In a recent blog entitled “Are the American People Stupid?” I entertained the thought that yeah, we pretty much are. Americans have never been particularly high-brow, are more religious than most other leading countries, and are being swamped by a politics out of control and social media that is abysmally bad. So I wanted to attempt to paint a larger picture, to add some context to my depressing conclusion. In this blog, I explore the idea that Americans aren’t stupid, we’re lazy and misled. I want to thread the needle and validate that ultimately we each bear a lot of personal responsibility, yet we are all subject to (victims of?) powerful and pernicious social forces that might have even evolved beyond the creators of such coercion of the populace. This is not an easy topic for me to grasp, let alone describe and theorize about. But with wisdom and enlightenment as my goal, I will proceed.
So much of what a social critic sees when they look around appears to be ignorance, inanity, and absurdity. In a word, stupidity. But looking one level deeper, it appears that I might be mistaking the effects for the cause, a common logical error. For example, you see a driver weaving and altering speeds. Is the person drunk, a “bad driver”, or hurried/harried? Perhaps they are experiencing an aneurysm or a diabetic emergency. It’s hard to say; all you see are the effects. The cause is too complex to peg from such a distance.
Similarly, Americans – especially to Europeans – appear to be a bunch of violent, addicted ignoramuses. They’re not terribly wrong, but America is a complicated place. We sell more arms than any other country, have more arms than any other country, allow a substandard educational system to fester, teach kids to be workers not citizens, and have high levels of antidepressant and illicit drug use. We seem to be headed in the wrong direction (though I sound like a moralist saying that). I guess overall I think Americans aren’t stupid, we’re more like lazy and we are certainly misled.
It is astonishing what passes for policy, social benefits, and acceptable solutions to problems in the United States. Think about how many people we have uninsured, or poorly insured. Yet, insurance companies and hospitals and doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are the heart of our patchwork system. It’s as though we have taken the worst of various systems and stitched them together, providing a hugely expensive, profit-driven, non-comprehensive health care approach in America absolutely sucks; many people don’t get needed and preventive care, are forced to declare bankruptcy, or die because of our shoddy system. We have the highest costs around (including the infamous $30 aspirin, or the fact that it is illegal to buy drugs in Canada, or the law preventing the federal government from negotiating with pharmaceutical manufacturers for bulk discounts) and yet have a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba. See what I mean; the worst of both worlds: expensive and unsatisfactory.
Health care is not the only case in point; our military adventurism, our escalating debt, and our ailing infrastructure can boggle the mind if you really think about it.
It seems that we just can’t solve problems as a nation that really are not that complicated. It’s as though we have lost our edge. The opioid crisis is a good case in point.
Lately, 80,000 people died in one year using opioids. Why? Do a million Americans have such moral failings and emotional immaturity that they experiment with oxycodone and heroin? Well, to be sure, quite a few young and inner-city folks are really pretty misled. Their brains simply aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s. That’s true! The prefrontal cortex continues growing until well into the 20s. You just can’t expect a 16-year-old to “get it.” Hence the higher insurance rates for male 16-year-olds.
Really think though: why would someone get addicted to pain pills such that their life becomes totally out of control, or even lost? Why does someone do such a thing? It’s a much less complicated question than “Why do a fair number of inner-city ethnic minorities sell drugs, shoot each other, create fatherless homes, and end up in jail?” That is complicated.
Addiction has been pretty well-researched, and it’s mostly understood. There are some mysterious elements. But enough has been discovered to know that by and large, people sometimes make bad decisions; they have the liberty and the responsibility for starting and stopping every activity they engage in; and the context matter. Americans aren’t stupid, they’re lazy and misled.
Laziness plays some role in the adoption and maintenance of a drug addiction, for sure. Now I’m not saying that the 20% or so Americans who are on a medication for some kind of mental illness are lazy. However, vigilance and caution go a long way toward preventing drug-related catastrophes. Do you not look at Tom Petty or Prince and think, Wow you really screwed the pooch, guy. I do get that the entertainment business is trying and is exhausting, but come on. Killing yourself with five tranquilizers by accident? That is just plain stupid. These guys are smart enough to know when they’re out of control and how to get help. They chose not to. As is the case with many others. Often, folks just don’t buckle down, get serious, and roll up their sleeves; they float around like jellyfish, going wherever social forces and happenstance take them. That is not wise. And I know because I’m not immune.
Americans aren’t stupid, but they do appear to a lot of the time. My friend Robert L. Lloyd notes the following: “We are being sucked into alternate realities on our screens, and then losing the skills required to survive and thrive in reality. And it is highly addictive! Just try to force yourself to go three days without your face in front of a screen (of any type; phone, tablet, laptop, TV, computer, etc.). I tried; I made it one day then realized I was looking at a screen when I ordered coffee off of the menu at McDonald’s! What did we do with all that time before smart phones, electronic communication, and non-stop entertainment took over so much of our lives? I now see where our basic life-skill-development time went.”
Robert continues: “People aren’t taught skills nowadays that in prior generations would have been considered standard; most folks don’t know how to do simple things around the house such as change their air conditioner filter or keep a coat of paint on the siding.”
The social context matters deeply, though. That is why I often decry the influence and lack of ethics present in politics, the media, social media, government, corporations, and so on. You can’t expect a child or teen to develop beyond their support system; the poet Alexander Pope succinctly wrote, “As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined.” Put but a finger on a sapling and you can control the way it grows for the next 100 years.
My wife put it like this (she is a bankruptcy paralegal): “I have some clients who are so kind and compassionate that they would give the clothes off their back to anyone in need – so much so that they end up without clothes to keep themselves warm. They just weren’t provided with the education and skills to know how to manage money, invest, save, and make good decisions. They spend themselves into bankruptcy.” I think this is an elegant combination of personal responsibility and societal dysfunction.
Progressivism holds that society has a responsibility to its individual members. Think: John Dewey. We are a conglomeration of individuals, but we are more than the sum of our parts. Universal Basic Income, reducing the prison population, and job training for the future of robotics and outsourcing are examples.
Americans aren’t stupid as much as they make stupid decisions, do stupid things, and act stupidly because they are misled. The government is just people; I get that. It’s not like there are these “parent figures” out there who control our destinies. Yes, the same goes for the idea of God, I’m afraid. However, can we not have a government here like the European and Scandinavian countries do (and New Zealand and Australia)? To wit perhaps the reason we have escalating gun violence is because we have a tumultuous society with over 300,000,000 firearms, and that is so because of racism, hypermasculinity, fear of government, insecurity, and so on. At one time, the NRA was just a gun safety/recreational group. Then it got hijacked by some crazy and unscrupulous conservatives. Now, it’s absolutely verboten to think of making any concession when it comes to gun rights. Hence, Americans aren’t stupid, but we are misled.
Our leaders mislead us. But we elected them.
Sort of. Again, when you look at low voter turnout, especially among the poorest Americans, that has something to do with laziness and ignorance, yes. But primarily it’s about voter disenfranchisement and the manipulation of information. Look at Noam Chomsky’s research; Americans have been controlled, manipulated, and misled for decades and decades. Now, instead of getting the consent of the governed, those in power hold on to it almost unyieldingly and instead manufacture consent.
Our rights and our liberties and our true options have been whittled away by institutionalized racism, corruption, dark money in politics, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, “superdelegates”, voter disenfranchisement, and the like. It leads to a cynicism that is dark and fetid, and resembles a kind of mass depression. Why go to the polls when we only get to choose between two corrupt, selfish politicians? I remember the night Donald Trump was calling out Bush and Cruz and all those jerks on national TV. He said he could buy all of them. When you heard Mitt Romney talk, or Bill Clinton spin, you got the impression that these folks were not leading us, they were misleading us.
“Poets, priests, and politicians/ Have words to thank for their positions/ And no one’s jamming their transmissions/” wrote Sting. I think he is getting at the fact that the public has been manipulated, controlled, and managed since Day 1. Think of feudalism; unless you were in the top 3% of aristocrats and clergy you were pretty much screwed. Nowadays, there is more apparent freedom, and that is true to some degree, but it makes powerlessness all the more pernicious. Imagine being a young, black, female lesbian from a poor family; your choices in life are greatly diminished. With diminished paths, the ones that appear “stupid” are much likelier. If you look at some poor sap in prison, you can point to the path taken and show mistakes made, but in general, Americans aren’t stupid as much as they are influenced, pressured, managed, and misled by large, nebulous social forces and more specific ones as well.
In the movie All the Money in the World, the wealthiest man in the world at the time was J. P. Getty. He was an oil magnate, and is portrayed as being a spendthrift and a miser and a curmudgeon. He wouldn’t even pay the ransom for a kidnapped grandson because he was too busy, didn’t like the principle of it, and didn’t want to become a mark for future kidnappers. He let his grandson absolutely wallow in misery because he didn’t want to pay out the money. Do you think a man like that – who is fully represented by many of the millionaires and billionaires in this country. In fact, in the recent Forbes ranking, the 400 richest individuals are all billionaires. Having 900,000,000 in cash no longer makes you all that rich. Let that sink in.
In Money, Jennifer Calfas writes the following: “The United States has long been home to the largest amount of millionaires in the world — and that number just keeps growing. In 2016, the U.S. had 4.8 million millionaires, according to the annual World Wealth Report compiled by Capgemini, a consulting firm. That’s a 7.6 percent increase from 2015, when the U.S. had 4.5 million, and a large jump from 2.5 million living in the U.S. in 2008.”
If you think those folks are all only interested in having fine wine and taking nice vacations, think again. There is an increasingly large divide between the rich and the poor, and there are really two Americas. One is about trying to afford health insurance, dealing with job issues, and having fouled drinking water. Mortgages and trying to save for retirement. The other is about making one’s money grow, getting into St. Bart’s over the Christmas holiday, and paying $60,000 a year for your kid to go to Harvard.
Libertarians don’t like to hear this, but the vast income/wealth inequality is more of a problem than they are a goad to productivity and innovation. Bernie Sanders notes that “In just 10 seconds, Jeff Bezos, the owner and founder of Amazon, made more money than the median employee of Amazon makes in an entire year. An entire year. Think about that. Think about how hard that family member has to work for an entire year, the days she or he goes into work sick, or has a sick child, or struggles to buy school supplies or Christmas presents, to make what one man makes in 10 seconds.”
If you think that Bezos is a deeply committed member of the community, who wants all others to succeed in life, you are wrong. And such wealth usually warps the mind and the actions of the holder. If “money never sleeps”, as it is said, that is a lot of mischief it has the potential to propagate. We really should look to the European/Scandinavian social democracies to see how much better life could be if our vast resources were directed in a way that didn’t involve so much individuality, destructiveness, and power-seeking. Either we are all in this together, or it’s every man for himself.
I can’t phrase it better than the inimitable, 5’0″ Titan of economics, Robert Reich. In his astute book Saving Capitalism (For the Many, Not the Few), he puts it thusly:
We are the authors of our own fates. But, as I have made clear, we are not the producers or directors of the larger dramas in which we find ourselves. Other forces are at work in determining not only what we are able to earn but also what we are able to accomplish, as well as the strength of our voices and the efficacy of our ideals. Those who are rich and becoming ever more so are neither smarter nor morally superior to anyone else. They are, however, often luckier, and more privileged and more powerful.
Americans aren’t stupid, they are poor, stressed, harried, ignorant, taught poorly, manipulated, and shallow. We all share responsibility in that. Those of us who know more about a sports team than the Supreme Court is making a series of decisions that have real consequences. Nowadays, if you have a heart attack, it is because you lived a certain lifestyle and/or fall between the cracks of our abysmally-bad healthcare system (yes, plus genetics). How many of us vote for bond measures that raise funds for schools? How many in the top 10% really care that inner-city poor kids go to bed hungry and might not get a free school lunch? Are you not concerned that so many kids grow up unhealthy, uneducated, and unready for the world of work and the job of being a citizen? You should. Forget about “Not in My Backyard.” It’s all your backyard. Frederick Douglass, the former slave, warned/advised that “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” He also noted:
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
I want to wrap up with a very compelling song I heard today while mowing. It just really kind of sunk in, especially having written on the question, Are the American people stupid? last night. It’s a tad rough around the edges, but there is wisdom in it, I promise you that. It really sheds light on the question of whether Americans are ignorant or wise, responsible or manipulated. Americans aren’t stupid, but we do have quite a few significant problems, issues, and crises we desperately need to solve. Let’s do it as one, not as two Americas.
Click for the lyrics and the music on YouTube. Lyrics and song owned by Black Star, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and their producers.
Americans aren’t stupid, we are confused, myopic, undereducated, and stuck in our ways.