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Naturally More Stupid on Average


by Joseph Natoli

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

—Christine O’Donnell

“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

—Tea Party sign at a health care town hall

“America today begins to turn back to God.”

—Glenn Beck, speech at “Restoring Honor Rally”

“You don’t want to mess with moms who are rising up. If you thought pit bulls where tough, you don’t want to mess with mama grizzlies.”

Sarah Palin speech at Susan B. Anthony List rally

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Jon Stewart speech at “Restoring Sanity and/or Fear Rally”

You could say also that if you amplify everything, you hear everything, but hearing everything is like seeing everything. We don't do it.

Look out the window. We select what we see and we select according to already resident priorities of consciousness. We see intentionally the phenomenologists say. It’s what we bring to the scene that counts. I vote based on what I think a candidate brings to the scene, an unbelievably complex and confusing, frustrating and sad scene at the moment. A declining scene in America, some say.

“What I think” remains the key element here and “think” the key word. Expand this to the “average American voter.”

What’s the “think” level here? Go to the polls: Americans are now evenly divided as to who performed better in the White House: Bush or Obama. One fifth of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim; one quarter believe he was born outside the U.S., the so-called “birther conspiracy” which maintains Obama has a falsified Social Security number. Glenn Beck, a disciple of Cleon Skousen, a fervid anti-communist who frightened even the John Birch society and wrote of “America’s religious Founders and their happy slaves,” is an amplified figure on the American scene, amplified to a possible presidential candidacy level. As is Sarah Palin whose reading habits apparently include everything and thus she can recall nothing.

But, hey, reading is “old, over and back in the day.” Everybody can choose everything in cyberspace and that’s kind of, sort of, like the New Reading. So Palin doesn’t read and Carl Paladino wants to be governor of New York but not before he “takes out” a journalist, and Joe Miller, Alaskan Senatorial candidate, has security staff who handcuff journalists, and Rand Paul’s security wrestled a Move On protester to the ground and stepped on her neck. Christine O’Donnell, Delaware senatorial candidate, is not a witch now because now she’s you.

If you amplify the ever-increasing flow of such stupidity, you wind up not seeing any of it. It becomes the norm so that when Glenn Beck apologizes for calling Obama an anti-white racist, he gets a place on the rational side of things.

Caught as we are in a storm of stupidity – in the very eye of the storm – we need to find an outside location, some remove from the American scene. We need to see our stupidity in a comparative frame. We are not alone in what Jon Stewart called a funhouse of media making. But if it’s a funhouse, I’m not laughing, and though I love Charles Foster Kane’s response to his reporter -- “You send the story. I’ll find the war”--I believe there is a war but only one side knows they’re fighting it and the other --those Frank Capra John Doe’s--haven’t a clue. And the media can’t fill its 24/7 news cycle if it doesn’t report it all: the war and the ignorance. And, yes, the stupidity that fails to recognize both.

In a recent New York Times editorial, the German philosopher and living heir of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas referred, dismayingly, to Thilo Sarrazin’s book Germany Does Away With Itself, specifically to Sarrazin’s belief that Muslim immigrants were lowering the German intelligence level. These immigrants were making Germans “naturally more stupid on average.”

Shades of Aryan arrogance. Scary enough although Habermas finds the link here with Germany’s immigrant problems of the 1990s and not the sturm und drang of the 1930s.

Habermas, the high priest of “communicative rationality,” is illuminating on what the immigrant-to-mainstream culture relation should be in a liberal state: “To the present day, the idea of the leitkultur [the guiding national culture] depends on the misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the `values’ of the majority culture and to adopt its `customs.’”

The French National Assembly has banned the wearing of full-face veils which are “contrary to the values of the Republic” while the Belgians have anti-veil regulations as a message to fundamentalist Muslims that Belgium “preserves the values and rights of women.” The Swiss have banned the building of minarets. Geert Wilders, head of the Party for Freedom, the third largest political party in the Netherlands, is on trial for “incitement to hatred and discrimination” against Islam. “We have to stop the tsunami of Islamization,” Wilders asserts. “It is affecting our heart, our identity, our culture.” “Politics is becoming nationalistic and nativist in many parts of Europe,” according to economist Nouriel Roubini, “reflected in an anti-immigrant backlash, raids against the Roma, Islamaphobia, and the rise of extreme rightwing parties.” Such far-right parties have gained strong governmental positions in Italy, France, Austria, Finland, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden, and The Netherlands.

The American version to Europe’s move to preserve “nativist origins” is represented by the ultra-conservative Tea Party faction which has neither clarity in principles or objectives but has managed to pipe the tune for the 2010 U.S. Congressional elections. Tea Partiers do not see themselves as “holding down the fort” against an Islamic invasion of American values and customs. The values and customs that the French and the German nativists, for example, are defending against Islam have much to do with a cultural legacy whose historical magnitude is neither recognized nor appreciated by the nativist Tea Party. They inherit former Vice President Dick Cheney’s assessment of “Old Europe” as nothing more than an “open air museum” for holiday.

Much of the Tea Party view regarding Islam has to be gleaned from absence, from what is not said. For instance, the George W. Bush’s wayward ventures into Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing ill fortunes of those ventures into the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, flame no Tea Party ire. For the Tea Party faction, you fight them over there so you don’t have to fight them at home. While Islam is already housed within the EU and so invasively as to threaten nativist values, Islam in the Tea Party view is not here but there. Warfare, continuous warfare, is the shield protecting the homeland. If Obama had decided not to pursue that warfare in Afghanistan--and he may have decided this as a sop to conservatives--the Tea Party’s hatred of this president would have registered the way water already on high boil registers when you raise the heat.

The Tea Party is an ultra-conservative party that is rallying around the flag the way the European ultra-conservatives are but for different reasons, or, more precisely, the latter has reasons, though Habermas does not find them reasonable, and the former, the Tea Party, disdains reasoning as a form of politics. Their turn to the right after the global witnessing of the failures of a so-called “self-correcting” capitalism is unexpected.

I mean that rationality would have anticipated the sudden eruption of a left-leaning Tea Party, one demanding that the Department of Justice indict the obscene criminality of the financial sector and strong Federal regulation watchdog those “free enterprises” which had brought global markets to collapse. Rationality would have anticipated governmental actions that would have tied reckless banking and investment practices to punishment and not reward of the reckless. Rationality would have anticipated that some governmental review of globalized capitalism’s self-proclaimed “self-correcting” capacity would have been urged by angry Tea Partiers on behalf of national economic security. Rationality would have anticipated some righteous Tea Party anger over statistics showing that “a small group of individuals hauling in more than $50 million annually (sometimes much more), increased fivefold from 2008 to 2009, even as the nation was being rocked by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” as Bob Herbert wrote in “Fast Track to Inequality,” in the New York Times, November 2, 2010.

Rationality was nowhere to be seen here. The opposite, and therefore the irrational, occurred: government needed now more than ever to just get out of the way.

So while the European move to the ultra-right is comprehensible--but one, in Habermas’s view, based on a view of immigrants that should be overcome--the eruption of an ultra-conservative Tea Party in the U.S. is mystifying. It is surely irrational, somewhat perverse and perhaps insane, for victims to applaud their looters and safeguard the future of financial looting.

Perhaps what is involved here is the same sort of rationality behind homeopathy: look to the poison that makes you ill for a cure. If we drown the regulatory Fed in a bathtub, unleash the total, no holds barred Wild West energy of the market, we will cure ourselves of poverty, joblessness, home foreclosure, a malfunctioning educational system, global warming, terrorism, and the decline of American “Exceptionalism.” In other words, if we were to repeat the Reagan formula for a “New Morning in America” – the Voodoo economics that has brought us to the Great Recession that has “bestowed fabulous wealth on a tiny sliver at the top, while undermining the living standards of the middle class and absolutely crushed the poor,” we would find our cure. This was noted by Bob Herbert in “A Recovery’s Long Odds,” New York Times, September 14, 2010.

Were we all in a classroom situation, our teacher would either conclude that we were foundationally stupid and therefore incapable of replacing ignorance with knowledge, or, willfully ignorant due to a faith or ideology which privileged only its own knowledge. You have to also consider that our hypothetical classroom is already a weak challenger to a widespread cultural barrage of propaganda that defines rationality and knowledge within a narrow range of interests – call them market interests, and reinforces ignorance of all that lies outside those interests. In this last case, we would have, to use Noam Chomsky’s term, a “manufactured” ignorance.

Galileo begs the Roman Catholic prelates to just take a look through his telescope and thereby translate their ignorance to knowledge. Their faith prevents this and fixes their continued ignorance. If all faith reveals a knowledge that no human testament or argument can surpass, all political battles are meaningless, superfluous and distracting. They are met with an inattentiveness that, if prolonged, leads to obliviousness. You might say that this group is eternally frustrated by politics.

If, however, present existing conditions, say, for instance, unemployment and house foreclosure, compel an attentiveness to the next election, what you have is a long time oblivious voter who is now angered. That anger suits the needs of a party out of power seeking to regain that power. Since that anger, however, is rooted in an oblivious ignorance which like an automatic weapon in the hands of a three year old fires wildly, all political parties and politicians come under fire. Thus, the necessity of an outside-the-Beltway, populist movement (a faction? a brigade?) which credentials itself as non-politics, non-ideology, non-partisan. It is a movement that turns away from politics and returns to a pristine origin where Founding Fathers and written words had nil to do with “Big Government.” Call it therefore the Tea Party.

Obliviousness has other roots beside religious faith. Frontier rugged individualism, Emersonian self-reliance, Reagan and Thatcher “self-interest,” and the Millennial doctrine of “self-empowerment” and “will to choose” (encapsulated in the truly moronic thesis of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret)have created illusions of individualism that have generated a social and political obliviousness. Politics has become a personal choice matter. Misfortunes such as foreclosure, or unemployment, or cancer, or getting struck by lightning, and so on turn out not to be subject to personal will and choice. You can’t will to win the lottery, or, become Oprah, who encourages you to “will it and it will come.”

This is a shocking surprise that engenders once again anger. One had chosen to be “independent” of politics, relying instead on Facebook friending and unfriending as sufficient social and political involvement, all subject to self-design. An extended period of obliviousness to everything outside one’s own personal choice has resulted in an angry voter, one easily swayed by a politics of anger, a politics of rejection of the status quo, a politics of Change. The change of course that is sought is a change from dealing with a world not personally designed on your Facebook page to reducing that world to your personally designed Facebook page. For Generation O, the Millennials, presidential candidate Barack Obama seemed to be offering that change.

Willful ignorance and the obliviousness that it creates in regard to politics is an almost always present aspect of poverty, and because poverty has increased in the U.S. we now face a depth of ignorance that rivals that of medieval peasantry. Anger is a natural product of the destitute and desperate and is therefore not difficult to rouse. Ironically, Tea Party anger is not downtrodden proletariat anger but nevertheless gets all the press. No one is noting or fighting for the bottom impoverished 40 percent of the population, a class that “must not be named,” that goes nameless in our elections. It seems as if the American Dream was for a time the immigrants’ dream to rise to the middle class but now immigrants are now part of middle class fear.

The middle class American Dream is a player/celebrity fame and fortune dreamscape, an ascendancy into an elite wealth class. What has been left behind is a spirit of egalitarianism, extinct now and replaced by the dream of being part of the American equestrian class, to have more and more toys and be declared a “winner.” History shows us that the earlier American Dream--from working class to bourgeois--has been accomplished with spectacular results in the U.S., mostly through education, while the climb to the top has all the requirements of shooting craps (luck is all) and the sort of legacy that makes being accepted into Harvard’s Porcellian Club possible.

Why do so many Americans ignore the ill effects of the widest wealth gap among all industrialized nations? Perhaps the easiest answer is that recognition here breeds “class warfare,” and that is a matter pushed by the Marxists whose day has come and gone. In a market view, a wealth divide is no more than incentive and inspiration for the “Losers’ to become “Winners.” Any governmental attempt to “redistribute the wealth” leads to “moral hazard,” the destruction of the individual competitive will, the very backbone of competitive capitalism. So the very matter – a cemented in place class divide – which is at the heart of what creates the present anxiety, frustration and anger is in a “locked box.” Not only is any class divide utterance verboten but any movement by the Feds to “socially engineer,” to interrupt, that is, the natural play of market forces in an attempt to subdue “collateral damage,” mostly and continuously done to the “Have Nots,” is deemed a pure act of socialism. Obama’s health care reformation is an example and explains why the Tea Partiers call him a socialist. This is pure ignorance masked as patriotism.

If we weren’t already programmed to remain ignorant and oblivious of the obvious and weren’t already immersed in ways of thinking, especially ways of not thinking and remaining oblivious, that rob us of the autonomy we believe we possess, our anger would be diametrically opposed to that of the Tea Party.

Rather than pursue the agenda of the ignorant, we would be more rather than less engaged in politics and would be voting for candidates who claimed to politically knowledgeable rather than totally ignorant of politics.

Rather than repeat—unknowingly the battle that Hamilton and Adams fought regarding Federalist power and States’ rights, we would study the long history of that relationship and admit interpretive changes resulting from changes in historical context.

Rather than accept as “Fair and Balanced” a cable news channel that spews corporate, anti-Democratic party government propaganda “socially engineered” by a Joseph Goebbels clone and broadcast by a retinue of Tokyo Roses, we would follow the money and trace its power in politics and the media.

Rather than accept the nonsense of a “self-correcting” market and the beauties of an unregulated financial sector, we would study the history of market looting and the crises this “self-correcting” system has brought on all but the perpetrators.

The “War” waged in 2008 was not on business, as Fox News claims, but on those many Americans who were not and had not shared in Wall Street profiteering. The only reason the “birthers” can have the unemployed at this moment transfixed on President Obama’s birth certificate rather than on what set of circumstances pushed their job overseas is – point blank – ignorance. Customarily it is stupidity that allows such ignorance to prevail but in a situation where one is brainwashed into thinking stupidity is intelligence and intelligence stupidity, that ignorance is what best meets politics. That obliviousness will have a good outcome in such a situation, and I believe it is the present one, awakenings are difficult to imagine.

It may also be fatally stupid to assume, as President Obama does, that our post-French Revolution secular liberalism which calls upon us to “revere and respect as much as our own...other paths to grace” will, in the natural course of things, be adopted by faith-ruled societies, whether fundamentalist Christian, Hindu or Islamic.

It may also be fatally stupid to assume, as Habermas does, that any culture’s willingness to put into check its own values and customs will be met by an equal willingness on the part of an alien culture, especially one of deep faith convictions and a burgeoning population.

History, however, takes us beyond our fears by showing us subtle modifications and adept arrangements and practical solutions which sentences, like a meteorological report of the weather, cannot fully represent.

Our intelligence--which ranges from stupidity, ignorance and obliviousness to informed, perceptive awareness--is contextualized and of the moment and the place.

We are now at the bottom of that range because of a mis-recognition of the war we are in, choosing instead to swing blindly and wildly at our own best defenses: the Federal government and its power to regulate and prosecute, labor unions and their power to organize labor effectively to oppose a transnationalized corporate power that has inveigled itself in government and communications, immigrants--those “outside the box” --and the vital diversity they bring which has been the source of American ingenuity and is at the core of our claims to “exceptionalism,” a public, commonly experienced, tax supported education which is the foundation of egalitarianism and not a for-profit, shareholder enterprise, and environmental concerns that must be – were we rational and able to pull ourselves out of a stupor of obliviousness -- prioritized above short term return on investment.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that at some crucial moment our survival instincts will trump our stupidity, ignorance and obliviousness.

Now seems not the moment.

--November 4, 2010

Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009) where he tried to arrange an early edited collection of BAD SUBJECTS pieces.