Johnny Carson was the king of late-night television because he understood what the masses wanted, and who the masses were. He also left us with a stable of memorable characters, including Floyd R. Turbo, voice of the silent majority, who spoke out on important issues of the day.
The only problem was that Turbo’s opinions were borne out of ignorance and based on misinformation. Speaking about nuclear energy, Turbo said, “What’s all the fuss about plutonium? How can something named after a Disney character be dangerous?” About baseball, Floyd observed, “Baseball was meant to be played on real grass, with no designated hitter, and all white guys.” And on the subject of hunting, he said,”If God didn’t want us to hunt, he wouldn’t have given us plaid shirts.”
Thirty years ago, Floyd R. Turbo (who said the “R” stood for “Arthur”) was merely a send-up of what we thought was a minority mindset. Little did we know then that Carson’s creation would survive the creator and become a driving force in American politics.
Today you can see vestiges of Floyd Turbo at every town-hall meeting, except that in addition to being ignorant, these nouveau Floyds are also angry. They think Obama is trying to form death panels to euthanize older people. They think that making healthcare affordable is socialized medicine. And they think a government option is unfair to the private insurance companies that routinely deny claims and drop coverage.
It’s easy to blame Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin for the steady stream of misinformation being disseminated about health care reform. But the bigger question is, “How did we as a nation get so stupid that we would swallow flawed information so readily?” Rick Shenkman, a columnist for Tomdispatch.com, and author of several books, including Just How Stupid Are We?, theorizes that there are five defining characteristics of stupidity: ignorance, negligence, wooden-headedness, shortsightedness and bone-headedness.
The first characteristic of stupidity refers to ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions.
The second, negligence, is our disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Wooden-headedness is the inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Short sightedness is when we support public policies that run contrary to the country’s long-term interests. And bone-headedness is our susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases and simplistic diagnosis and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
Carson was no scholar, but he knew something three decades ago that it took pollsters and social scientists years to figure out. We as a nation have been stupid for a long time, even before Rush and Sarah were born. The University of Michigan began conducting National Election Studies as far back as the 1940s, and their most recent conclusion is that a tiny percentage of Americans know a lot about politics. About 50 percent know enough to answer simple questions. And the rest know next to nothing. Meanwhile, by the 1990s, political scientists Michael Carpini and Scott Keeter reported that there was little difference between the knowledge of parents in the 1950s versus parents a decade later.
So just how stupid are we today? According to a Gallup poll, 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. Twenty-four percent of us can’t name the country we fought in the Revolutionary War. A majority of Americans can’t name a single branch of government, nearly half don’t know how many United States senators we have in each state, and more than half of all Americans cannot name their congressman. And get this: Though most Americans say they are religious and claim to be familiar with both the Old and New Testaments, half of us don’t know that Judaism is older than Christianity. Think about that for a minute.
Comedian Bill Maher recently noted that “ignorance has life-and-death consequences.” He cited as an example that on the eve of the Iraq war, 69 percent of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9-11 attacks. But four years later, after irrefutable evidence to the contrary, 34 percent still believed the same way. Some of those 34 percent were GOP lawmakers who continued to support George Bush’s war, resulting in the needless deaths of 5,000 American soldiers, and a half-million innocent Iraqi men, women and children.
Okay, so the majority of Americans are stupid, and have been for generations, but what does all of that ignorance portend for the next generation? Sadly, most young people have no interest in news and current events. They don’t read newspapers, and only 11 perecnt actually click on the news page when surfing the internet. In fact, most young folks don’t read anything of substance at all.
A study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 1982, 60 percecnt of people ages 18 to 24 read literature, but that by 2004, that number had dropped to 43 percent. This means that a cycle of ignorance is not only continuing in America, but that it is growing, and we are nurturing an increasing number of Floyd R. Turbos to take our place in the future.
In one of his editorials, Turbo, sounding much like Sarah Palin today, said, “Remember, being an American means being powerful, proud and pushy. And in conclusion, let me finish by ending.” Unfortunately, pride and power driven by ignorance is a growing problem in this country. Just attend a town hall meeting, listen to talk radio, or watch Fox News.
Increasingly, Americans are unashamed by their own stupidity, and they don’t care who suffers because of their ignorant objections to much needed reforms. If all of this bothers you, just write to one of your state’s 10 United States senators. But do it before their two-year term is up.