Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

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Overview

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

The three Great Premises of Idiot America:
· Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
· Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
· Fact is that which enough people ...

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Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

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Overview

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

The three Great Premises of Idiot America:
· Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units
· Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
· Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it

 
With his trademark wit and insight, veteran journalist Charles Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.
 
Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate. But his thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated. Erudite and razor-sharp, Idiot America is at once an invigorating history lesson, a cutting cultural critique, and a bullish appeal to our smarter selves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A raucous rant against the armies of the right. . . . Pierce is at his scathing, insightful best.”
The Boston Globe
 
“A lively and, dare I say, intelligent study of the ongoing assault on gray matter.”
—Stephen Amidon, The New York Observer
 
“[A] witty and pointed indictment of our nation’s disturbing ability to vilify smart people and elevate chowderheads to positions of power and influence.”
The Salt Lake Tribune

“For a good (if painful) laugh about creationism and other bits of American lunacy, try Charles Pierce’s Idiot America. It’s a funny, sly version of an argument made recently by Al Gore in The Assault on Reason, and by the brilliant Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason.”
—John A. Farrell, USNews.com
 
“There is only one Charles Pierce, and while that may be a good thing, it is also a damn good thing we have his unique combination of gonzo, erudition, fearlessness, and eloquence to help us make sense of a senseless world. I stand in awe, and appreciation.”
—Eric Alterman, author Why We’re Liberals and When Presidents Lie
 
“Pierce penetrates, and the world feels less idiotic already.”
—Roy Blount Jr., author of Alphabet Juice and Long Time Leaving
 
“Charles Pierce takes us on a brilliant and hilarious tour of the back roads of American idiotocracy through history—skewering Atlantis-seekers, evolution deniers, jackasses, nincompoops, and right-wing know-it-alls with his trademark sledgehammer wit. Reading Pierce’s Idiot America, I laughed myself stupid.”
—Amy Dickinson, author of The Mighty Queens of Freeville
 
“Engaging. . . . Pierce delivers a rapier-sharp rant on how the America of Franklin and Edison, Fulton and Ford has devolved into America the Uninformed.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“There’s a guy down at the end of the bar who’s furiously angry, hilariously funny, and has an Irish poet’s talent for language. He’s been traveling the country, and he’s been alternately appalled and moved by what he’s found there, and, lucky you, he wants to tell you all about it. Listen.”
—Peter Sagal, author of The Book of Vice and host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me

Publishers Weekly

Journalist Pierce delivers a rapier-sharp rant on how the America of "Franklin and Edison, Fulton and Ford" has devolved into America "the Uninformed," where citizens hostile to science are exchanging "fact for fiction, and faith for reason," and glutting themselves on "reality" TV and conspiracy theories. Pierce makes no apologies for his liberal bias, and some conservatives-notably evolution opponents and Rush Limbaugh-endure a good deal of bashing. Pierce writes that in the U.S., "Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it." He supports his thesis with references to James Madison and other founding fathers, who may have foreseen and rued the emergence of "cranks" who would threaten the Enlightenment-based nation they were shaping. Although the book is not likely to win any converts from the right wing Pierce so energetically decries, it is an engaging catalogue of those unscientifically verified "truths" that enthrall and impassion millions of Americans. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Pierce (writer-at-large, Esquire) begins by relating his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, during which he sees on display a dinosaur wearing a saddle. That outlandish sight leads him to consider other examples of irrationality taking the place of reason in America, as he examines talk radio, denials of global warming and evolution, the war in Iraq, Sarah Palin, the case of Terry Schiavo, etc. With droll prose and an appreciation for irony, Pierce skewers what he sees as America's lamentable embrace of idiocy, and he illustrates how it has thrown us perilously off balance. He contrasts the ubiquitous ignorance and gullibility of today's body politic with the thoughts of James Madison, who heralded common sense, knowledge, and experience as virtues. VERDICT Pierce contends that the founding fathers (men of the Enlightenment) properly guaranteed a place in society for cranks to be able to champion eccentric ideas, but now any crank who can draw attention to himself using mass media is viewed as an expert while genuine authorities are not trusted. Intelligence is discounted and gut reactions hold sway, or, as Pierce maintains: "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it." Recommended.—Donna L. Davey, NYU Lib.


—Donna L. Davey
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767926157
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 149,399
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, a contributing writer for Esquire, and a frequent contributor to American Prospect and Slate. His work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Nation, The Atlantic, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications, and he is a regular on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Only a Game.
 
Visit the author's wbsite at www.charlespierce.net.

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Read an Excerpt

The Prince of Cranks

Ralph Ketchum sits on the porch of his little house tucked away on a dirt lane that runs down toward a lake, pouring soda for his guest and listening to the thrum of the rain on his roof. He has been talking to a visitor about the great subject of his academic life–James Madison, the diminutive hypochondriac from Virginia who, in 1787, overthrew the U.S. government and did so simply by being smarter than everyone else. American popular history seems at this point to have de­volved into a Founding Father of the Month Club, with several huge books on Alexander Hamilton selling briskly, an almost limitless fascination with Thomas Jefferson, a steady stream of folks spelunking through George Washington’s psyche, and an HBO project starring the Academy Award winner Paul Giamatti as that impossible old blatherskite John Adams. But Madison, it seems, has been abandoned by filmmakers and by the writers of lushly footnoted doorstops. He also was a mediocre president; this never translates well to the screen, where all presidents are great men.

There are two things that make Jefferson superior to Madison in the historical memory,says Ketchum. One was Jeffer­son’s magnetism in small groups and the other was his gift for the eloquent phrase. Madison has always been a trailer in that way because, well, he writes perfectly well and, occasionally, manages some eloquence. Occasionally.

Madison was not a social lion. In large gatherings, Ketchum writes, people often found him stiff, reserved, cold, even aloof and supercilious. He relaxed only in small settings, among peo­ple he knew, and while discussing issues of which he felt he had command. He therefore seldom made a good first impression,writes Ketchum, seldom overawed a legislative body at his first appearance, and seldom figured in the spicy or dramatic events of which gossip and headlines are made.Madison thought, is what he did, and thinking makes very bad television.
However, for all his shyness and lack of inherent charisma, Madison did manage to woo and win Dolley Payne Todd, the most eligible widow of the time. Ketchum points out that the Virginian came calling having decked himself out in a new beaver hat. (The introductions were made by none other than Aaron Burr, who certainly did get around. If you’re keeping score, this means that Burr is responsible for the marriage of one of the authors of the Federalist and the death of another, having subsequently introduced Alexander Hamilton to a bullet in Weehawken.) He did win Dolley.Ketchum smiles. He had to have something going for him there.
Ketchum’s fascination with Madison began in graduate school at the University of Chicago. His mentor, the historian Stuart Brown, encouraged Ketchum to do his doctoral disserta­tion on Madison’s political philosophy. Ketchum finished the dissertation in 1956. He also spent four years working as an edi­tor of Madison’s papers at the University of Chicago. He began work on his massive biography of Madison in the mid-1960s and didn’t finish the book until 1971.
Partly, Ketchum says, the hook was through my mentor, Stuart Brown, and I think I absorbed his enthusiasm, which was for the founding period in general. He said that he thought Madison had been neglected–my wife calls him ‘the Charlie Brown of the Founding Fathers’–and that he was more impor­tant, so that set me to work on him.
Madison was always the guy under the hood, tinkering with the invention he’d helped to devise in Philadelphia, when he im­proved the Articles of Confederation out of existence. You can see that in the correspondence between them–Jefferson and Madison. Madison was always toning Jefferson down a little bit. Henry Clay said that Jefferson had more genius but that Madison had better judgment–that Jefferson was more bril­liant, but that Madison was more profound.
We are at a dead level time in the dreary summer of 2007. A war of dubious origins and uncertain goals is dragging on de­spite the fact that a full 70 percent of the people in the country don’t want it to do so. Politics is beginning to gather itself into an election season in which the price of a candidate’s haircuts will be as important for a time as his position on the war. The country is entertained, but not engaged. It is drowning in infor­mation and thirsty for knowledge. There have been seven years of empty debate, of deliberate inexpertise, of abandoned rigor, of lazy, pulpy tolerance for risible ideas simply because they sell, or because enough people believe in them devoutly enough to raise a clamor that can be heard over the deadening drone that suffuses everything else. The drift is as palpable as the rain in the trees, and it comes from willful and deliberate neglect. Mad­ison believed in self-government in all things, not merely in our politics. He did not believe in drift. A popular government,he famously wrote, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a tragedy or a Farce, or perhaps both.The great flaw, of course, is that, even given the means to acquire information, the people of the country may decline. Drift is willed into being.
I think we are nowhere near the citizens he would want us to be,Ketchum muses. It was kind of an idealism in Madi­son’s view that we can do better than that, but it depends, fun­damentally, on improving the quality of the parts, the citizens. I think he would be very discouraged.
Madison is an imperfect guide, as all of them are, even the ones that have television movies made about them. When they launched the country, they really had no idea where all they were doing might lead. They launched more than a political ex­periment. They set free a spirit by which every idea, no matter how howlingly mad, can be heard. There is more than a little evidence that they meant this spirit to go far beyond the political institutions of a free government. They saw Americans–white male ones, anyway–as a different kind of people from any that had come before. They believed that they had created a space of the mind as vast as the new continent onto which fate, ambition, greed, and religious persecution had dropped them, and just as wild. They managed to set freedom itself free.
Madison himself dropped a hint in Federalist 14. Is it not the glory of the people of America, he wrote, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for an­tiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Granted, he was at the time arguing against the notion that a republic could not flourish if it got too big or its population got too large. But you also can see in his question the seedbed of a culture that inevitably would lead, not only to Abraham Lin­coln and Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but to Wil­liam Faulkner, Jackson Pollock, and Little Richard. A culture that moves and evolves and absorbs the new. Experiment, the founders told us. There’s plenty of room here for new ideas, and no idea is too crazy to be tested.
V V V
EARLY on the sparkling morning, the golf carts, newly washed, sit gleaming in a row along one side of the parking lot. There’s a faint and distant click, the sound of the day’s first drives being launched down the shining fairways. Inside the clubhouse of the small public course along Route 61 just outside Minneapolis, two elderly gentlemen are just sitting down for breakfast when someone comes in and asks them if they know how to get to the old lost town. They think for a minute; then one of them rises and points out the window, past the dripping golf carts and off down Route 61, where the winding road runs toward the Mis­sissippi River.
As I recall,he says, when my grandfather took me out there when I was a kid, it was down that way, right on the river­bank. It’s all grown over now, though, I think.
A dream lies buried in the lush growth that has sprung up on the banks of the great river. In 1856, a dreamer built a city here; the city failed, but the crank went on. He went into politics. He went off to Congress. He came home and he farmed on what was left of the land from his city, and he read. Oh, Lord, how he read. He read so much that he rediscovered Atlantis. He read so much that he discovered how the earth was formed of the cosmic deposits left by comets. He read so much that he found a code in Shakespeare’s plays proving that their author was Fran­cis Bacon. His endless, grinding research was thorough, careful, and absolutely, utterly wrong. It is so oftentimes in this world,he lamented to his diary in 1881, that it is not the philosophy that is at fault, but the facts.They called him the Prince of Cranks.
Ignatius Donnelly was born in Philadelphia, the son of a doc­tor and a pawnbroker. He received a proper formal education, and after high school found a job as a clerk in the law office of Benjamin Brewster. But the law bored him. He felt a stirring in his literary soul; in 1850, his poem The Mourner’s Vision was published. It’s a heartfelt, if substantially overcooked, ap­peal to his countrymen to resist the repressive measures through which the European governments had squashed the revolutions of 1848. Donnelly wrote:
O! Austria the vile and France the weak,
My curse be on ye like an autumn storm.
Dragging out teardrops on the pale year’s cheek,
adding fresh baseness to the twisting worm;
My curse be on ye like a mother’s, warm,
Red reeking with my dripping sin and shame;
May all my grief back turned to ye, deform
Your very broken image, and a name,
Be left ye which Hell’s friends shall hiss and curse the
same.
As one historian gently put it, the poem was not critically ac­claimed.
Donnelly also involved himself in Philadelphia’s various fra­ternal and professional organizations, as well as in its tumul­tuous Democratic politics. By 1855, he’d developed a sufficient reputation for oratory that he was chosen to deliver the Fourth of July address at the local county Democratic convention in Independence Square.
However, for the first–but far from the last–time in his life, Donnelly’s political gyroscope now came peculiarly unstuck. Within a year of giving the address, he’d pulled out of a race for the Pennsylvania state legislature and endorsed his putative opponent, a Whig. The next year, he again declared himself a Democrat and threw himself into James Buchanan’s presidential campaign. Buchanan got elected; not long afterward, Donnelly announced that he was a Republican.
By now, too, he was chafing at the limits of being merely one Philadelphia lawyer in a city of thousands of them, many of whom had the built-in advantages of money and social con­nections that gave them a permanent head start. He’d married Katherine McCaffrey, a young school principal with a beautiful singing voice, in 1855. He wanted to be rich and famous. Phila­delphia seemed both too crowded a place to make a fortune and too large a place in which to become famous. And, besides, his mother and his wife hated each other. (They would not speak for almost fifteen years.) He was ready to move. Not long af­ter he was married, Donnelly met a man named John Nininger, and Nininger had a proposition for him.
The country was in the middle of an immigration boom as the revolutions of the 1840s threw thousands of farmers from central Europe off their land and out of their countries. Nin­inger, who’d made himself rich through real estate speculation in Minnesota, had bought for a little less than $25,000 a parcel of land along a bend in the Mississippi twenty-five miles south of St. Paul. Nininger proposed that he himself handle the sale of the land, while Donnelly, with his natural eloquence and bound­less enthusiasm, would pitch the project, now called Nininger, to newly arrived immigrants. Ignatius and Katherine Donnelly moved to St. Paul, and he embarked on a sales campaign that was notably vigorous even by the go-go standards of the time.
There will be in the Fall of 1856 established in Philadelphia, New York, and other Eastern cities, a great Emigration Associa­tion,Donnelly wrote in the original Statement of Organization for the city of Nininger. Nininger City will be the depot in which all the interests of this huge operation will centre. Donnelly promised that Nininger would feature both a ferry dock and a railroad link, making the town the transportation hub be­tween St. Paul and the rest of the Midwest. To Nininger, farm­ers from the distant St. Croix valley would send their produce for shipment to the wider world. Nininger would be a planned, scientific community, a thoroughly modern frontier city.
Western towns have heretofore grown by chance, Donnelly wrote, Nininger will be the furst to prove what combination and concentrated effort can do to assist nature.
Eventually, some five hundred people took him up on it. In time, Nininger built a library and a music hall. Donnelly told Katherine that he wasn’t sure what to do with himself now that he’d made his fortune. In May 1856, he waxed lyrical to the Minnesota Historical Society about the inexorable march of civilization and the role he had played in it. At which point, ap­proximately, the roof fell in.
It was the Panic of 1857 that did it. The Minnesota land boom of the 1850s–of which Nininger was a perfect example– had been financed by money borrowed from eastern speculators by the local banks. When these loans were called in, the banks responded by calling in their own paper, and an avalanche of foreclosures buried towns like Nininger. The panic also scared the federal government out of the land-grant business, which was crucial to the development of the smaller railroads. When the Nininger and St. Peter Railroad Line failed, it not only ended Nininger’s chance to be a rail hub but made plans for the Missis­sippi ferry untenable as well.
Donnelly did all he could to keep the dream alive. He offered to carry his neighbors’ mortgages for them. He tried, vainly, to have Nininger declared the seat of Dakota County. The town became something of a joke; one columnist in St. Paul claimed he would sell his stock in the railroad for $4 even though it had cost him $5 to buy it. Gradually, the people of Nininger moved on. Ignatius Donnelly, however, stayed. In his big house, brood­ing over the collapse of his dream, he planned his next move. He read widely and with an astonishing catholicity of interest. He decided to go back into politics.
Donnelly found himself drawn to the nascent Republicans, in no small part because of the fervor with which the new party opposed slavery. In 1857 and again in 1858, he lost elections to the territorial senate. In 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union, and Donnelly’s career took off.
The election of 1859 was the first manifest demonstration of the burgeoning power of the Republican party. Donnelly cam­paigned tirelessly across the state; his gift for drama served him well. He allied himself with the powerful Minnesota Republican Alexander Ramsey, and in 1859, when Ramsey was swept into the governorship, Donnelly was elected lieutenant governor on the same ticket. He was twenty- eight years old. Contemporary photos show a meaty young man in the usual high collar, with a restless ambition in his eyes. He found the post of lieutenant gov­ernor constraining and, if Ramsey thought that he was escaping his rambunctious subordinate when the Minnesota legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1862, he was sadly mistaken. That same year, Ignatius Donnelly was elected to the House of Representatives from the Second District of Minnesota.
For the next four years, Donnelly’s career was remarkably like that of any other Republican congressman of the time, if a bit louder and more garish. After the war, he threw himself into the issues surrounding Reconstruction, and he worked on land- use matters that were important back home. He also haunted the Library of Congress, reading as omnivorously as ever. He began to ponder questions far from the politics of the day, although he took care to get himself reelected twice. Not long after his reelection in 1866, however, his feud with Ramsey exploded and left his political career in ruins, in no small part because Ignatius Donnelly could never bring himself to shut up.
It was no secret in Minnesota that Donnelly had his eye on Ramsey’s seat in the Senate. It certainly was no secret to Ram­sey, who had long ago become fed up with Donnelly, and who was now enraged at his rival’s scheming. One of Ramsey’s most inßuential supporters was a lumber tycoon from Minneapolis, William Washburne, whose brother, Elihu, was a powerful Re­publican congressman from Illinois. In March 1868, Donnelly wrote a letter home to one of his constituents in which he railed against Elihu Washburne’s opposition to a piece of land-grant legislation.
On April 18, Congressman Washburne replied, blistering Donnelly in the St. Paul Press. He called Donnelly an offi ce­beggar, charged him with official corruption, and hinted omi­nously that he was hiding a criminal past. In response, Donnelly went completely up the wall.
By modern standards, under which campaign advisers can lose their jobs for calling the other candidate a monster,the speech is inconceivable. Donnelly spoke for an hour. He ripped into all Washburnes. He made merciless fun of Elihu Wash­burne’s reputation for fiscal prudence and personal rectitude. Three times, the Speaker of the House tried to gavel him to order. Donnelly went sailing on, finally reaching a crescendo of personal derision that made the torid sentiments of The Mourner’s Vision read like e. e. cummings.
If there be in our midst one low, sordid, vulgar soul . . . one tongue leprous with slander; one mouth which is like unto a den of foul beasts giving forth deadly odors; if there be one char­acter which, while blotched and spotted all over, yet raves and rants and blackguards like a prostitute; if there be one bold, bad, empty, bellowing demagogue, it is the gentleman from Illinois.
The resulting campaign was a brawl. The Republican primary was shot through with violence. Ultimately, Ramsey County found itself with two conventions in the same hall, which re­sulted in complete chaos and one terrifying moment when the floor seemed ready to give way. Donnelly lost the statewide nomination. He ran anyway and lost. By the winter of 1880, after losing another congressional race, Donnelly lamented to his diary, My life had been a failure and a mistake.
Donnelly went home to the big house in what had been the city of Nininger. Although he would drift from one political cause to another for the rest of his life, he spent most of his time thinking and writing, and, improbably, making himself one of the most famous men in America.
During his time in Washington, on those long afternoons when he played hooky from his job in the Congress, Donnelly had buried himself in the booming scientific literature of the age, and in the pseudoscientific literature–both fictional and pur­portedly not–that was its inevitable by-product. Donnelly had fallen in love with the work of Jules Verne, especially Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which had been published to great acclaim in 1870, and which features a visit by Captain Nemo and his submarine to the ruins of a lost city beneath the waves. Donnelly gathered an enormous amount of material and set himself to work to dig a legend out of the dim prehistory. From the library in his Minnesota farmhouse, with its potbel­lied stove and its rumpled daybed in one corner, Ignatius Don­nelly set out to find Atlantis.
It was best known from its brief appearances in Timaeus and Critias, two of Plato’s dialogues. These were Donnelly’s jumping-off point. He proposed that the ancient island had ex­isted, just east of the Azores, at the point where the Mediter­ranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. He argued that Atlantis was the source of all civilization, and that its culture had estab­lished itself everywhere from Mexico to the Caspian Sea. The gods and goddesses of all the ancient myths, from Zeus to Odin to Vishnu and back again, were merely the Atlantean kings and queens. He credited Atlantean culture for everything from Bronze Age weaponry in Europe, to the Mayan calendar, to the Phoenician alphabet. He wrote that the island had vanished in a sudden cataclysm, but that some Atlanteans escaped, spreading out across the world and telling the story of their fate.
The book is a carefully crafted political polemic. That Don­nelly reached his conclusions before gathering his data is obvious from the start, but his brief is closely argued from an impossibly dense synthesis of dozens of sources. Using his research into un­derwater topography, and using secondary sources to extrapo­late Plato nearly to the moon, Donnelly argues first that there is geologic evidence for an island’s having once been exactly where Donnelly thought Atlantis had been. He then dips into comparative mythology, arguing that flood narratives common to many religions are derived from a dim memory of the events described by Plato. At one point, Donnelly attributes the bibliocal story of the Tower of Babel to the Atlanteans’ attempt to keep their heads literally above water.
He uses his research into anthropology and history to posit a common source for Egyptian and pre-Columbian American culture. All the converging lines of civilization, Donnelly writes, lead to Atlantis. . . . The Roman civilization was sim­ply a development and perfection of the civilization possessed by all the European populations; it was drawn from the common fountain of Atlantis.Donnelly connects the development of all civilization to Atlantis, citing the fact that Hindus and Aztecs developed similar board games, and that all civilizations even­tually discover how to brew fermented spirits. The fourth part of the book is an exercise in comparative mythology; Donnelly concludes by describing how the Atlantean remnant fanned out across the world after their island sank. He rests much of his case on recent archaeological works and arguing, essentially, that, if we can find Pompeii, we can find Atlantis. We are on the threshold,he exclaims.
Who shall say that one hundred years from now the great museums of the world may not be adorned with gems, statues, arms and implements from Atlan­tis, while the libraries of the world shall contain translations of its inscriptions, throwing new light upon all the past history of the human race, and all the great problems which now perplex the thinkers of our day!
Harper & Brothers in New York published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in February 1882. It became an overnight sensation. The book went through twenty-three editions in eight years, and a revised edition was published as late as 1949. Donnelly corresponded on the topic with William Gladstone, then the prime minister of England. Charles Darwin also wrote, but only to tell Donnelly that he was somewhat skeptical, prob­ably because Donnelly’s theory of an Atlantean source for civi­lization made a hash of Darwin’s theories. On the other hand, Donnelly also heard from a distant cousin who was a bishop in Ireland. He deplored Donnelly’s blithe dismissal of the biblical accounts of practically everything.
The popular press ate Donnelly up. (One reviewer even cited Atlantis as reinforcing the biblical account of Genesis, which showed at least that Donnelly’s work meant different things to different people.) The St. Paul Dispatch, the paper that had stood for him in his battles against Ramsey and the Washburnes, called Atlantis one of the notable books of the decade, nay, of the century.Donnelly embarked on a career as a lecturer that would continue until his death. He got rave reviews.
A stupendous speculator in cosmogony,gushed the Lon­don Daily News. One of the most remarkable men of this age,agreed the St. Louis Critic. And, doubling down on both of them, the New York Star called Donnelly the most unique figure in our national history.

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Interviews & Essays

Discussion Questions for Idiot America

1) What inspired, or should I say drove, you to write IDIOT AMERICA?
The germ of the idea came as I watched the extended coverage of the death of Terri Schiavo. I wondered how so many people could ally themselves with so much foolishness despite the fact that it was doing them no perceptible good, politically or otherwise. And it looked like the national media simply could not help itself but be swept along. This started me thinking and, when I read a clip in the New York Times about the Creation Museum, I pitched an idea to Mark Warren, my editor at Esquire, that said simply, "Dinosaurs with saddles." What we determined the theme of the eventual piece -- and of the book -- would be was "The Consequences Of Believing Nonsense."

2) You visited the Creation Museum while writing IDIOT AMERICA. Describe your experience there. What was your first thought when you saw a dinosaur with a saddle on its back?
My first thought was that it was hilarious. My second thought was that I was the only person in the place who thought it was, which made me both angry and a little melancholy. Outside of the fact that its "science" is a god-awful parodic stew of paleontology, geology, and epistemology, all of them wholly detached from the actual intellectual method of each of them. The most disappointing thing is that the completed museum is so dreadfully grim and earnest and boring. It even makes dragon myths servant to its fringe biblical interpretations. Who wants to live in a world where dragons are boring?

3) Is there a specific turning point where, as a country, we moved away from prizing experience to trusting the gut over intellect?
I don't know if there's one point that you can point to and say, "This is when it happened." The conflict between intellectual expertise and reflexive emotion -- often characterized as "good old common sense," when it is neither common nor sense -- has been endemic to American culture and politics since the beginning. I do think that my profession, journalism, went off the tracks when it accepted as axiomatic the notion that "Perception is reality." No. Perception is perception and reality is reality, and if the former doesn't conform to the latter, then it's the journalist's job to hammer and hammer the reality until the perception conforms to it. That's how "intelligent design" gets treated as "science" simply because a lot of people believe in it.

4) You delve into Ignatius Donnelly's life story. In 1880, he published the book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in an attempt to prove that the lost city existed. Yet, you characterize Donnelly as a lovable crank, and don't take issue with him as you do with modern eccentrics, like Rush Limbaugh. What's the difference between a harmless crank and a crank in Idiot America?
Cranks are noble because cranks are independent. Cranks do not care if their ideas succeed -- they'd like them to do so -- but cranks stand apart. Their value comes when, occasionally, their lonely dissents from the commonplace affect the culture, at which point either the culture moves to adopt them and their ideas come to influence the culture. The American crank is not someone with 600 radio stations spewing bilious canards to an audience of "dittoheads." The concept of a "dittohead" is anathema to the American crank. He is a freethinker addressing an audience of them, whether that audience is made up of one person or a thousand. A charlatan is a crank who sells out.

5) What is the most dangerous aspect of Idiot America?
The most dangerous aspect of Idiot America is that it encourages us to abandon our birthright to be informed citizens of a self-governing republic. America cannot function on automatic pilot, and, too often, we don't notice that it has been until the damage has already been done.

6) Is there a voice or leader of Idiot America?
The leaders of Idiot America are those people who abandoned their obligations to the above. There are lots of people making an awful lot of money selling their ideas and their wares to Idiot America. Idiot America is an act of collective will, a product of lassitude and sloth.

7) What is the difference between stupidity and glorifying ignorance?
Stupidity is as stupidity does, to quote a uniquely stupid movie. It has been with us always and always will be. But we moved into an era in which stupidity was celebrated if it managed to sell itself well, if it succeeded, if it made people money. That is "glorifying ignorance." We moved into an era in which the reflexive instincts of the Gut were celebrated at the expense of reasoned, informed opinion. To this day, we have a political party -- the Republicans -- who, because it embraced a "movement of Conservatism" that celebrated anti-intellectualism is now incapable of conducting itself in any other way. That has profound political and cultural consequences, and the truly foul part about it was that so many people engaged in it knowing full well they were peddling poison.

8) While writing IDIOT AMERICA, what story or incident made you the most incensed?
Without question, it was talking to the people at Woodside Hospice, who shared with me what it was like to be inside the whirlwind stirred up by people who used the prolonged death of Terri Schiavo as a political and social volleyball to advance their own unpopular and reckless agenda. There are people -- Sean Hannity comes to mind -- who, if there is a just god in heaven, should be locked in a room for 20 minutes with Annie Santa Maria, the indomitable woman who works with the patients at the hospice. Only one of them would come out, and it wouldn't be him.

9) With the election of President Obama, is Idiot America coming to an end? Or, will there always be a place for idiocy in America?
Look at the political opposition to President Obama. "Socialist!" "Fascist!" "Coming to get your guns." Hysteria from the hucksters of Idiot America is still at high-tide. People are killing other people and specifically attributing their action to imaginary oppression stoked by radio talk-show stars and television pundits. That Glenn Beck has achieved the prominence he has makes me wonder if there is a just god in heaven.

10) Are there any positive signs that we are moving away from Idiot America? If you could create a twelve step program to America back on track, what would be your first suggestion?
Remember that perception is not reality, that opinion, no matter how widely held, is not fact. An old and wise friend of mine said that the only question that any American citizen is required to answer is "Do you govern or are you governed?" It has to be answered in the former, and that answer has to be continuous. We have to get back to that.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 66 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A slow but rewarding read

    Author Charles Pierce has a piercing sense of humor, a fine ear for the absurd, and an honest intellect engaged in research. His book, Idiot America, How Stupidity became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is deservedly a national bestseller. It's also a curious mix of slow well-argued positioning, historically well-researched references, and scathingly hilarious comments.
    An English teacher once told me it was easy to make readers cry but much harder to make them laugh. Pierce's book does both in equal measure. While it's probably quite easy to poke fun at "the other side" in any debate, the author fills his arguments with enough facts (yes, real facts rather than well-saddled dinosaur fictions) to slow the laughter down with serious thought.
    Idiot America is a well-reasoned analysis of many of the "popular" fictions of American belief, from creationism to global warming to the War on Terror and beyond. The prose is well-seasoned with humor and well-illustrated with specific examples of the effects of "idiocy" on real human beings. The result is a fairly slow read, though I hardly dare criticize that since much of our fictional certainty comes from a desire for everything to be given in simple sound-bites. There's no simple misdirection here-no magic wand promising a better future; just honest, tragic, comic, powerful lament for the descent of the absurd into the norm, where both are rendered simultaneously powerless and disastrous.
    Would I recommend this book? Yes. Read it slowly. Enjoy its biting humor. Absorb its history and cultural references. Don't let the idiots get you down. And then engage brain. Perhaps if we all do that we might remember who we once were and strive to be who we can be.

    Disclosure: I borrowed this book from a friend.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    funny yet disturbing

    There are not many books that I just can't put down so when I get one it's a great thing. There were many times that I just laughed out loud. By the end I wasn't laughing anymore because I was disturbed by the limitless willfull stupidity demonstrated by Americans. I guess American comidians will never run short of material. This book is filled with examples of cranks, crackpot and the willfully ignorant, some of whom make decisions that effect all of our lives. If you share with me a low tollerance for willful stupidity you will enjoy this book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2009

    Acerbically funny?

    On the dust jacket Pierce relates a visit to the Creation Museum where he sees a dinosaur wearing a saddle. I giggled out loud in the aisle of B&N. That is the only remotely funny part of this book.
    The remainder of this polemic is a dreary re-telling of fairly recent events that anyone who even occasionally looks at the evening news or reads a newspaper has already seen, sometimes juxtaposed against a moderately accurate account of James Madison's vision for the new nation.
    If you find the one-note refrain of "We're smart, they're stupid" name-calling of Olberman funny, this is the book for you.
    I was caught up in the "acerbically funny" claim when I should have looked at the "righteously angry" right below it on the flap. Even the late, great George Carlin at his end could not pull that off without sounding bitter and spiteful. And Pierce is no Carlin.
    I wonder if I can get my money back from Doubleday?

    4 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 26, 2009

    Ignorance isn't bliss!

    Unfortunately this book is just too true! American's apparently have extra time on their hands but don't put it to learning so that they just remain ignorant!

    This book really should be taken as a wake-up call but it appears too many people like ignorance so will just stay and live that way.

    Hopefully American stupidity will decease at some point!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    Really fascinating reading

    The book is a bit uneven, with the last half far more engaging than the first half. That said, the chapters on global warming and th war in Iraq should be required reading for U.S. citizens. I have recently come to greatly fear the direction we are heading as a country, and this book places in context where we've gone off the rails. Great book!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2009

    Don't Read This on the Train

    If you feel adrift in a world that has lost all traces of intellect and sense, this book adds to your horror in a way that allows you to laugh at it.

    Dinosaurs with saddles indeed!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2009

    Great Book

    This book opened my eyes to a lot of issues I was not aware of about our past/current govenment. I recommend this book to all Americans. Maybe it will inspire them to support our new President.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2009

    For Intellectuals

    This book had me laughing out-loud. If you believe that Dinosaurs and People lived at the same time, this book is not for you. If not you should really enjoy it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2012

    Thought provoking yet not timeless.

    I blasted through this book while on vacation and really enjoyed Pierce's assessment of modern America. However, it is steeped in relatively current events and the central premise of the book is left in an incomplete state. The book is good, but could have been better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2014

    A sound premise in need of better editing

    In Idiot America the author makes a a premise that many people are making poor judgments due to a blind faith in an overriding personal bias. The author presents several cases of these failed decisions, in the light of political or ideological history - the opening of a "natural history museum" based upon creationism, governmental policies based upon dogmatic ideas - in the hopes of proving his theories.

    The author creates some sound political theater here. The problem, however, isn't the premise of the book but its presentation: the author constantly repeats his premise and viewpoints, almost a bit ad nauseum, during his presentation of the events. Constantly steeping his views from the writings of Madison, the author revisits his hero (and restates the idiocy of the modern decision makers) numerous times during each and every presentation of events.

    The premise would have been much better served with an in-depth historical presentation of an event - rather than the much shorter description given, only enough to make his point - and THEN bring in the author's analysis of the idiocy of the decisions. Make the air-tight case, then seal the deal. Instead, we get what reads as a weakly edited vanity publication, an outlet for the author's opinions and frustrations at the silliness of modern America, rather than the damning, riveting historical thriller that this easily could have been.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2013

    Song

    Tired, I slowly crept into my nest. Closing my eyes, I paid a visit to dreamland. In my dream, I was looking into a puddle in a forest. The only thing reflecting back at me were two eyes-orbs of a pale blue. Mine. Then, a single star appeared. It shone for a moment, the grew brighter and brighter and brighter. Tendrils of shadow encircled the star, balancing out the light. Then all of a sudden, the eyes-my eyes-flared the brightest green. Green, the color of life and plants and..trees? "Pine?!" I exclaimed. Then the world seemed to go black, and I woke up.
    ~$ong

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Twilight

    Hello

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    Pez

    Ok. I then fly off.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    Wingfury

    "Yah. What Freesnow said."
    ~ Wingfury

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2013

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2012

    Aeiro

    Trainees' den. A large cave with bedding stacked in one corner.
    ~Aeiro

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2012

    A laborious read

    I wanted to like this book, but it's really quite a bore. It rambles on and on about topics such as the history of radio stations and goes on endless tangents that all come back to John Adams and his difficult to comprehend quotes. I guess that's what it boils down to- although it makes some good points, it is DIFFICULT to read and just feels too much like work.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2011

    funny

    this book is filled with fun facts and hilarious 2

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews

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