MEDIA WATCH-There’s a dangerous kind of stupidity rising in our societies, taking over some of them wholesale. And so the question needs to be asked: can democracy survive the Age of the Idiot?
This is an age where the sheer bottomlessness of human stupidity has been revealed, and it’s somewhere between jaw-dropping, ugly, and tragicomic. Covid’s like an electron microscope for it. Take the bizarre, unbelievable example of all those American Idiots who literally go to the hospital with Covid, end up in the Covid ICU, where they’re dying of Covid, and yet bitterly and angrily complain to nurses that Covid doesn’t exist.
What on earth?
America, of course, is the prime exemplar of the Age of the Idiot. It’s a society ruled by its idiots, for its idiots. Nobody seems able to stop the rise of stupidity in America. Hence, a baffled world looks on as Americans…act like idiots. You might think I’m just talking about Trumpists, but alas, I’m not. Even “good” Americans who think of themselves as intelligent voted against better healthcare…in the middle of a pandemic.
That, of course, is what Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders offered. But they were trounced by…Joe Biden. Who offers Americans nothing, really, in the way of the reforms necessary for a functioning society. Sorry if that sounds harsh, it’s only true.
Why did even “good” Americans behave like massive enough idiots to vote against the best healthcare they could get…in the middle of a literal pandemic?
One truth about America is that a majority of white people — who still make up 77% of America — have never voted for a Democrat as President, which means that they’ve voted, as a bloc, against all the following things: civil rights, desegregation, public education, healthcare, and so on. So what Americans who do vote for Democrats think of themselves as good and sane and morally and intellectually superior people. Are they?
The other truth about America is perhaps even more depressing. Yes, a minority of white Americans vote for Democrats. But they only vote for Democrats who basically act like Republicans. In global terms, this social group — white Americans who vote Democratic — are still way, way to the hard right. They don’t support — ever — things like public healthcare, higher education, retirement, childcare, income. All the things of a modern, functioning society, which Bernie and Liz offered them, which Jimmy Carter aimed at before them.
Even white Americans who think of themselves as educated and intelligent are in fact no such thing. They are indistinguishable from Trumpists in many ways. They might not support concentration camps, sure — but they don’t seem to want everyone to have a good life, either, they don’t seem to support a modern, functioning society.
That’s why America isn’t one. Not just because the fanatics and fools of the hard right are idiots. But because even those Americans who think of themselves as superior — most of those educated, white East Coast and West Coast types — who think that they aren’t on the hard right don’t seem to understand that as far as the world is concerned, as far as modernity is, they are. That, my friends, is a pretty good description of…an idiot.
When we think about idiocy in this age, we often resort to a kind of technocratic formula for it. It’s made of three Ds. Demagogues, disinformation, and distrust. Demagogues spread disinformation — like Covid doesn’t exist, it’s just the flu, the vaccines don’t work, and so forth, all the nonsense that Trump still bellows. Technology plays a major role in amplifying the demagogue’s voice. And those who distrust institutions and systems believe the disinformation. They end up in bizarre little bubbles of surreal delusions — like the idiots dying of Covid who shout at their nurse that Covid doesn’t exist.
That’s indeed a spectacular kind of idiocy. It’s the loudest kind and the most shocking kind. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. That’s the point I’m trying to make. The subtler forms of idiocy that have come to rule our societies are no less invidious, no less poisonous. They are even more so, in many ways, because they are tolerated and normalized.
Let me go back to the American Idiot for a moment — not the Trumpist, but the Ivy Leaguer. He’s attended some university with a fine name, which he believes has taught him all he needs to know about the world. Why does this kind of American Idiot — the educated one, not the bumpkin — vote against a better life for everyone, which includes himself and his own family, over and over again? If you ask him, he’ll tell you that his education proves it. Maybe he’ll talk about abstruse theories of “market competition” and “efficiency,” and then grin smugly as if they demonstrate anything at all, but a kind of Soviet level of ideological folly.
What he’ll never admit — because he doesn’t know it — is that all this is essentially a form of bigotry and racism. Why wouldn’t you want everyone to have healthcare? Retirement? Education? Especially when that includes you and the people you love?
Well, the only possible reason is that you think some people don’t deserve it. And the only way that some people don’t deserve such things is if they are not people at all. If they are “burdens” and “liabilities.”
But those are just new codewords — garbed in false economics — for a very old idea. Some people are parasites, infections, cancers upon society, who will drain the rest of us of our virtue and goodness. That’s one of the oldest ideas in the world, and it’s called bigotry. In America, the subtext is always racial: the people who don’t “deserve” decent lives are invariably minorities. The minorities whom white America has always hated.
The “educated” American has no idea whatsoever that his or her rejection of modern society — which guarantees things like healthcare and retirement and childcare as basic human rights for all — is a function of racism and bigotry. He or she will deny it into the ground, debate you bitterly, and then walk away, angrily, saying you have “played the race card,” or some such thing. He or she has no idea about the underlying motivation and justification for his or her beliefs, which is grounded in centuries of hatred over the color of some people’s skin. “They don’t deserve healthcare” is just the modern equivalent of “they’re coming for our homesteads and our women!” after all. And yet this is still the position the so-called educated American takes.
Again, that’s not my opinion — that’s an empirical fact. It’s what “a majority of educated white Americans still won’t vote for a decent society,” means. It’s what such a group rejecting Liz and Bernie but choosing Biden — who offers Americans little to nothing in the way of booming a functioning society — is.
(By the way, if you ask such a person: “is there any evidence that denying people such things as healthcare being basic human rights improves efficiency and growth and whatever other economic nonsense? In fact, isn’t it just the opposite, considering how much more prosperous Canada and Europe are?” They’ll look at you like you’ve done something unthinkable, which is compare America to anyone else.)
There are so, so many kinds of American Idiots. The Trumpist, the one who’ll believe anything his surrogate daddy tells him. The religious nutcase, who wants to live in a fanatical Sharia state. The gun nut. The technology that enables all of their delusions to spread and grow. But to stop there is to fail to really think clearly about idiocy. The idiocy of the “educated” American is no less egregious because they are the ones who stop the side of progress from ever even offering it, pat themselves on the back, and don’t understand how backward and regressive they are in global terms at all.
Can democracy survive all that?
You see, we’ve done something foolish. We’ve grown to lionize democracy. We don’t seem to understand that just as there is a thing called “market failure,” and a thing called “state failure,” so too there’s a thing called “democratic failure.”
What’s democratic failure? When enough people are idiots. The Greeks, remember, used the word in a precise sense: people with purely private, selfish interests, without any conception of the public good or common wealth. It’s easy to see that Trumpists are idiots, in that classical sense. But so are most educated Americans. They vote, predictably, consistently, against literal public goods, like universal healthcare…even in the middle of a pandemic. America has become a nation of idiots in a sense that the classical Greeks would find achingly, hauntingly true.
The Greeks understood intimately that democracy was not some kind of magic bullet or monolith, that once, built, was indestructible. The idiot was the most contemptible person in their society for a very simple reason: the Greeks reasoned that enough idiots in a society — enough people with no conception of the public good or common wealth, with only private, selfish interests — and democracy couldn’t survive. Democracy — even in the limited Greek conception, chest-beating males arguing in the Agora — was hard work.
Today we’d say something like “democracy requires educated people!” That’s only partially true. You can be educated — even finely educated, like so many white Americans are — and yet still be an idiot. How is that after all that Ivy League education, so many Americans still vote against being a modern society? They remain idiots in the classical sense — all that “education” has failed to inculcate any classical virtue in them, any notion of a self beyond the individual, any idea of the public good.
Democracy requires enlightened people. Not just “educated” ones. Education can easily become indoctrination into idiocy, as it appears to have done in America. If you think I’m kidding, consider that the destinations of choice for Ivy League grads are Wall St and Silicon Valley. That might sound clever to you if you’re American, but to the Greeks, it’d be textbook idiocy. Private gain over social good. And yet Americans are so neck-deep in the mire of idiocy that they don’t seem to understand how much they’ve been brainwashed to worship it. Kids going to Wall St and Silicon Valley isn’t a good thing to applaud — it points to a society ruled by the values of idiocy, materialism, individualism, greed, selfishness.
The Greeks would have said that democracy takes virtue. But not virtue as we understand it at all anymore. For them, virtue was “moral excellence.” Moral: beyond the self. Virtue was excellence in caring for something other than yourself. Society, the vulnerable, history, time, ideas, art — anything at all. Cultivating it, nurturing it, growing its garden tall and proud.
But too many of our societies are not like that, because they don’t allow people to be like that. They have become desperate, bitter arenas for self-preservation. Who has the room or energy or money or time to care about anyone — or anything — else in America, for example? Nobody much. 75% of Americans struggle to pay basic bills, and the average American dies in debt they’ve never been able to repay. They are poor people now, Americans — and poor people don’t often have the resources to care for anyone or anything else.
That tells us something crucial.
Democracy is a luxury. That is why it has been so rare in history. The Greeks may have pioneered it — though there’s some debate on that subject. What isn’t under debate is that after that, the world went into a millennia-long political dark age. After the Greeks, there was no serious democracy until, really, the 18th century or so. And even that democracy was so limited by today’s standards, it can barely be called such a thing. Was America a democracy — when it was born in slavery? Were our societies really democracies — before they gave women the right to vote?
Democracy is a luxury that we think of as a necessity. The truth, though, is that like any other investment — which is what most luxuries are — it requires sustenance, or else it grows tired, weary, thin, and depleted. It is fragile enough to break easily.
We invest in democracy not just by “educating” people — but by enlightening them. That is harder work. Only Europe and Canada have been successful at it, and even then, only incompletely. To enlighten a populace is to produce that classical Greek sense of virtue in it: moral excellence, excellence in the desire, ability, capacity to care for things beyond the narrow, individual self.
Americans can’t express much virtue — do you see Americans behaving like good people? I don’t — because they don’t have the resources to anymore, having grown poor. But they grew poor precisely because they voted forever — whites on the left and right — against giving each other the resources. Like healthcare, retirement, decent jobs, childcare, and so on. Do you see the snake eating its own tail? The folly? The stupid self-destruction of it?
Americans chose to end up this way.
And that is what the Greeks were afraid of. They understood that idiocy alone had the power to undo democracy. An enemy with sharper weapons and a bigger army might defeat it — for a time. But democracy can only ever really be undone from within, when a people unchoose it, when they retreat from it, when they wither and decay into narrow shells of individualism and selfishness and greed. Soon enough, those become cruelty and hostility and aggression and violence — all the things America is renowned for today.
America is vivid proof that the oldest political theory in the world is still the truest and deepest one. Yes, we should want to live in democracies. But democracies are a luxury. Too many idiots in a society — not just uneducated ones, but unenlightened ones, which is what even educated Americans have become — and bang! No democracy can survive. A society enters a period of “democratic failure” — where people are too stupid to vote for what’s most constructive, positive, beneficial, forward-thinking. What raises living standards and elevates the qualities of life the most. They vote against all that — the “smart” ones, without ever once knowing it, all the while, condemning the “dumb” ones. Sound like America?
The Greeks were righter than they will ever know. Democracy can survive almost anything — except idiots. When democracy is won, finally, it had better make a concerted effort to enlighten its populace, to inculcate true virtue in them, to give them the resources, the time, space, income, room, energy for moral excellence, excellence in caring for things beyond the narrow self — or else, like America, it’ll crumble into folly, despair, violence, rage, and stupidity. Like that — bang. In the blink of an eye. And even the most intelligent in such a society, condemning the rest for being fools, will scarcely see how deep idiocy goes, how much damage it does, or even what it really is and means.
So let me ask you again. Can democracy survive the age of the idiot?
(Unmair Haque writes for E&CO … where this perspective was first posted.) Image Credit: Bethany Anderson