This article was originally published on The Well-Read Man, on April 29, 2013.
It might all start with you
With the possible exception of Zachary Taylor, none of America’s forty-three presidents have been woefully uneducated or outright stupid, including the one you despise the most. As Americans, we revere the office of president, lifting it up as a symbol of all that is great about this nation. That goodwill doesn’t always extend to those who occupy the office. If recent elections are any clue, about half of all Americans think that George W. Bush was an inept, bumbling, greedy, and borderline-evil tool of his Big Oil puppet-masters, while the other half is certain that Barack Obama is a corrupt, foreign-born America-hater who pushes aside his teleprompter just far enough to bow toward Mecca five times per day. At the heart of these slurs is the widely held belief that our political opponents are innately dimwitted and too intellectually incompetent to understand clear-minded political truths.
For portions of the voting public, that assessment might be spot on, but not for presidents. From a purely educational standpoint, more than eighty percent of them attended or completed college—many of them in the Ivy Leagues (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln being two notable college-free exceptions). The two most recent officeholders are good collegiate examples. Both Bush and Obama hold post-graduate degrees from Harvard University, Obama in law, Bush in business. Blogs are filled with assertions of low marks and special treatment for each, but the fact is that, were these men anything other than presidents, the words “Harvard Graduate” on their résumés would confer an automatic assumption of mental discipline and intelligence.
As in all situations where facts are dismissed in favor of loud opinions, the charge of “dummy” against those we abhor says more about us than it does our targets. The fixation on deriding those in the other party harms our participation in the political process, not because it maligns others, but because it masks our own mental laziness. Instead of engaging in the intellectual rigor of political investigation and debate, we disparage the brain capacities of those taking issue with our weakly held positions, never realizing that it only works to expose our own ineptitude.
Life is complex, and our modern politics reflects that complexity. We’ve now reached a point where elected officials routinely pass thousand-page laws without concern over the particulars. The issues are too intricate with too many variables to permit straightforward solutions, and frankly it’s easier to take sides on the cutesy ten-word title of a bill being debated than to sully ourselves with the specifics. When the number of issues threatens to overwhelm us, the easiest path of all is to wrap them all up in a one-size-fits-all “Republican” or “Democratic” label, and attach it with malice on any controversial surface.
Substituting thoughtful political discourse with empty insults is nothing new. What is new is the ability to package such propaganda in cute memes and distribute them instantly to a waiting social media world. A power once available to a few newspaper publishers is now within reach of anyone carrying a smartphone.
Fortunately, that same power brings with it tools and resources that can wipe away the ignorance that so quickly seduces. From complete transcripts of every recent speech by all major politicians, to web sites that examine domestic and international issues from every possible angle, the Internet finally frees us from the excuse of ignorance. A few minutes spent in serious research can impart wisdom to nearly any Facebook controversy-du-jour.
We are free to engage in fact-free mudslinging anytime we want. But with easy access to the entirety of human knowledge via a pocket-sized gadget, taking the insult path is the essence of stupidity.