Dumb and getting dumber
Dumb and getting dumber
By Janice Kennedy, Ottawa Citizen - November 25, 2010
The Flat Earth Society really exists. Who knew? Not just a metaphor for the determinedly dumb, it actually has a website and members. Any day now, I expect one of its adherents to announce a run for the United States presidency.

Well, why not?

The world's most powerful nation is leading the way in the ignorance boom that characterizes our age. A groundswell of wilful obtuseness has spread over the land, clearing the way for people who talk (with straight face) about such flat-earth causes as creationism or the global conspiracy of climate-change science.

That is the only way to explain the puzzling popularity of at least two contenders for the 2012 race.

Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and host of a Fox News talk show, is an evangelical Christian fundamentalist, and a creationist. As governor, he supported teaching creationism in schools -- and not as allegory. Kids should know that the world was created in six days, right?

And Sarah ( "Drill, baby, drill") Palin is also keen on creationism in schools -- not to mention blurring the line between church and state, according to her new book.

Both think they have a right to occupy the most powerful office on the planet. And amazingly, large numbers of their countrymen are not mortified by the very thought.

What in the world is happening? When did spectacular unsuitability for a job become a virtue? When did public stupidity cease to be a liability?

This aggressive ignorance is something new. (The aggressiveness, that is, not the ignorance.) A generation ago, most people didn't mount soapboxes and humiliate themselves by spouting nonsense. If they truly believed the moon landing was a hoax, secretly filmed in Hollywood with a script by Arthur C. Clarke, most of them had the sense to keep their mouths shut.

They don't today. Today, unenlightenment is worn proudly, like a badge.

All taxes are evil. So are all impulses toward social welfare and justice -- that is, Nanny Statism. Immigrants and rights activists are not to be trusted. And climate change is a leftist fabrication.

In an earlier age, holders of such views would have faced a merciless barrage of hooting and derision. But not now.

The vigorous rise of the resolutely dopey did not actually begin with the creation of Fox News in 1996. The network that gives us Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, smart guys who know how to push stupid buttons, has certainly facilitated the dissemination of benightedness. But it has done so in a complementary manner.

No, the real genesis of our ignorance boom began a few years earlier, when modern communications technology took off like a bullet. Over the two decades since its opening up, the Internet has undergone an evolution that has seen everyday people chatting in online forums, then posting commentaries on news stories, then finally spreading their word via blogs and social networks, including those networks that eschew words for video or that encourage pygmy thoughts in 140 characters. And with the proliferation of smart phones, all these broadcast platforms for Everyman have become not only universally available, but ubiquitous and instant.

The enhanced communication has been wonderful in many ways, linking friends and family, airing diverse views, encouraging healthy public debate. The downside is it has also allowed ignorance to run riot.

Mis-and disinformation, old fears and prejudices, breathtaking knowledge gaps -- all share the same stage, all bathe in the same spotlight glow as thoughtful contributions and informed opinions. The Internet is the great democratizer. Everyone has a voice, and every voice can be heard, including those who should stifle themselves.

Even standard computer programs encourage virtual democratization. Using simple tools to create professional-looking documents and web-sites, we can wrap the most egregious garbage in fabulous packaging, encouraging the notion that our sow's ears are really silk purses.

Add to these realities the presence of the radio and television talk show -- hardly a new phenomenon, but one that has exploded in popularity, thanks to our Internet-led dumbing down -- and you have the perfect complement. Shockingly ignorant things are said, repeated and, magnified a millionfold by the populist momentum of cyberspace and sensationalist talk shows, accorded a credibility once unthinkable.

The Flat Earth Society becomes respectable.

The Palins and Huckabees of the world are made possible.

The future looms as a bleak and frightening possibility.

If conservatism is characterized in part by its reverence for the past, maybe it's time for all of us, even liberals, to consider going conservative briefly -- just long enough to retrieve some of the values of the good old days.

We'd remember a time when thoughtfulness was appreciated. When eloquence and intelligence were qualities we valued in our leaders. When stupid people knew enough to shut up.

And when ignorance was something we did not celebrate.

Janice Kennedy writes here on Thursdays.