A nation of nitwits

March 06, 1995|By Bob Herbert

ACCORDING TO a new poll, 60 percent of Americans are unable to name the president who ordered the nuclear attack on Japan, and 35 percent do not know that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

One out of every four people surveyed for the America's Talking/Gallup Poll did not even know that Japan was the target TTC of the first atomic bomb. Four percent of the 1,020 adult respondents thought the first bomb had been dropped on some other country. Twenty-two percent knew virtually nothing about an atomic bomb attack. They didn't know where -- or, in some cases, even whether -- such an attack had occurred.

Two percent of those surveyed thought John Kennedy launched the first nuclear strike, and 1 percent thought it was Richard Nixon.

This is scary.

In an era in which the ability to acquire and properly process information has become profoundly important, America insists on being, to a large extent, a nation of nitwits. Consider, for example, some of our recent top-grossing movies: "The Brady Bunch Movie," a ditzy reprise of a ditzy 1970s situation comedy about a terminally ditzy family; "Dumb and Dumber," which is even dumber than the title indicates; and "Billy Madison," a full-length made-for-morons motion picture about -- what else? -- a moron.

I turned on "Beavis and Butt-head" the other night, and it was so much worse -- so much more stupid -- than anything I had imagined that I just sat staring in astonishment. I had a notebook in my hand, which was ridiculous. You can't make notes about "Beavis and Butt-head."

None of this would be important if we were talking only about fads, goofy things that make a momentary appearance, spark a chuckle and pass harmlessly from sight. But that is not what is going on. We are surrounded by a deep and abiding stupidity. Radio talk-show hosts, contemptuous of facts and disdainful toward truth, spew venom -- and mindless listeners all across the country cheer.

Each day tens of millions tune in faithfully to the television talk shows, which have come to resemble an imbecile's version of "Can You Top This?" Topics from the past week include: "Teen-age boys who claim to have slept with many girls"; "Virgins tell us about the men who they hope will take their virginity"; "People who embarrass their spouses in public"; "A 31-year-old woman who is engaged to a 14-year-old boy," and "Skinny men with big women."

Some African-American students, unable to extricate themselves from the quicksand of self-defeat, have adopted the incredibly stupid tactic of harassing fellow blacks who have the temerity to take their studies seriously. According to the poisonous logic of the harassers, any attempt at acquiring knowledge is a form of "acting white," and that, of course, is to be shunned at all costs.

If only there were alarms clanging from coast to coast to alert us to our folly. An ignorant populace is a populace in danger. Consider that many of the people who are screaming the loudest about the so-called Republican revolution were too ignorant about the issue of civic responsibility to drag themselves to the polls last November to vote. And then consider the large number of folks who did vote without having a clue as to what they were voting for, or against.

An election night poll showed that nearly half the voters believed that either welfare or foreign aid was the largest item in the federal budget. They couldn't have been more wrong! These are two of the smallest items in the budget.

I spoke to a woman last week who had just made the astonishing discovery that Gerald R. Ford was once president of the United )) States. "I'm so embarrassed," she said. "I didn't know until I saw the three of them [Mr. Ford, President Clinton and former President Bush] golfing on the news."

Americans who willingly swim in a sea of ignorance can blame themselves when the quality of their lives deteriorates. An example: As the crucial Senate vote on the balanced-budget amendment approached, were most Americans -- whatever their political persuasion -- aware of the vast implications of this latest attempt to change the Constitution?

No.

If ignorance is bliss, we must be a deliriously happy lot.

Bob Herbert is a New York Times columnist.

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