News & Politics

Is America's Love Affair with Stupidity Finally Over?

Americans' embrace of the Obamas and other intelligent public figures may be part of a much-needed cultural shift.

"There was a time in this country when smart people were considered cool -- well not cool, but they did things like build ships and pyramids and they even went in the moon ... I believe that time can come again."

That's an abridged quote from Idiocracy, the 2006 scarily spot-on parody film about what life will be like on Earth in 500 years if we don't throw a Stop Stick under the tires of the dumbing-down process. Written and directed by Mike Judge ("Beavis and Butthead," "King of the Hill") in Judge's world of tomorrow, the top TV show is "Ow! My Balls!" on the Violence Channel, and the U.S. president is an ex-porn star and pro-wrestler.

Idiocracy is supposed to be a comedy, but it's hard not to get a little chill after you see it and realize that this world is closer to us than Russia is to Sarah Palin's breakfast nook. Every time an ad screams "EXTREME!", every time we glimpse the failures of abstinence-only education (like the teen pregnancy rate going up in 2006 for the first time in 15 years), every time an SUV that amounts to a panic-room-on-wheels slops its grotesque bulk into more than one parking space, every time a cadre of degreed journalists report on what Suri, Shiloh and Apple are wearing to each other's birthday parties, every time Paris Hilton is in our line of vision, we inch closer to Judge's future.

So, can we turn this short bus around? Could there be a world ahead of us where the Detroit elementary school that had to ask parents for light bulbs and toilet paper is financially sound while Ann Coulter has to sell books out of a milk crate at the local gun show? The trickle down should come soon, but for now the big signal that the era of style over substance (and not that much style) is on it's way out (probably through the "in" door) is the election of Barack Obama.

Actually, we didn't just elect Obama -- we grabbed on to him like kids who found their dad after being lost in Wal-Mart for a whole day. After eight years of snickering, stumbling Bushisms, just hearing a calm, erudite speaking voice coming from the future commander in chief is a welcomed experience, potentially leading to an improved cultural environment.

"I'm optimistic for a few reasons," says New York journalist Joe Bargmann. "We finally elected someone who can pronounce 'nuclear' correctly, stopped swallowing Wall Street's bullshit like Gummi Bears and woke up to the fact that alternative-energy sources are not only viable but essential to our future."

Indeed, never before have we been able to use the phrase "eco-friendly inaugural ball." And this year there will be two, one hosted by Al Gore. The best news is that Obama's environmental commitment seems to be more than just a show. The Washington Times offers this quote from the president-elect, which decorates those ball invitations: "There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new-energy economy ...That's going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office," a sentiment that will probably effect the whole country's view of green industry.

And green jobs could put people to work quickly. "You can't outsource installation of a solar roof on your house to another country," Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a Reuters news story. If our leadership is as willing to plunge us into positive innovation as fast as the last one was willing to plunge us into war, our future will probably feel more vital and brighter -- and so will the citizens creating it.

A historical footnote that also offers some encouragement for optimism is a gem from Spy magazine, circa 1989. Writing about the post-Reagan era vogue for celebrities taking up social and political causes, Terry Minsky said -- in a piece called "If I Only Had a Brain":

"Eight years under a dodo president who offered us what Nichols and May used to call 'proximity but no relating' has turned us into a country where just about everyone -- even Rob Lowe -- knows what it's like to feel intellectually superior, a state of mind that will surely continue now for at least four more years."

Could Minksy's observation be true for us today? Was it back then? Well, yes and no -- one subhead in Minsky's story, after all was "The Importance ofLooking Earnest" -- emphasis added). The early '90s had its dumb moments, but it should get extra credit for its bright ones.

The "Real World" debuted in 1992, so we had reality TV, but it didn't multiply in a Tribble-esque frenzy. The sophisticated "Seinfeld," came onto the scene, people wore faux glasses and even drank "smart drinks," which contained amino acids to help memory, energy and cognition -- drank 'em in bars! We had a blonde pop star that liked to show her underwear, too -- but when Madonna did such things, it wasn't an accident, it was savvy marketing. It may not have been Paris in the '20s (we'll discuss it's less-bright side later) but it was probably the last time smart was cool.

Both 1988 and 2008 presented us with Republican vice-presidential candidates who were not the brightest pennies in the fountain -- and how differently we reacted to them shows how far we've come.

Dan Quayle routinely gave comedy writers the afternoon off by saying things like, "I have made good judgments in the past; I have made good judgments in the future," and "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is 'to be prepared.' " We made fun of him. Mercilessly. But we accepted him.

Sarah Palin didn't fare as well. Compare Quayle's dippy quote to this circuitous mouthful she offered when she was asked to elaborate on her thoughts that the VP's job is a flexible one: "That thankfully our founders were wise enough to say we have this position and it's constitutional -- vice president will be able to be not only the position flexible, but it's gonna be those other duties as assigned by the president. A simple thing."

Yeah, me neither.

Bob Cesca of the Huffington Post made it his Most Ridiculous Political Quote of 2008, saying, "That she wasn't summarily laughed off of the national stage right then and there is a testament to the forgiveness of horny, middle-aged, white Republican men."

Landon Jones, author of William Clark and the Shaping of the West and former editor of People magazine, describes Sarah Palin as, "The mythological woman of the Golden West." It's a charmingly literary idea and goes quite a way to explain why she gained some bit of popularity.

"Everyone was sort of enchanted with her when she first emerged because she embodied these two contradictory views that America has always held about women in the West. One of them is that she's a saint -- the woman who gets off the stagecoach with the Bible in her hand and is going to bring God to this godless area. The other is Miss Kitty, the saloonkeeper in 'Gunsmoke.' "

She's no saint, but she's someone you can talk to, Jones says ... she's fallen, but OK.

"But then, the more she stuck around people began to see the flaws," he says. With the phrase "a heartbeat away from the presidency" looming constantly, and McCain looking older standing next to her, Palin's evident deficiencies began to seem to the American people, not funny but scary.

"I think that the threat of an intelligent woman may have once represented is gone," Jones says, citing how well Hillary Rodham Clinton did in the primaries. "You see that with Palin ... with the winking and slightly salacious smile ... the Palin act might have flown 10 years ago," but not anymore. And with such tough economic times, he says, "no one is in the mind for a comic."

Funny, though ... we put up with the unintentional comedy of Quayle, and later W. But when it came from a woman it didn't fly. It's easy to wonder if, on top of the bad economy and the exhaustion of a bad war, it may have finally scared us straight. Whoever is in charge, we can no longer drug ourselves with shopping.

Quayle's boss, George H.W. Bush, won the presidency after casting Michael Dukakis as an egghead elitist whose foreign policy ideas came from the "Harvard Yard boutique."

"No one, ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people," journalist H.L. Mencken once said, and while some were buying fake glasses and smart drinks, others were buying the idea that intellectualism was not to be trusted.

And then came Bill Clinton.

"The one thing (Clinton) didn't use was his brains,"says Martha Frankel,journalist, radio talk show host and author of Hats and Eyeglasses. "The man was a Rhodes scholar, and he should have pushed that, and he didn't. It's almost like they were embarrassed about that because people would say it was elitist."

Clinton was certainly a brainy guy -- but image-wise he was Bubba, a McDonald's fan and ass-grabber of dubious taste. And we dug him. Frankel says she might vote for Clinton again, but "he just downplayed his own ability too much and fell into the trap and looked like such a bozo after a while."

Running neck and neck with that '90s desire to look bright, was an admiration for the Regular Guy, which Clinton could pull off. But poor Hillary Clinton -- while we were drinking smart drinks, she was being castigated for reading a book at a ballgame and having to show that she wasn't too smart to bake cookies.

When she came out and campaigned for the presidency, unembarrassed to give the impression "I'm smart," Frankel says, "it was almost like, 'She is? Then what the fuck is she doing with him?' "

Both sides of our dual personality -- the Ren side and the Stimpy side -- were strong in the early '90s. It may have given us "Frasier," but 1994 gave us Forrest Gump, Dumb and Dumber, and the OJ Simpson trial. The latter changed TV, possibly forever. Once it was discovered that if tempted we would eat up empty-calorie TV 24/7, we got it, 24/7. The slide was in progress.

Cultural pendulums always swing back, though, and the cool sense and sensibilities of the Obamas should help push the momentum the other way.

"We have a great radio station, WAMC," says Frankel, "and for the first time in 10 years, people are calling and talking about their education in a way they're really proud of." She feels the Obamas are part of that, that their demeanor will effect us, that people are going to be proud to be smart and do the right thing.

Finally, she says, there will be "dialogue and talk, and that has been sorely lacking for the last eight years."

"But, hey, not so fast -- there's still a lot of stoopid out there!" Joe Bargmann says. "Consider: Beverly Hills Chihuahuagrossed more than $90 million, ads for erectile dysfunction medications and 400-horsepower pickup trucks are ubiquitous, theNew York Times best-seller's list includes books by Rachel Ray and Suzanne Somers, and Fox News still draws huge ratings. I'm afraid we're not completely out of the woods."

Fair enough: When you're as deep in the woods as we've been, it takes some time to get out. But here are some encouraging signs that, to borrow a phrase from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- help is on the way:

  • Rachael Maddow, also a Rhodes scholar and Oxford grad (with a doctorate in political science), the 35-year-old host of her own news show on MSNBC, is a bright, good-humored breath of fresh air and possibly so great on camera because ... get this ... she doesn't have a TV. She is in it but not of it, and we're the better for her pop-cultural sacrifice.
  • Michelle Obama, without whom that Obama effect of cool command would not have the strength it does. A Harvard Law School graduate, Michelle comes across with an easy grace we hope will become as iconic as it always should have been.
  • Tim Gunn, the real break-out star of Bravo's fashion show, "Project Runway," deserves our highest esteem for his refusal to dumb down. Few in the media, even in the news, command English with such gymnastic range of motion, employing words -- on a reality show -- like "sturm und drang," "caucus" and "polysyllabic." He's also a PETA advocate, and Liz Claiborne Inc., where he is the chief creative officer, is a fur-free company. So, when can we make him minister of culture?
  • Amy Poehler, the comic actress who's using her powers for good as the co-creator and host of "Smart Girls at the Party," an ON networks TV show, encouraging young girls to develop their talents and be themselves. Oh -- and to dance!

Hell, even Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is quoting Tennyson these days. Things are looking up.

But never fear -- Americans have historically enjoyed a ditz: Gomer Pyle, Gracie Allen, Vinnie Barbarino, Barney Fife, Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Stimpy, Pinky, Bullwinkle and Homer Simpson. Loveable goofs have always had a place with us. That place used to be fiction. I believe that time can come again. 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.