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Elements of destruction

By Lady Liberty
web posted March 12, 2007

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." Button seen at a science fiction convention

Last week, I endured a particularly frustrating telephone call. Because it was business-related, I held my tongue and my temper. I politely repeated myself numerous times. I answered the same questions over and over again. Despite this, the end result involved a decision in which I was directed to take a totally unrelated action that had nothing to do with the subject matter at hand and which never would.

After I hung up the phone, I sighed to a co-worker, "Are people everywhere getting stupider, or is it just me?" Without missing a beat, he responded, "It's not you. People are stupider."

Jeff Foxworthy on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?Coincidentally, a new television game show has premiered on the Fox television network. It's called Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Contestants are given questions right out of a grade school text book, and the more questions they can answer correctly, the more money they win. Five fifth graders are also on the show, and they answer every question alongside the contestant. If the contestant gets stuck, he's permitted to "cheat." He can copy or peek at a student's answer.

I hadn't really planned on watching the show, but I happened to leave the TV on and the channel as is after I'd watched something else. The next thing I knew, I was listening to host Jeff Foxworthy (of the infamous "you might be a redneck if" routines) asking the questions. It didn't surprise me that there were a couple of questions that were tougher than you might think (particularly if math wasn't your strong suit in school to begin with). It did, however, shock me to the core to see just how much not smarter even than a first grader those contestants were!

One contestant in particular was a truly appalling example of sheer ignorance and — dare I say it? — outright stupidity. One of the questions he was to answer was to determine how many times the letter "e" appeared in the phrase "Pledge of Allegiance" (that's a first grade level question, by the way). Counting on his fingers, the guy promptly said, "Let's see...there's two in the word 'pledge.' There's one more in the word 'the.' And then..." At that point, Mr. Foxworthy interrupted to say, "How many times does the letter 'e' appear in the phrase 'Pledge OF Allegiance?'" The contestant started over. "Two in the word 'pledge,' one in the word 'the'..."

There is, of course, a case to be made here that the contestant was merely inattentive. Okay. But a couple of rounds later, he was asked an elementary level question in the category of weights and measures. Although he was wrong about how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, that's immaterial to what happened next. He said, "Okay, two teaspoons in a tablespoon. So, five tablespoons would be...let's see. Five times two is...uh..."

The fifth graders on the stage were laughing hysterically. So was the audience. In crisp white letters underneath the contestant's screwed up "I'm-thinking-really-hard-now" facial expression, we were informed that he'd had a better than 3.0 grade point average in college. Meanwhile, he was still thinking, the audience was still laughing, and the look on Mr. Foxworthy's face was priceless.

Believe it or not, this guy actually answered a couple of questions correctly. Eventually. An earlier contestant needed help from the kids with every question (no, they weren't particularly difficult questions), and then promptly took the money and ran when he ran out of allowable "cheats." Throughout each contestant's appearance, the audience dutifully laughs. So do the kids, but I think they've got more the right of it than the audience does. The audience is amused. The kids, on the other hand, are incredulous. Me? I think it's tragic both that adults are so hopelessly ignorant of even the simplest things, and even more so that other adults would find such appalling ignorance be funny.

The man on the phone and the man on the TV likely had one other thing in common. I'm willing to bet that both of them vote at least some of the time. That's even less funny than listening to them struggle to grasp the most basic of concepts.

After all, it's just a little bit disconcerting to think that a man who can't process the simplest of math problems in his head is also in the voting booth helping to determine whether — and by how much — our property taxes will rise for this, that, or the other reason (I'm actually good at math and have enough trouble with mill levies sometimes myself, although that might be because I'm against them all in principle as opposed to how easy the figures are to calculate).

It's also not too pleasant to contemplate a guy who can't (or won't) understand simple answers to simple questions voting for candidates I'm betting he knows nothing about (other than, of course, the party affiliation so conveniently printed on the ballot for him and people like him). There are many folks, myself included, who urge people to vote for the person, not the party. That kind of thing is quite a bit tougher when the voter in question doesn't know, and doesn't care to know, anything before he pulls the lever, punches the card, or touches the screen!

There are those who suggest that voting should be made easier — people should be able to register when they get driver's licenses, for example; they ought to be able to vote absentee more easily; or they should be able to cast their ballot in person before election day (all of these proposals either currently exist in some states, or are proposed in others). A differing school of thought (typically not well received by Democrats) says that eligible voters ought to have to prove that they're eligible with a driver's license or state ID card.

Personally, I think it should be easy for those who want to vote to do so, but I also think that only eligible voters should be able to cast their ballots (in this day and age, there are still dead people voting as well as those who liked it so much the first time, they go ahead and vote again). But in addition to making balloting more convenient and more secure, I'd also mandate that voters be tested. I don't think they have to be geniuses by any stretch, but I do think they should at least be able to read well enough to understand the issues printed on the ballot. I also think they should have some modicum of common sense.

My notion of what requirements people ought to have to meet to vote is, of course, entirely valid. Just ask me, and I'll be happy to tell you! But here's the thing: Imposing my requirements on other people would be just about as wrong as I'm personally pretty sure some of their votes are going to be. I can do what I like to try to educate people, and I can work however I wish to sway their votes my way. But what I think of their opinions, or more to the point, what I think of their ability to reach their opinions, is immaterial.

Unfortunately, the government isn't quite as nice (albeit sometimes reluctantly) as I am. It uses its perception that we're all stupid (or helpless or otherwise incompetent) against us all the time. Calling this aspect of government the "nanny state" actually gives us more credit than the government itself does. Suggesting the government is nannying us implies we're childlike, innocent, or naive. The reality is that the government thinks I'm the guy on the phone, or the man on TV. The government thinks I'm stupid. In fact, it thinks we're all stupid.

Because the government thinks I'm too dumb to know my chances in a car crash are better with a seatbelt than without one, it's gone ahead and made a law that says I have no choice but to wear one. Since the government thinks I'm too stupid or irresponsible to be a parent, it's made all sorts of laws that make healthcare decisions for my children for me. The government, in fact, thinks I'm so stupid that it's starting to hold other people liable for my stupidity. (Think I'm exaggerating? What else would you call it when bartenders are held liable for serving somebody who drinks too much and then gets behind the wheel of their car?)

In fairness to the government (you know, it actually kind of hurt to say that), it's not the only entity that feels that way. Anti-gun groups don't trust anybody with a gun. Conservative groups don't trust anybody with an uncensored television or Internet connection. And thanks to everybody who knows what's good for you better than you do, some of our most basic freedoms are being taken from us like treats from misbehaving children. Of course, once those things are taken from us, they're gone, effectively destroyed and difficult if not all but impossible to restore.

Do you want to know an ugly truth? There are some people I don't trust with children, guns, or the Internet, either. But that fact doesn't in any way legitimize the idea of preemptively preventing them from having children, guns, or computers. I've got no problem whatsoever with punishing people who do bad things with firearms or kids, and I don't know too many people who do. If I started punishing people before they did anything wrong, though, I'll bet you'd be just about as upset with me as if you had to take an IQ test next time you headed to your neighborhood polling place!

So here's the real question: Why are you letting the government do to you what you wouldn't in a million years put up with from me or anybody else? Why are you docilely going along with the authorities every time they mandate you do or don't do something when you'd be offended if I told you I was making precisely the same rules for you to follow? Here's an even better question: Why aren't you doing everything you can to make them stop treating us all like we're stupid? You're not. Are you? ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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