Columnists > Voices

Are Americans stupid?

Some liberals think so, but they have their own problems with knowledge

Issue: "Rice: Starboard at State," Dec. 4, 2004

How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?" That was the headline in the British tabloid Daily Mirror announcing the reelection of President Bush. American liberals are asking the same question, concluding that the 51 percent of the public that voted against their man is just not smart enough to appreciate the liberal agenda.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd goes so far as to say that with the reelection of President Bush "we're entering another dark age." She and others are saying that a majority of Americans have rejected science (by which they mean belief in Darwinism or support for destroying human embryos for stem cells). We have embraced superstition (by which they mean Christianity). And we have become intolerant and oppressive (by which they mean not agreeing with same-sex marriage).

There was a time when the Democrats billed themselves as the party of the common man, appealing to the down-to-earth common sense of the masses against the aristocracy of wealth and privilege. That was before the party was taken over by the aristocracy of wealth and privilege represented by academics, special-interest crusaders, and "knowledge workers." By definition, those who consider themselves intellectuals think they are smarter than the vulgar masses. This disdain, condescension, and disconnect with ordinary Americans is the main reason today's Democrats keep losing elections.

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Intellectuals think they should rule, but whenever they do, the result is disastrous. Plato's Republic imagined the perfect society ruled by philosophical "guardians," but even in theory this manifested itself in eugenics, immorality, and the elimination of freedom. Real-life states dreamed up and then implemented by the fascist intellectuals and the communist intellectuals also eliminated freedom, rejected moral absolutes that would limit what man and the state can do, and sought to design the next stage of evolution.

In a perhaps less virulent way, this is what many people fear if today's liberal intellectuals should ever get their way: Restrictions on liberties ordinary Americans prize (such as parental, private-property, and gun-ownership rights, economic liberty, religious freedom). The repudiation of morality (homosexual marriage, sexual permissiveness, abortion, cultural license). Experimentation that discards and seeks to redesign human life (the destruction of embryos for their stem cells, genetic engineering, cloning, designer babies).

But the question remains, are Americans stupid? Mental functions involve two different spheres: intelligence (mental ability) and knowledge (mental content). It is possible to have one without the other. Americans across the spectrum do seem to have intelligence, whether highly specialized mental abilities or down-to-earth common sense. They are certainly not so stupid as to allow intellectuals to rule over them. Americans do tend to be smart. Sometimes, though, they lack knowledge, or the knowledge they think with is untrue.

Many Americans, for example, think morality is nothing more than a subjective preference, ungrounded in the real world outside themselves. They assume that God too exists only inside their heads, if He exists at all, and that He need not be consulted in practical matters. Many Americans either know nothing of the past or believe that the wisdom of the ages should be discarded on the grounds that it is not modern. Many Americans go so far as to reject the very existence of any objective truth, insisting that reality itself is nothing more than a construction of their minds, to be reconstructed in any way they please.

Such a combination of ignorance, confusion, and hostility to knowledge is held today mainly by our smart people. It is precisely our intellectuals who are questioning the value of reason and the possibility of knowledge. We have thinkers without beliefs, fine minds with nothing in them.

In America's democratic republic, citizens of various intelligence levels can take part. In the Christian church too, people with the whole range of intellectual abilities can find welcome and fulfillment. Some level of knowledge, though, is important for citizenship in both the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Americans are smart enough, but it would be helpful for Americans-liberals, conservatives, Christians, and everyone-to know more, to be open to truths that go beyond their own limited interests, desires, and preferences. "My people are destroyed" not for lack of intelligence, but "for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6).

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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