I have been giving a lot of thought these past few days to what I fear will NOT be remembered as the Summer of Madness. Why will these last few months of insane public discourse not be remembered as such? Because it’s going to get worse.

Many reasons have been posited for the crazy rantings of birthers, deathers, tenthers and teabaggers (yes I know that isn’t what they call themselves but who could resist). Many have tried to decode the reasons behind believing in death panels and screams of keep government out of Medicare. Some believe it stems from economic fear and desperation, some from religious fervor, and some from racism. I think it is much simpler than that.

We have become a nation of morons.

Or should that be “morans” as one protester’s sign put it? Seriously, one could watch Idiocracy and think it’s a documentary. Some probably do.

Did you notice that I did not specify Republicans Vs Democrats, or Right Vs Left? We on the left should not make the mistake that just because we have facts to support us that our supporters understand the facts. Rachel Maddow happens to be a brilliant journalist who should probably win a Pulitzer for her coverage of the money behind the “Tea Party” movement. However, if she had made it up out of whole cloth there are plenty who would believe it just as fervently.

Then there is the left’s disappointment in Obama being a centrist. When was he not? I voted for the man because I thought he was the right man at the right time, but I never fooled myself into believing we were going to suddenly swing so far to the left we would get whiplash. Single-Payer supporters – I hate to break it to you but it was NEVER on the table. To be upset at Obama for rejecting it is to imply that he considered it. He did not. One of the major differences between he and Hillary in the primaries was that she supported a universal guarantee and he DIDN’T.

Yet somehow the right-wing man-on-the-street thinks he is a socialist, except for when they think he is a fascist or a communist. They are not any dumber than the left, they are just being spoon-fed bullshit instead of facts. Think about it – the more Sarah Palin proves herself to be an utter moron the more people on the right identify with her. What does that tell you?

So, how did we become a nation of morons?

I entered High School with Jimmy Carter as President and exited with Ronald Reagan. By my senior year the writing was already on the wall. The national debate on illiteracy came to center on kids being ‘passed through’ to the next grade despite not achieving grade level competency. We looked at the relationship between illiteracy and poverty, but instead of acknowledging that the latter was 100% responsible for the former we did what we usually do in this society – we cut the baby in half. Redistribution of wealth was considered evil but education was considered important, so we increased general funding to education by increasing the percentage of property taxes that went to it. This guaranteed that the poorest schools would remain the poorest schools. Then, to make sure that our funds were working we started to rely heavily on standardized testing. A new term became popular, or perhaps I should say unpopular, among educators – “teaching to the test.”

With this development, knowing started to become more important than thinking. This concept was expanded by George Sr. and finally fully ensconced by George Jr. with “No Child Left Behind”. Now, for a school to even receive certain federal funding it has to show certain results. The farther from the desired results, the less money they get. Schools find themselves intentionally dumbing down material or grading on curves to keep those precious dollars.  Teachers work their butts off to make sure that the kids can regurgitate onto a test at the end of the year. As a result we have all but stopped teaching critical thinking.

What am I speaking of when I say critical thinking? I am speaking of the ability to take a set of disparate facts, analyze them, and come to your own conclusion. I am speaking of the ability to consider the speaker, the circumstances under which they are speaking, and what the speaker hopes to accomplish when deciding the validity of the speaker’s ideas. I am talking about thinking what to know instead of knowing what to think. As a result, our beliefs lead us to choose who to listen to, instead of listening to many and then choosing what to believe.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the debates we see on television between talking heads and online between each other. It used to be that people would argue about what they read in news stories and what they thought it meant, and they would cite news stories and investigative reporting in their arguments – including specific studies or scientific proofs. Today almost every citation you hear or see comes from a “think tank” with a specific political agenda or a link to an online “article” by a group with a specific statement of purpose, left or right. In other words, our arguments consist of stating something as a fact and when questioned by the other side responding with a link to someone else stating something as fact without any actual sourcing as to where the fact ( a number, a percentage, a trend) comes from. We argue “Look, it’s true. I know it’s true because this guy says it’s true.” We don’t even consider the speaker, and if each of their arguments support each other or if they contradict themselves based on the situation (i.e. situational ethics)

As I stated earlier, some believe the madness we now see stems from economic fear and desperation, some from religious fervor, and some from racism. All of these are factors, to be sure. But they would be much smaller factors if not for the death of critical thinking.

In my next post I will address how I believe the media contributes to this, and posit some ideas on how we get past it.