Comedian and social critic Bill Maher makes a compelling case that the answer is yes. And a number of recent news reports indicate that Maher probably is right.
We might have an intelligent president now, with Barack Obama. But that doesn't mean we are an intelligent country. And if we are a stupid country, what does that say about our future?
Listen to Maher:
Before I go about demonstrating how, sadly, easy it is to prove the dumbness dragging down our country, let me just say that ignorance has life and death consequences. On the eve of the Iraq War, 69% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Four years later, 34% still did. Or take the health care debate we're presently having: members of Congress have recessed now so they can go home and "listen to their constituents." An urge they should resist because their constituents don't know anything. At a recent town-hall meeting in South Carolina, a man stood up and told his Congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare," which is kind of like driving cross country to protest highways.
How stupid are we? Maher doesn't pull any punches:
I'm the bad guy for saying it's a stupid country, yet polls show that a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. More than two-thirds of Americans don't know what's in Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds don't know what the Food and Drug Administration does. Some of this stuff you should be able to pick up simply by being alive. You know, like the way the Slumdog kid knew about cricket. . . .
And I haven't even brought up America's religious beliefs. But here's one fun fact you can take away: did you know only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity? That's right, half of America looks at books called the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot figure out which one came first.
Signs that the American public is "out to lunch" are everywhere. Consider the latest news about George W. Bush and his mindset heading into the Iraq War:
Incredibly, President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse.
Honest. This isn’t a joke. The president of the United States, in a top-secret phone call to a major European ally, asked for French troops to join American soldiers in attacking Iraq as a mission from God.
Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. . . . The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. . . . This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”
We "elected" this guy president twice? This episode should send chills down every American's spine. But writer James A. Haught says the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia is the only mainstream newspaper to cover the story. And Haught says this is not the only example of Bush's nuttiness while in office:
The French revelation jibes with other known aspects of Bush’s renowned evangelical certitude. For example, a few months after his phone call to Chirac, Bush attended a 2003 summit in Egypt. The Palestinian foreign minister later said the American president told him he was “on a mission from God” to defeat Iraq. At that time, the White House called this claim “absurd.”
Bush left an enormous mess for his successor, and Haught puts that in perspective:
It’s awkward to say openly, but now-departed President Bush is a religious crackpot, an ex-drunk of small intellect who “got saved.” He never should have been entrusted with the power to start wars.
On health care, the debate is becoming increasingly heated--and stupid. Steven Pearlstein, of the Washington Post, says Republicans are poisoning the debate with lies--and large numbers of Americans are buying them:
The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
Will reform result in government takeover of the health-care system? No, says Pearlstein.
Will health reform cost at least $1 trillion? Nope.
Will reform bring an end to medical innovation and be a first step toward rationing? No and no.
Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society--whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.
Actually, there is reason to wonder if Americans now are capable of coming together to get anything significant done. In a cover story on health-care reform, Time magazine notes that "it has been 44 years since an American president has succeeded at any new social policy nearly as ambitious as what Obama is trying to do."
Time is referring, of course, to Lyndon Johnson's push for Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Curiously, that also was the year the National Voting Rights Act passed, doing away with the widespread disenfranchisement of blacks and coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Noting the differences between now and then, Time reports, "Nor was the Republican Party of 1965 as uniformly conservative as it is today."
The timeline seems clear. The swing toward conservatism in America started with the onset of basic human rights for blacks. And almost 45 years later, the country is on the verge of becoming ungovernable--of being unable to deal with serious problems.
If we cannot deal with health-care reform, is there any hope to address a problem as complex as climate change?
Are we really stupid? Or have we just become paralyzed, and fragmented, by our race-based fears?