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Dumb and dumber?

A raucous rant against the armies of the right

Charles Pierce skewers Mitt Romney (above) for his policy shifts during last year's presidential campaign, and talk-show hosts such as Bill O'Reilly for using their popularity to justify 'grotesque excesses.' Charles Pierce skewers Mitt Romney (above) for his policy shifts during last year's presidential campaign, and talk-show hosts such as Bill O'Reilly for using their popularity to justify "grotesque excesses." (Manuel Balce Ceneta/ Associated Press)
By Joseph Rosenbloom
June 21, 2009
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IDIOT AMERICA: How Stupidity Became
a Virtue in the Land of the Free

By Charles P. Pierce
Doubleday, 293 pp., $26

Charles Pierce has had it with America.

In “Idiot America,’’ his idiosyncratic and rambling survey of the headlined events of recent years, Pierce is apoplectically aghast at what has become of the nation. He decries, among other things, evangelical Christians’ anti-Darwinism, President George W. Bush’s war-making in Iraq, global-warming naysayers, and the rising din from right-leaning talk meisters on radio and television.

If that hit list sounds like a blast from left field, it’s because Pierce’s bias is very much from that perspective. His book is a diatribe against everything that galls Jon Stewart and Al Franken. It sings to the liberal chorus but is unlikely to rouse those of a different persuasion.

What saves Pierce’s book from being so much warmed-over Pablum are his lyrical riffs and raucously mocking gibes. At his lampooning, outlandish best, Pierce invites comparison to H.L. Mencken.

Pierce’s gift for sardonic whacks is frequently on display in his ubiquitous guises as a staff writer for this newspaper’s Sunday magazine, as a brilliantly wisecracking motor mouth on NPR’s “Only a Game’’ and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,’’ and as a contributor to such national magazines as The American Prospect and Esquire.

In “Idiot America,’’ Pierce recycles parts of an article that he wrote for the November 2005 issue of Esquire. Rather than an interwoven narrative, the book is a patchwork of magazine-length takes that he has embroidered with references to James Madison and the risks to a democracy of unchecked human passions.

Pierce visits the Creation Museum in Hebron, Ky., where he encounters a dinosaur wearing a saddle, the point being that, if God created all living things in seven days, dinosaurs would have co-existed with humans. Following the logic of the exhibit’s biblical literalism, Pierce erupts into a rant. Why wouldn’t Noah’s 300-by-30-by-50-cubit vessel not have sunk “under the weight of the dinosaur couples?’’ he bellows.

When he is skewering conservative talk-show hosts, Pierce is at his scathing, insightful best. How Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and the like parlay an entertainer’s flourish into a huge radio or TV audience - and merely by virtue of their audience’s size qualify in the public imagination as experts on subjects like stem-cell research - outrages Pierce. He notes: “Talk radio pleads entertainment as an alibi for its most grotesque excesses while at the same time insisting on a serious place in the national discourse.’’

He takes some of his most memorable shots at elected officials and, by extension, at their supporters. Referring to former President George W. Bush, Pierce says his “lack of depth, and his unfamiliarity with the complexities of the issues, to say nothing of the complexities of the declarative sentence, worked remarkably to his advantage’’ with Americans.

As for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s metamorphosis during last year’s presidential campaign, Pierce says he “went from being a rather bloodless corporate drone to being a rip-roaring culture warrior and ended up looking like a very big fool.’’ Nominating Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate was “an insult on a par with the elevation of Caligula’s horse.’’

By Pierce’s reckoning, Americans’ susceptibility to appeals aimed at their gut rather than their brain reached unparalleled levels in recent years. He says: “We have lived through an unprecedented decade of richly empowered hooey.’’

But if America is so idiotic, why has hooey not always prevailed? Romney and Palin, of course, were not elected. The cause of the anti-Darwinists has been on the wane. Global warming has ascended quickly on Washington’s list of priorities. Other periods have registered just as high, if not higher, on the hooey scale. Creationist fervor attained such a pitch in 1925 that Tennessee did not merely require creationism doctrine as part of the biology curriculum but tried and convicted John Scopes for teaching evolution. In the ’30s Father Charles Coughlin, a firebrand who spewed fascist invective, drew a radio audience of tens of millions.

If this decade has veered deeper into idiocy than others, one factor might be the potential magnifier effect of the 24/7 news cycle and the bang that nonsense receives in the blogosphere and other quick-hit Internet technologies. As Pierce implies, couldn’t those technologies also have a rapidly self-correcting effect? That is not the sort of wonky question that Pierce explores in “Idiot America.’’ He’s too busy having fun at his idiots’ expense.

Pierce completed his manuscript in August. If he were updating it today, might he not conclude that the spell of idiocy has lifted? For one thing, Barack Obama has replaced Bush in the White House and is charting a pragmatic course, promising that reason, not ideology, will guide national policy.

Obama would be unlikely to get a pass as president. Pierce chides candidate Obama for a response during the last campaign to a question about the point at which a baby gets human rights. Obama’s answer “bowed clumsily in the direction of Idiot America,’’ Pierce growls, and amounted to nothing more than “faith-based flummery.’’

Joseph Rosenbloom is a freelance writer in Newton.

IDIOT AMERICA: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free By Charles P. Pierce

Doubleday, 293 pp., $26

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