Friday, February 15, 2008

Let's talk stupid

The first thing to catch my eye over coffee this morning (other than the NIU shooting--I'll get to that later) was this story in the NY Times, titled "Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?" The article focuses on author Susan Jacoby, who has a new book out this month titled "The Age of American Unreason". Jacoby is one of several authors with new books lamenting the state of American culture. She focuses on what she describes as a "generalized hostility to knowledge." Here's a brief quote from the article:

The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”

I think I'll ask MizBubs, girl genius, to grab this for me from the library.

As if to prove Jacoby's point, this article recently appeared in the Orlando Sentinel: "Clash Over Teaching Evolution Hits Orlando". Here's the opener:

Evolution has been a cornerstone of biology for more than 100 years, but don't try to tell that to many of the thousands of people who posted comments on Florida's Department of Education Web site.

"The last time I went to the zoo, the monkeys weren't evolving into man," read one comment.

"Evolution is not proven and we should not brainwash our children with this concept," stated another.

This video was mentioned in the opening paragraph of that NY Times article. Boy howdy, there's some hilariously disturbing elements to this. Like Pickler's apparent lack of embarrassment when confronted with her own ignorance ("Buda...Budapest? I never even heard of that...I know they speak French there, don't they?") That's followed closely by this retro gender exchange between Pickler and the host, Jeff Foxworthy:

Foxworthy: Kell...focus.

Pickler: I am. Like, I'm listening to what you're saying, but I only hear what I want to.

Foxworthy: That's just called being a woman.

Audience: Woooooooo...

Pickler: Well we could just call this show "are you smarter than a man?" I'd win that.

Foxworthy: Women don't really want to hear a man's opinion, they just want to hear their opinion in a deeper voice...

Yuk yuk yuk yuk, ain't that the truth? Har. Here's the video:

I found this next video bit while looking for Ms. Pickler's performance. It's one of those Jay Leno man-in-the-street bits, set in Las Vegas. In all fairness, at least some of this stupid is alcohol-induced.


The shooting at Northern Illinois University. Tragic and horrifying. Normally I don't start contemplating the nature of human evil this early in the morning; that's better saved for darkness, and strong drink.

For now my questions are:
  • What was the background of the shooter?
  • Where did he get the guns?
I have a professional interest in the police response. By now nearly every department in the country has abandoned the old model of responding to these incidents (aid the wounded, set up a perimeter, contain the threat and wait for a SWAT team) and has adopted rapid deployment/active shooter tactics.

Most police are now trained that the first officers on the scene should go directly towards the gunfire and engage the shooter as quickly as possible, even if it means stepping over the bodies of the wounded to do so. According to this article in the NY Times the police arrived within 2 minutes of the first 911 call. The Chicago Tribune reports that police arrived 29 seconds after receiving a 911 call at 3:06 pm.

The reason I'm including this at the end of a post about stupidity is that, over the past 14 hours, I've heard some really stupid stuff come out of the mouths of radio news people and some NIU kids who have been interviewed. I heard one radio interviewer ask a kid who was present at the shooting "when the shooter's eyes locked onto yours, what did you read in his expression?" Seriously, what kind of asshole asks a 19 year old kid, who's just seen a bunch of people killed, a question like that?

What really got me angry were the questions prompting kids and parents to find fault with the school's security. I heard two different young women interviewed, students who were not present at the shooting. Both of them felt that the school could have done more to keep them safer. Both of the women had those voices? You know? The kind where every sentence sounds like it's ending in a question? And they just thought, that, um, the school didn't do as much as they could have? To keep them safe? As if 18 people shot isn't newsworthy enough, the reporters are already trolling for the next angle--that someone, some institution, failed and must be blamed.

Yes, NIU could have kept all those kids safe. All you have to do to prevent school shootings is turn every school into a prison: locked doors, search everyone entering, metal detectors, total video surveillance and armed guards everywhere.

Thinking like this got Bush reelected in 2004, and if the dumbing-down continues lord knows what lies ahead.


kim said...

It's a flabbergasting obnoxious time....Isn't it interesting that sentence applies to both the NIU school shootings and the fact that two guys in a bar don't know what Pearl Harbor is.

God Bless us.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

That whole situation at NIU is fu#ked up. I'd say let's clamp down more on guns but that's not really the solution (although if we had and enforced guns laws like those of the UK and other western countries then things would be vastly different when it came to these type of situations), I think the solution is we need to change our whole system of doing things, both economic and political, and we need to invest way the hell more in mental health care.

As for our fellow countrymen being stupid, it's sad but it's true. Most of us would rather be famous than be smart, case in point American Idol.

Mnmom said...

So much to comment on. I think we're actually getting smarter, so when we're faced with stupidity, it stands out that much more.
I'd like to know what causes someone to think that taking out a bunch of innocent folks through violence will solve the hell they are in.
I was living in Iowa City when the grad student shot and killed fellow students and profs. Here's the kicker - I KNEW the shooter. There was nothing to clue anyone in to the carnage to come.
I agree with Monkey - better mental health care. But until folks get their priorities straight that won't happen. Mental Health care costs taxpayer dollars, and Americans have been trained to see taxes as evil.

SkylersDad said...

I don't understand the motivations of any of these gunman, what can cause that switch to flip inside of anyones head to make it seem like a good idea to just start shooting people?

And I agree, we are getting much more ignorant as a society.

Beth said...

Bet these same folks who thought there should have been tighter security on campus also complain about tighter security at airports since 2001.

But I'm just a woman, so I don't know what I'm talking about.

Mnmom said...

Remember, those clips are for entertainment purposes. They won't show the normal folks who got every question right. When I was younger I often participated in various activist events. They never showed me: mother, taxpayer, normal citizen, with the pro-choice sign. They would always put the large woman with the purple mohawk on TV.
Remember - corporate media! Don't let them bring you down!!!!!

Mathman6293 said...

When I worked at Radio Shack (in Chicago and the Suburbs) I thought that people really worked hard to be dumb. Maybe it has gotten worse since then.

As I teacher, I try to keep the kids from maintaining their ignorance. But it is a difficult battle, stupid rednecks are funny.

The shooting is frightening but in a way I believe that these shooters are the real American Terrorists. We allow relative easy access to firearms but make it difficult and a stigma to get mental medical treatment.

Johnny Yen said...

Remember the group Devo and their theory of de-evolution-- that we're actually now regressing, rather than progressing? I wonder if it's true. Every day it seems like I'm confronted by more and more stupidity. Maybe I'm just becoming less tolerant of it.

I was particularly saddened about the girl from Cicero. As you know, I taught in the Cicero school system for four years. Most of the families are working class poor. Imagine the sacrifice and pride of that family in getting their daughter to college. What a waste.

My friend Larry, who is a journalist, talked to me about having to call the families of murder victims and ask for comments. It's not one of his favorite parts of the job.

Mnmom said...

Folks! Don't let the bastards get you down! We are Evolving, not Devolving. Look at some of the evidence:
1. We now recognize domestic violence for what it really is, and have support networks for it's victims.
2. We now believe kids when they say a trusted adult has molested them.
3. No one says "woman doctor" anymore
4. Our violent crime rates are actually going down.
5. Nobody burns at the stake of heresy anymore.
6. We define learning disabilities and help those students instead of calling them dumb and lazy.
7. We don't tell people with depression to "snap out of it".
8. No one bats an eye at interracial couples, and if they DO bat an eye they know better than to say anything.
9. The leader of the GLBT group at my small-town-of-origin Iowa High School is the Football coach.

Good news is out there.

Read "What are you Optimistic About?"

lulu said...

I just got an email from one of my NEH seminar friends who left teaching and went back to grad school at NIU. He sat next to the shooter in 2006 in statistics class and said what everyone always says about shooters. "Nice, normal guy"

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks for the reminders Mnmom!

Bubs said...

First of all, thank you all for your excellent and thoughtful comments.

I didn't mean this to go into a discussion of school shootings and guns, although it's easy to see how it would. I've collected some articles on guns and gun culture, and I plan on posting some of it later next week maybe. Maybe we could have a fuller discussion then.

Mnmom, in particular, you make a number of good points, and I thank you for reminding to not get too depressed. I like your list of evidence, and it points to the interesting fact that we are, in fact, improving in many ways. Our development as a society, however, is not represented by a steady improvement, a rising from one enlightened plateau to the next. Nope. At the same time we're making strides as you've pointed out, we're also heading backward in other areas: witness ideas about evolution, for instance.

My favorite quote comes from mathman: "I thought that people really worked hard to be dumb" That describes what I see, where I work and in other places--a willful ignorance, an almost boastful quality from people who brag about not reading, who don't feel the slightest embarrassment at not knowing things that would've been common knowledge 20 or 30 years ago.

There's so much I could write just in response to all your comments--about raising a generation of victim children, people abandoning freedom for security, the vicarious trauma suffered by people (cops, social workers, medical people, journalists) who routinely encounter and deal with other people's pain, and the nature of school shooters. Maybe some time in the future, huh?


jewgirl said...

Excellent post, Bubbsie.

Stupidity is pandemic in this country, it's terrifying and scandalous.

Great points about the shooting that make me think. If we assign blame to the school and if the media continues on their path of leading voters down Fear Lane, more civil liberties get chopped and another REPUBEican gets elected into office.

Thanks for writing this!

Tenacious S said...

Regarding the shooting, I think this is another moment that highlights the importance of mental health care.

Regarding stupidity, it no longer shocks me. I'm just a little sadder every day. My remedy is to raise my children to love learning (which is getting harder everyday since NCLB) and to think for themselves.

Erik Donald France said...

Amen, brothers and sisters! Don't forget to knuckle up & guard your grills ;)

Is there a book called Democracy for Dummies?

Hot Lemon said...

guns don't kill people: dangerous morons kill people.

School is just a weird game we play: clearly it's not working, is it??


Anonymous said...

When I hear stories like the two suits not knowing jack about history, I'm reminded that people like you and me and MathMan and Miz Bubs and your very intelligent commenters are more willfully intelligent and curious than the average American.

In this age of anti-intellectualism, being willfully ignorant is equated with normal, with being a good American and with being a regular guy rather than an elitist.

People are so ignorant that they don't realize that being elite is a good thing. It means you're part of the cream of the crop.

Echo said...

Bubs, I think it's pretty amusing that the NY Times would post a story on America's hostility to knowledge when they are the ones publishing editorials by William Kristol. Arrrgghhh! The Stupid! It Burns!!!!!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

How frustrating it all is! We've been hearing that NIU actually had a pretty good system in place for informing students about the crisis. But one wonders what the point of any education system is when we continue to celebrate stupidity with shows such as that damned Foxworthy one. And I'm not just talking about the single incident with that incredibly dense woman, the entire show is designed to kill brain cells.

'Bubbles' said...

Loved the post, Bubs! Lots to think about.

I tend to get frustrated with ignorance, but then shift myself into a more optimistic place. The world changes one mind at a time, one act at a time. So then I chose to act, speak, not speak... it works for me.

As my children get older I feel more and more optimistic. Their passion of excellence and learning are now exceeding mine. They are not tired like me.

What scares me is the cruelty and coldness of society. I can only imagine the internal torture the shooter was dealing with. Perhaps feeling life wasn't worth living and so angry that he wanted to make a bold statement on the way out.

I guess this is all better left for a post.... sorry for the long comment!

Bubs said...

Bubbles, Barbara, echo (long time no see!) dcup, Erik, TenS, JG...thanks for stopping by and commenting. It's all a bit much, isn't it?

FranIAm said...

I thought I left a comment, but then again sometimes I do and blogger eats it.

Well most excellent post - most excellent. I linked to it today.

Deep sigh from FranIam. Very deep sigh.

Grant Miller said...

I'm interested in those books, too. I agree - of course NIU could have done more. But at what cost, both literal and figurative. No one truly wants a police state, and even so some nut with a weapon could cause all kinds of chaos.

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