14 Jul 2008

"Just How Stupid Are We?" Very Stupid.

It’s a new week, and for me, that means a new plane trip. And a new plane trip means new reading material.

Having finished Jared Diamond’s (excellent) Collapse – post forthcoming, eventually – I’ve moved on to GMU Professor Rick Shenkman’s book Just How Stupid Are We?

I saw Shenkman on “The Daily Show” a few weeks ago and ordered the book based pretty purely on that; he seemed like an intelligent guy making an interesting point. (Also, I needed something to round out an Amazon order. Yay for free shipping.)

It’s a short book, written in fairly large type. Perhaps this is appropriate given Shenkman’s overall thesis: over the past 50 or 60 years, we as a society have given the ‘American Voter’, otherwise known as ‘The People’ (as in “we the People…”) far too much credit and far too little blame for our policy failures as a nation. In other words, we’re all a lot more stupid than we like to think (and have our leaders tell us) we are.

In our search for places to lay blame, few stones have been left unturned. Bankers, investors, lobbyists, corporate executives, trial lawyers, members of the media, and of course politicians generally have all faced criticism. But only very rarely does anyone take the American people, collectively and as a group, to task for their complicity for the outcomes of government.

It’s a controversial question to ask because most of us have been taught, and probably believe quite sincerely, that “more democracy = better”, and it’s hard to blame the people for much of anything without considering whether that’s necessarily always true. Put bluntly: ‘Is more democracy really better democracy, if the people, by and large, show little-to-no inclination to do anything besides blindly accept whatever they’re told?’ Even raising the question endangers some very sacred American cows, and opens the questioner to accusations of being “undemocratic” or “elitist”.

One thing that I haven’t encountered in the book so far – and I’m about 60% of the way through, and will hopefully finish it later this week – are any proposed solutions to fix the system that we’ve created. It’s all well and good to criticize how we got to where we are, but that doesn’t provide much help in moving forward. So I’m hopeful that he’ll make some suggestions as to how the level of discourse or the system in general can be improved.

I’m holding off overall judgment on the book until I’ve finished it, but in general I thought the premise was pretty good. We’ll see if my feelings change once I make it through the conclusion.

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