Christine O’Donnell is not a witch. She may have been one in another stage of her life, but she isn’t one now. No, she’s “you,” as she brazenly declared in a crazy campaign ad that attempted to refute a clip from an old “Politically Incorrect” TV show that Bill Maher (the host of that show) aired on his current HBO program last month.
On the old clip, from a show originally broadcast in 1998, Ms. O’Donnell is shown telling the host and his other guests that she “dabbled” in witchcraft in her youth (presumably her late teens or early 20s, since she was only 28 when the original show aired).
But now she is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, carrying the Republican banner in Delaware for the seat formerly held by Vice-President Joe Biden. And, as she has more recently revealed, she is not all that clear on what the First Amendment to the Constitution says. In a debate with her opponent earlier this month, the winsome Ms. O’Donnell expressed what appeared to be true surprise when informed that the amendment did, indeed, guarantee a separation of church and state.
And so how fitting that Ms. O’Donnell is intent on identifying in her campaign ads with “you,” by which she means, of course, all of the Americans who also don’t know what is contained in the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution that is the supreme law of the land they proclaim to love so dearly. And have no doubt about it, she is truly representative of the dumbing down of America and is as real, and as scary, as a heart attack.
Susan Jacoby explores this phenomenon (catastrophe would actually be the more appropriate word) in “The Age of American Unreason” (Pantheon Books, 2008). In her presentation of the current state of the country’s antipathy for intellectualism, Ms. Jacoby reviews the constant battle between enlightenment and ignorance that has checkered the country’s history.
Suffice to say, she does not paint a pretty picture, of either the country’s heritage or its current state. As a nation of many mini-cultures, America has always had a sizeable number of residents who have held all forms of intellectual pursuit in disdain. It has taken a multitude of forms, sometimes cloaked in religious dogma, sometimes in political ideology, sometimes in anti-establishment rebellion. But whatever its guise, those who have looked askance at intellectualism have done so with intense hostility.
But at the same time, throughout the history of the same country, there has been a near reverence for knowledge, for the attainment of intellectual superiority, for scientific achievements and for literary and artistic excellence. As marked by its election of leaders, this aspect of the country was ascendant, as Ms. Jacoby notes, until most recently.
Only in the last thirty years, beginning with Ronald Reagan, have presidential candidates attempted to sound like “regular folks.” Reagan was a master at it, whether as a well-developed act (was he really a closet intellectual?) or a person who turned his absolute ignorance into a political asset (or was he really tethered to the daily horoscope readings?).
Bill Clinton was as brilliant (probably as serious about the intellectual requirements of his job as any president since Kennedy) as he was bubba, which worked well until the bubba in him made him forget to keep his pants on.
But George W. Bush surely did both of his predecessors one better (or one worse) by eschewing all trappings of intellectualism. Bush blatantly acknowledged that he didn’t like to read newspapers or briefing memos.
At the same time, over the 30 years that these men held the nation’s highest office, the country’s culture devolved noticeably. It probably began with the introduction of the USA Today form of print journalism, marked by short snippets of news reports presented with a minimum of deep reporting, the People magazine elevation of Hollywood gossip, and, ultimately the talk radio/cable news networks’ destruction of serious political discourse.
At the same time, a revival of Christian fundamentalism, initially inspired by the seemingly unreligious Reagan and then fostered by the born-again-and-ever-so-proud-of-it Bush, led to the anti-science revolution that has conflated the lay and scientific definitions of “theory,” such that pseudo-scientific doctrines like “intelligent design,” for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence, can be forced on institutions of public education throughout the country on a par with evolution. “Hey, evolution is only a theory,” say the more polished advocates of this kind of “religidiocy,” while the Christine O’Donnells of the movement question why, if evolution is real, apes aren’t changing into humans now (another dumbfounding “Politically Incorrect” clip that the candidate has not, as yet, refuted).
That the battle (between intellectualism and ignorance) is tilting heavily towards the know-nothing side of the equation is exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party movement. If Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle or Michelle Bachman or the irrepressible Ms. O’Donnell say something extremely stupid, as they all have, their legion of supporters only love them all the more, especially if they are castigated by the “liberal media” or their political opponents for it.
“Down with the elitists,” is the cry, as if the last thing a public servant should be is educated or even intelligent. And so is Barack Obama, far too educated and intelligent, pictured as Adolf Hitler or called a socialist, sometimes at the same time. (“Hey, wasn’t Hitler a socialist?” asked an ignorant sign-holder at one Tea Party rally.)
The ascendency of ignorance bodes well for the Republican Party, which will ride the rebellion against intellectualism to a massive victory in next week’s elections. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Economic crises often produce demagogues seeking power for their own purposes.
The Republican leadership is not ignorant. It knows what it wants, and it will happily use the Tea Party movement to get it. It will move to restore the control to the mega-corporations and the military-industrial complex. Thereafter, it will seek to consolidate its control over the entire country.
Hitler was no more conniving.