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Idiot AmericaReview - Idiot America
How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free
by Charles P. Pierce
Blackstone Audio, 2011
Review by Bob Lane
Aug 16th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 33)

"Truth" like so many other terms is not clear and unambiguous because we use the term in many different ways. Let me begin by analyzing just two of those ways: there's capital T Truth and there is small t truth.

Capital T truth often finds its home in certain kinds of texts, most often those called scripture by those who are insiders in a particular group. Religious Truths, political Truths, are the sorts of claims I have in mind. They are proclamations, articles of faith, and rules of the game.

  1. The free market is the only way to economic nirvana.
  2. God is love.
  3. Three strikes and you are out.
  4. There are three downs in real football.
  5. On Easter Christ rose from the dead.

Small t truth is quite different. It never parades as fixed and eternal, but is more modest. It is quite clear about its function in a sentence and disappears as soon as possible once its job is done.

  1. It is true that there are 4 beers in the refrigerator.
  2. "It is raining" is true if and only if it is raining.
  3. Evolution is true.
  4. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
  5. It is true that the NFL and the CFL have different rules.

Notice the first set is made up of proclamations. These capital T statements are constitutive rules of the language game they establish. They really are not true or false, but are just True by definition of the game. Notice the absurdity of a baseball player trying to argue with the umpire that he should be allowed four strikes. Or a Christian who doesn't believe in the resurrection. Small case true is a relational term - it claims a relationship between a statement and a state of affairs. If Noam has scoffed two of the beers in the refrigerator then it is no longer the case that there are four beers in the refrigerator.

Capital T TRUTH is always delivered with certainty. Small case truth is more modest. It attempts to say what is, but can be emended if someone has drunk some of the beer.

Certainty tells us about the speaker's state of mind and not about a state of affairs. Mark Twain gets it right: We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after the Truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after the Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment- until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather. - "What is Man?"

"What is truth?" asked Pilate of a now famous Roman prisoner a couple of thousand years ago. Unfortunately Jesus did not answer. But let's imagine that the conversation was recorded by a Jewish scribe.

What IS truth?

Truth is a relational term, Pilate, just as "larger" or "heavier" it requires a relationship between two things - a belief and a condition that IS the case.

A belief? Do you believe that you are the son of God?

As I have said on many occasions I am the son of man. Beliefs come in three flavours, Pilate.  True beliefs, false beliefs, and untested beliefs. It is our obligation as humans to eliminate false beliefs by constantly evaluating and testing our beliefs as to consistency and correspondence. Those that pass these tests we call true beliefs.

In this imagined conversation Jesus offers a standard analysis of knowledge:

I know that P if and only if:

1.    I believe that P,

2.    I have good evidence that P,

3.    P is true.

Nowhere in the analysis is there anything about how popular P is, or about how convinced I am that it is true, or about how many people cheer whenever they hear or read P. And yet popularity, celebrity, and the like are the new kind of “truth” discussed in Idiot America. Pierce argues that America holds that a theory is valid if it sells books, ramps up TV and radio ratings, or sells units. Currently, he asserts, anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough and often enough. He begins the book with a look back at characters in American history who have been a bit crazy in their beliefs, the quirky cranks who have made for a bit of spice in intellectual life, and who, like Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th century visionary who founded a utopian city on the banks of the Mississippi - a dream which failed miserably, after which Donnelly turned to writing best sellers about Atlantis and comet catastrophes. He was a crank, but entertaining!

Pierce takes us through several instances of American idiocy from the Creation Museum, where dinosaurs wear saddles for men to ride on, to the Dover creationism trial, where ID advocates are humiliated for advocating design theory as science, to right wing talk radio, Fox television’s “balanced news”, climate change deniers, and to a heart-breaking look at the idiocy surrounding the Terry Schiavo case.

In a piece in Esquire, Pierce, a first-rate journalist, provides an excellent introduction to his book with these choice examples of idiocy (several of them show up in his book):

A federally funded abstinence program suggests that HIV can be transmitted through tears. An Alabama legislator proposes a bill to ban all books by gay authors. The Texas House passes a bill banning suggestive cheerleading. And nobody laughs at any of it, or even points out that, in the latter case, having Texas ban suggestive cheerleading is like having Nebraska ban corn.

 James Dobson, a prominent conservative Christian spokesman, compares the Supreme Court to the Ku Klux Klan. Pat Robertson, another prominent conservative preacher, says that federal judges are a more serious threat to the country than is Al Qaeda and, apparently taking his text from the Book of Gambino, later sermonizes that the United States should get with it and snuff the democratically elected president of Venezuela.

 The Congress of the United States intervenes to extend into a televised spectacle the prolonged death of a woman in Florida. The majority leader of the Senate, a physician, pronounces a diagnosis based on heavily edited videotape. The majority leader of the House of Representatives argues against cutting-edge research into the use of human stem cells by saying that "an embryo is a person.... We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth." Nobody laughs at him or points out that the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or whoever invented the baby-back rib.

 And, finally, in August, the cover of Time -- for almost a century the dyspeptic voice of the American establishment -- clears its throat, hems and haws and hacks like a headmaster gagging on his sherry, and asks, quite seriously: "Does God have a place in science class?"

 Fights over evolution -- and its faddish new camouflage, intelligent design, a pseudoscience that posits without proof or method that science is inadequate to explain existence and that supernatural causes must be considered -- roil up school districts across the country. The president of the United States announces that he believes ID ought to be taught in the public schools on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, during one of these many controversies, a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that both ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up:

"We've been attacked," he says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture."

And there it is. [Source]

 The audio book is read with intelligence and passion by an expert reader. We listened to its several hours with rapt attention on a recent trip to the USA. One problem: disk 8 was disk 7 repeated, leading me to think about the title of the book. I wrote to the publisher but have not heard back.

 

© 2011 Bob Lane

 

 

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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