It’s the Stupidity, Stupid!

What happens to you matters less than how you respond to what happens to you. This aphorism applies to nations too. Thirty years ago today, the United States of America was between a shattering stimulus (which happened two days earlier) and a ruinous response (which began two days later).

Our nation has become more stupid as a result. That assertion may offend you, but I hope you’ll read to the end of this essay, in spite of that. How we respond to our own anger is part of the problem.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamist terrorists stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran and took 66 Americans hostage. Americans stared at their televisions and newspapers, transfixed. I remember resolving to read everything I could about the captives. My awareness of their plight would express my solidarity. Many made similar resolutions.

On Nov. 8, 1979, ABC responded to that sudden appetite for news related to the crisis. “America Held Hostage,” hosted by Ted Koppel, competed with Johnny Carson’s late-night talk show. After the hostages were released, the program was renamed “Nightline.” A flood of news offerings followed. NPR’s “Morning Edition” also launched that week. Ted Turner gave America its first 24-hour TV news outlet when CNN went on the air June 1, 1980. USA Today followed a short time later. Taken collectively, they have damaged our national psyche.

Meanwhile, personal computers, Internet, and cell phone technologies were quietly underway. Author Malcomb Gladwell hadn’t yet taught us what to call it, but that moment 30 years ago was a “tipping point.” We can’t yet be certain where we’re going, but it’s beginning to look suspiciously like we’re going there in a handbasket.

America was founded on the radical idea that its people should know what they want to know. Our best innovations and basic governmental structure are organized around preventing ignorance: public schools, land grant universities, the First and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Freedom of Information Act, public meeting laws, financial disclosure requirements for elected officials. It’s a long and impressive list.

At every juncture, we give citizens more information as the best way to give them control over their government and freedom in their lives. No one contemplated what might happen if people were given too much information.

Do you know why lion tamers use a whip and a wicker chair? They snap the whip behind the lion to make them move away from the loud noise and toward the tamer. A well-fed lion must be riled, because nobody pays to watch a sleeping lion. The shiny tamer now has the agitated lion’s undivided attention.

Between the lion and the tamer is the chair, but the chair has four legs. After being upset by the crack of the whip, the lion’s hard-wired response is to lunge — expedience! — the exclamation point of the jungle. Grab the closest leg of the chair! But the tamer maneuvers the chair so the closest leg keeps changing. The lion’s brain tries to keep up with the changing chair-leg information, but can’t. The overloaded lion brain short-circuits itself, shuts down, and the lion no longer cares. “Whatever.”

The whip gets the lion fearful or angry, so it moves. The shifting chair legs make the lion confused and frustrated, so it stops. Stop-go-stop-go. The lion is tamed.

So it is with each of us. Information moves us, like a crack of a whip. But too much information debilitates us. We can’t keep up with all the choices available, whether it’s toothpaste or health care legislation. Which option is best? Which leg of the chair is closest? It keeps shifting. We become stupefied. We become stupid. “Whatever.”

Stupidity is more difficult to treat than ignorance. Adding information to an already stupefied citizen is giving salty water to a thirsty man.

So here we are, incapable of processing all the information available to us. We’re stuck, unwilling to admit that we need help, overwhelmed, feeling stupid. We try to keep up, filtering the information we receive, favoring those voices we agree with and refusing to process whatever confuses us or makes us mad.

Thirty years ago, something terrible happened. We’re still responding.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has worked in radio, television, film, magazines and newspapers (in that order) since 1978. He blogs too.