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!