Life, liberty and the pursuit of stupidity
Just one world tour, and US Secretary of State John Kerry is already moving up on the list of my favourite politicians.
I commented earlier on his budding tendency to coin portmanteau names by linking two countries together and thus coming up with a third that doesn’t exist. By fusing Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan he came up with Kyrzakhstan, suggesting that from America’s vantage point all those foreign lands are more or less the same. It’s like a seven-foot giant and a four-foot dwarf appearing equally tiny if you look at them from Mars.
Some may cringe at such ignorance on the part of the world’s top diplomat, but I rejoice. As much as any other man I love to see my prejudices confirmed, and Americans seldom disappoint. I only hope that, if it’s true that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, Our Lord won’t instigate a global conflict just to give Kerry a remedial class he so desperately needs.
On that same trip, my idol John spoke to a group of youngsters at a crowded Internet café in Berlin. A girl representing an organisation of young Muslims asked John what thoughts crossed his mind when he espied her co-religionists in America.
John’s response strengthened his claim to my lifelong friendship. ‘In America,’ he said, ‘you have a right to be stupid.’ He then added a few qualifiers about tolerance, thereby weakening said claim. He should have left it at the first sentence, with its refreshing, if possibly inadvertent, candour.
However, the framers of the US Constitution with its 27 amendments somehow omitted the right to stupidity, perhaps realising that voracious exercise of it would render democracy inoperable. This showed remarkable foresight, which is confirmed by every recent survey.
For example, only one American in 1,000 could name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances). By laudable contrast, 22 percent could name all five members of the Simpson family.
Another study concluded that only five percent of Americans could correctly answer three-fourths of the questions asked about economics, 11 percent those about domestic issues, 14 percent those about foreign affairs and 10 percent those about geography. Hence John Kerry can pride himself on belonging to an overwhelming majority, and isn’t this what all modern politicians strive for?
We aren’t talking about the knowledge of recondite facts and arcane references: only about 25 percent of native-born Americans would pass the elementary citizenship test given to immigrants. (Q: Who was the first president of the United States? A: George Washington Bridge.)
It’s therefore not surprising that most US voters don’t know the difference between conservatives and liberals, and in America the distinction is still valid. This explains how someone like Obama could be elected president, finding himself in a position to appoint someone like Kerry Secretary of State.
Lest you might think that the respondents selected for such surveys were deliberately drawn from the particularly obtuse strata of the population, consider the poll conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
There the sample was 14,000 randomly selected students at 50 universities around the country. This elite group scored under 55 percent on a test measuring their knowledge of American civic basics. Hence 45 percent wouldn’t qualify for citizenship if they didn’t have the good fortune of being born in the USA. Interestingly, freshmen tested higher than seniors, suggesting that university education isn’t all it’s cut out to be.
Before you run the Union Jack up the pole, consider the fact that similar studies in the UK show only marginally better results. This raises fundamental questions about one-man-one-vote democracy, the kind of questions these days few ask and no one answers.
As Plato and Aristotle postulated and their fellow Athenians showed, even a limited democracy can function effectively only in a nation possessing a high degree of civic and political sophistication. Unless a vote is cast from a position of responsibility and knowledge, it’s at best useless and at worst subversive.
In a constitutional democracy based on universal franchise, a candidate for political office must be weighed in the balance of the nation’s constitutional history and its fundamental principles. It’s reasonably clear that a stupid populace bone-ignorant about such things is incapable of this weighing exercise. In other words, it’s not qualified to vote.
Therefore even a politician with a firmer grasp of his brief and a greater intelligence than John Kerry would be unable to rely on such attainments to appeal to the electorate. Instead of addressing people’s minds he’d have to tickle the bits located some three feet lower.
A few generations of this sort of thing, and a new political class will evolve, including spivs with a knack for cheap demagoguery and excluding anyone with a talent for statesmanship. The politicians will in their turn promote ignorance and stupidity on the part of the electorate, thus squaring the vicious circle of modernity.
The Founding Fathers, apostles of American democracy, along with Tocqueville, their St Paul, were all aware of such pitfalls. But weaned as they were on the ideas of the Enlightenment, they thought democracy would be able to get around them.
They were wrong because the Enlightenment was wrong. Bien pensant ideas divorced from reality will sooner or later reverse the meaning of every term used to denote such notions.
Enlightenment turns out to be obscurantism, liberalism becomes illiberal, equality leads to tyranny. And democracy turns into the rule of the craven and dishonest over the stupid and ignorant. This is an historical law to which there are no exceptions.