

  • Arch Conservative

    Well bully to you for owning up to the fact that, at least when concerning late term abortions, it is a living human being Christopher. It’s unfortunate that many who claim to be such ardent advocates of science drop the ball on this one and claim right up until the very last days of the pregnancy that “it’s choice not baby.” WRONG! It’s both. It’s a choice that a woman makes between allowing that baby to live or taking it’s life.

    Even as someone who is passionately pro life I am not comfortable with the idea that a woman should be told what to do with her own body by anyone else. Of course it is not fair or right. However the glee with which some on the other side celebrate abortion is absolutely disgusting. They refuse to acknowledge the ultimate reality of abortion. They object to people being made to see pictures of aborted babies. Why? Those pictures are the ultimate reality of the results of the thing which they support so passionately, abortion. If you’re going to pick a side opposing or supporting abortion you ought to actually know what an abortion is……you ought to actually watch one being performed……you ought to know what may or may not happen to the woman following the abortion…..

  • Interestingly, Judaism views life as beginning when the head crowns. Until that time, the fetus is a “rodef” (which means pursuer). If there is any danger to the mother (physical or emotional) the alive person takes precedence. Even late term abortion is not considered murder.

    According to the Talumud a fetus is “mere water” until the 40th day in any case.

  • Arch Conservative

    Now we’ve come circle. The author, whose original contention was that some politicians are just to anti science to be taken seriously, is using religious text to support her particular side of an issue. The one thing that can be said about every discussion of abortion on BC that I have been part of is that I have never once used religion to support my views.

  • Archie, I wouldn’t know but perhaps people deploying that argument are trying to have some sympathy for other people’s feelings.

    I’ve never seen anybody ever celebrate abortion with glee. Have you?

    Barbara, that isn’t remotely interesting. Other than the gullible saps who buy into it, who cares what some daft superstitious nonsense has to say on the matter?

  • Clavos

    maybe you need to update which channels and programmes you choose to watch…

    You’re right there, Rose; I don’t watch TV.

    My parents refused to even own one when I was a kid, and I never developed a taste for it.

  • Your choice, of course, but that is rather like saying “I don’t read books” or something. As with all human activities, there are good and bad instances.

  • Archie–
    Not using the text to support my views, only to show that not all religious thinking is anti-science. My religion, however, does teach me that justice is paramount, and reason (even argument and skepticism) are good values. I don’t buy every line, but there are ethical tenets in my religion (along with the stuff I don’t subscribe to) that help to inform my thinking.

    I’m just sayin… and I’m not trying to impose my will on anyone.

    Christopher–It’s not all mumbo-jumbo nonsense. Some of it is pretty compelling, and would even make sense to a die-hard atheist or agnostic. Again, no value judgment here.

    There are fundamentalist Jews with whom I vehemently disagree and are just as closed minded and anti-science as their Christian counterparts. I’m just not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Arch Conservative

    Would you have felt compelled to “show that not all religious thinking is anti-science” if you were aware of something in the Jewish faith that hinted that life begins at conception?

  • Barbara, it isn’t necessary to have religion to know that justice and reason are important, but there is no escaping the fact that the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim deist ideology is based on something for which there is zero evidence, the existence of said deity.

    I didn’t say it was all “mumbo-jumbo nonsense”, but it is all based on something which is, at best, untrue and, at worst, a blatant lie.

    A cynic might say that the cunning mixture of nonsense leavened with a little common sense and fact is ideally designed to befuddle people’s minds…

    Throw in the bitter conflicts between the three strands of this ignoble fiction and it is something we can surely be better off without.

  • Clavos

    …that is rather like saying “I don’t read books”…

    Hardly. Among all the media available in the today’s world, TV is the most low brow in the general sense (an aspect that, with the contemporary popularity of the so-called “reality” shows, seems to be becoming preeminent), although, as you point out, there are some notable exceptions.

    Nonetheless, aimed as it is at the masses, it is inferior to books (classical and contemporary), theatre, some film, etc. in my opinion.

    I liken it to the Roman circuses, for the most part.

  • I couldn’t disagree more; have you been in a book shop lately? There is so much drivel on sale there! Just as there are good books and bad books, there are good TV shows and bad ones.

    Reality TV has actually peaked now, fortunately, but it simply isn’t possible to pigeon-hole all TV as bad. There are some absolutely excellent and stunning productions, both fiction and non-fiction.

    You would, of course, actually have to watch television to know this and, as you don’t, you’ll just have to take my word for it!

  • Some TV Clavos may want to check out via DVD:
    Mad Men
    Breaking Bad
    Big Love
    The Sopranos
    Downton Abbey
    Six Feet Under
    Band of Brothers
    Friday Night Lights

    These are better than many good current movies! Some of the best writing and acting in any performance medium.

  • Zingzing

    Archie, who likes late-term abortions? You could have chosen a far better example, such as abortion in general, and even that would have been changing the argument since you know damn well that abortion isn’t a scientific argument, it’s a social and religious argument.

  • Zingzing

    Clavos, I don’t watch tv either, but the critical line is that we’re in a golden age of television. Certainly the amount of quality television shows have gone up and the quality of the quality shows has sky-rocketed.

    I’ll watch tv shows on DVD, when I can take them on my own schedule. Tv used to be as you describe it, but like anything else, it has changed. And don’t act as if theater and cinemas are filled with anything other than a mixture of great and stupid just the same as television. And try to read twilight.

  • Clavos

    OK, I stand corrected: TV is better than it used to be.

  • There is still plenty of godawful stupid TV too, LOL.

  • Clavos

    And handy, I have seen some episodes (on DVD) of Band of Brothers at my brother-in-law’s house, but as a general rule, after having survived a year of the real thing, I don’t care for or watch war stories, no matter how well done they are.

    I’ll check out the others one day.

  • Clavos


    And try to read twilight.


  • Zingzing

    Twilight is a series of books, clavos.

  • Vampire romances for tweens and teens.

  • Clavos

    Vampire romances for tweens and teens.

    Seriously, handy?

    Why should I read them, zing?

  • Arch Conservative

    Zing, many who are pro choice support late term abortion. To borrow a term from them they support “abortion on demand, no restrictions, no apologies”

    I guess you don’t like science being thrown in your face when it comes to abortion huh? You’d prefer it if all pro lifers were bible thumping christian fundamentalists huh, makes it easier for you…..But the fact is that if a baby in the womb that has decent odds of surviving on it’s own outside the womb is aborted then is semantics and not science being used by those who would support it’s being aborted.

    In fact many states actually have laws prohibiting abortion once the baby has reached “viability,” meaning viability outside the mom. It would seem that the legislatures of these states would tend to agree with those who hold views similar to my own not with those who would insist even after viability that “its a choice not a baby.”

    But I could say the sky was blue and you’d find a way to attack me zing. It seems disagreeing with me no matter what I say is one of your favorite BC past times.

    In any event it’s obvious that some on the pro choice side have never stopped if even for a second to consider the baby. They view abortions with a much seriousness as one would view having an oil change. It’s mundane, nothing to get overly concerned about. To them the whole issue has become about gloating in the faces of those who are pro life “ha I’ve had five abortions and you can’t stop me…how you like that.” It’s disturbing.

  • Archie, you take the furthest-out position and claim that it’s widely held. “Many who are pro-choice” my eye — where do you get your info on that?

    Few [if any] mainstream pro-choice people would claim abortion is a good thing. They will be more than satisfied with holding on to first-trimester rights. They believe the choice is between a woman and her doctor — not the heavy hand of the state. [This is one issue where you are not very libertarian.]

    Some conservative state legislatures are pushing laws [and they are supported in this by Mike Huckabee and recently Mitt Romney] that say “life begins at conception.” This would in effect ban birth control pills and IUDs! What’s your opinion on this idiocy?

    The extremism on this issue comes mostly and most loudly from the religious right. I’d like you to cite anyone who is demanding late-term abortion as a law. No one believes it would be practical or possible, and most people think it would be wrong, except when the mother is endangered.

  • Archie, as zing pointed out, the abortion debate has very little to do with science. All science can do is to tell you at which points in its development the foetus has eyes, hands, a beating heart, brainwaves etc. There’s no scientific experiment you could devise that could tell you if it’s right or wrong to abort.

    Whether late-term abortion should be permitted has as little to do with science as the question of whether capital punishment should be permitted. It’s an ethical question, not a scientific one.

  • zingzing

    clavos: “Why should I read them, zing?”

    you absolutely shouldn’t if you want to keep your high opinion of books.

  • zingzing

    archie: “Zing, many who are pro choice support late term abortion. To borrow a term from them they support “abortion on demand, no restrictions, no apologies””

    i’d have to say most who are pro-choice don’t support late-term abortion, except in certain situations (which i’m sure you know, but you decide to pretend to forget, as if that would work…). i’m against late-term abortion except in very severe circumstances. but the option must not be outlawed completely, as that would not end late-term abortion, only make it more dangerous. you seem to think that if someone recognizes the need for legal abortion, they like killing babies. that you could miss the point that widely is not surprising, but it is frustrating. you’re arguing against something for reasons nobody argued for. stop it.

    i’d like to see a source for that quote of yours. and then you’ll need to prove it’s a prevalent opinion. i don’t suspect you can do that.

    “I guess you don’t like science being thrown in your face when it comes to abortion huh? You’d prefer it if all pro lifers were bible thumping christian fundamentalists huh, makes it easier for you…”

    you’re not responding to anything i’ve said, archie. you’re just spouting off with your flimsy opinions based on nothing. science doesn’t answer the question of whether abortion is right or wrong.

    “But I could say the sky was blue and you’d find a way to attack me zing. It seems disagreeing with me no matter what I say is one of your favorite BC past times.”

    no, i wouldn’t! never! and i hate disagreeing with you! i fucking hate it! i’m telling your mom what you said.

    In any event it’s obvious that some on the pro choice side have never stopped if even for a second to consider the baby. They view abortions with a much seriousness as one would view having an oil change.”

    you can remain ignorant if you want, archie. it doesn’t help your argument or make you look any smarter. know your enemy, archie. when you spout nonsense, that’s all it is.

  • There’s an incredible movie called “Lake of Fire” [I believe you can watch it on YouTube, not the ideal place because it’s long and visually beautiful] which tackles the subject of abortion in a more or less even-handed way. The impressions you are left with is that abortion is horrific; and that right-wing religious zealots are even more horrific. It’s more of an art film than a political film, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    In fact, I reviewed it on Blogcritics a few years ago.