Are the American people regressing in intelligence? We travel to 19th century America, and 7th century China looking for answers.
Are We Getting Dumber?
I was thinking about launching this podcast with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But after the Declaration and Constitution, the third most important document within the American historical canon, that document is stacking the deck. So instead, I am beginning with a simple letter from Lincoln to one of his constituents, one of the hundreds written by the 16th president.
“Your very kind and acceptable letter of the 19th was duly handed me by Mr. Tuck. It is, indeed, most grateful to my feelings that the responsible position assigned me, comes without conditions, save only such honorable ones as are fairly implied. I am not wanting in the purpose, though I may fail in the strength, to maintain my freedom from bad influences. Your letter comes to my aid in this point, most opportunely -- May the Almighty grant that the cause of truth, justice, and humanity shall in no wise suffer at my hands.”
But using Lincoln is like using Michael Jordan as a typical example of basketball and lamenting why Jimmy and Gus, playing shirts and skins at the local Y, seem so much less effective than Jordan in the 1990s.
So let’s not use the uneducated Lincoln, instead let’s use an obscure member of Congress, a Democrat from the South whose subject is the lack of seriousness, in his opinion, that the Republicans are taking on the threat of secession, “There is the strangest skepticism in the minds of Republican members. They do not yield that there is any danger, and until we can convince them of this, we have not taken the first step to save the Union. In this curious state of things, the very conservatism of the Border States, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, does harm instead of good. The first prudential measure resolved upon -- the Committee of Thirty-three -- has failed at once, by the stupid appointments of the Speaker. Nevertheless, there is still some hope that even if the Gulf States go out, we can reconstruct the Government. To do this, the whole fifteen Southern States would at once withdraw, adopt the present Constitution, with some small amendments, and appeal to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York to come with us. This would probably bring back the whole.”
And what about a savage, rustic figure, that of Andrew Jackson, who, like Lincoln, lacked the formal education afforded many of the governmental class at that time.
“I have avoided writing on the subject of which your letter treats from an apprehension that sometimes my letters might incautiously be thrown into the papers, and that it might be inferred that I was seeking after my own advancement. It was on this account that I forebore oftentimes to reply to letters on the subject of the Presidential election, content for those results to take place which my country might be satisfied with. I assure you in the same candor which you have spoken, that with whatever decision the nation may pronounce I shall be satisfied. My name has been presented to the public, and that presentation, as you, I am sure will believe, was without any procurement of mine.”
Now let’s contrast that with some of the leaders of our Republic today:
Key Democrative Influencer Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
“There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children?”
Vice President Kamala Harris: We must together. Work together. To see where we are. Where we are headed, where we are going and our vision for where we should be. But also see it as a moment to, yes. Together, address the challenges and to work on the opportunities that are presented by this moment.”
“So, Ukraine is a country in Europe. It exists next to another country called Russia. Russia is a bigger country. Russia is a powerful country. Russia decided to invade a smaller country called Ukraine. So, basically, that’s wrong, and it goes against everything that we stand for.”
And lest we think this is a left-wing phenomenon:
With a false, grotesque, and inflammatory attack on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, just days before her Supreme Court confirmation hearings begin. Seizing upon a handful of cases and a comment she made in law school, he has smeared her as “soft on child pornographers.”
At the outset of his Twitter thread, Hawley lied: “Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker. She’s been advocating for it since law school. This goes beyond ‘soft on crime.’ I’m concerned that this (is) a record that endangers our children.” This stuff is intense and a little ridiculous. But the whataboutery school would say worse was done to Bork, Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, to which I would say, correct. But as a child, I was taught the concept that two wrongs do not make a right. I cite this because the Supreme Court is a sterling example of where the left has been pushed back, conservatives triumphant in retaking a vital institution. But it was not done by aping the base and underhanded tactics of the left. It was done through planning and discipline because 20 years ago when the George W Bush administration began piling up, lower court justices and McConnell had the temerity to pick his moments, and Trump, using the saner courses of his mind, better justices.
And speaking of Trump. Is it too much to ask that a person who described himself as a stable genius summon the intelligence necessary to keep his businesses solvent (he has filed for bankruptcy four times) and beat the mentally challenged Joe Biden and the aforementioned Harris, which he failed to do?
And, of course, Biden, current holder of the office of president. Even Obama famously quipped that we should underestimate the power of Joe to F things up. Before Biden was old, he was dumb and stupid. But it has gotten worse. I could fill an entire podcast with Bidenism, but I will leave this one, “You had to put on your windshield wipers to get, literally, the oil slick off the window,” Biden said, recalling how nearby refineries soiled his childhood neighborhood in Delaware. “That’s why I and so damn many other people I grew up have cancer,” he declared.
But one of the growing laws of the Conservative Historian is that in politics, timing counts for a lot.
He would not have been top of the ticket if there had been one decent candidate. And before Joe ascended in 2020, the Dems tried and omitted a host of dummies. Harris herself, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buddegieg, another who, like Clinton, makes me question the whole Rhodes scholar thing. It was actually radical Bernie Sanders who was leading and when James Clybourne threw the weight of black democratic South Carolina behind Biden, only then did he come back. And this is whom Trump could not beat.
Arguably the two most intelligent smart people in recent Government should have been Rhodes Scholar William Clinton and the too cool for school Barack Obama, of whom close advisor Valerie Jarret said, “I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. . . . He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. . . . He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.” And what did this mental Colossus do with these godlike gifts? Make healthcare worse, make the deficit worse, make immigration worse, and put a spike into any chance of a post-race society. Effective, popular presidents have usually been able to put their successors in their seats. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Obama could not do it against Donald Trump. If this is the smartest we have, the bar is shockingly low.
So the conclusion is that our leaders are dumber than their 19th-century counterparts? I would realign that into two different categories. First, we are not dumber given the amount of information we have to process that would have sent tough guy Jackson into a fetal position. Instead, our education is wrong-headed. And second, it is a matter of perspective.
Before he went solo, Sean Hannity hosted a sort of firing line type program called Hannity and Colmes, in which he would debate Alan Colmes. He was fast and agile and quick. Watching him today is laborious. He talks slowly. His points are incredibly redundant, as our his shows. There are about three topics, and he returns to them night after night. Maybe it is simple aging, but I think the reality is that Hannity is reading his room; he talks slowly so his audience can keep up. Like so much of the media discourse today, is it that the opinion commentators are not thought leaders but instead trying to anticipate what the audience wants rather than things that might be interesting to hear? I would argue that 19th-century leaders were keen to bring their audiences along, more like teachers than advertising executives. Was the country ready for complete emancipation for the 13th amendment in 1863? The point of the Gettysburg Address was to begin that process.
When looking at one of the most influential conservative populists of the past 30 years, Rush Limbaugh, one realizes how much the 1990s Rush, free markets, open competition, personal liberty, and a prizing of individual virtue he was leading.
The last years of Rush were drastically different. You could almost see him trying to gauge his audience. They like Trump, so I will as well, even though Trump’s opposition to trade deals and favoritism to certain companies was against my teachings in 1994.
What has definitely gotten dumber is the response to crises our current political leaders exhibited. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act clearly has nothing to do with inflation and is so obviously a handout to green constituencies that many democrats do not even mention inflation in its defense.
Like Trump’s stop the steal campaign in which his own attorney general, members of his staff, 61 judges, many appointed by Trump, and his own, loyal to a fault up to that point, Vice President rejected the claim. All politics should reflect the people’s will, which should be balanced with a common set of principles. Polls are acceptable, and they tell politicians how to message but they should not tell them what to believe. In that regard, we may actually be more clever than our 19th-century counterparts, but not wiser. One of the many exciting aspects of Lincoln was that the uneducated rail splitter wanted to seem educated. More prairie lawyer than country bumpkin. To be seen as smarter was a virtue. Today it is a burden. Trump went to an Ivy League school and tried to sound like he was raised in a rural enclave. Obama famously drops his “Gs,” especially when addressing African American audiences.
Getting becomes gettin and fighting becomes fighten as if the Columbia law student spent his days on the streets. Ted Cruz, an intelligent figure, also dumbs it down for his audiences. These so-called leaders are more interested in having the audience point the way rather than trying to find the best path. At least in the case of Biden and Harris, we know it is not an act, but of course, they are the president and a heartbeat away from being one. Dumb does not castigate; it gets the laurels.
One of the most brilliant places in the history of the world was 7th and 8th century Tang China. These folks had paper, block printing, canals, and civil service examinations for government posts. The Tang capital was the largest city in the world at its time, the population of the city wards and its suburban countryside reaching two million inhabitants. The Tang capital was very cosmopolitan, with ethnicities of Persia, Central Asia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, India, and many other places living within.
Chinese envoys had been sailing through the Indian Ocean to states of India since perhaps the 2nd century BCE. However, it was during the Tang dynasty that a strong Chinese maritime presence could be found in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, into Persia, Mesopotamia (sailing up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt in the Middle East, and Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.
The Tang period was a golden age of Chinese literature and art. Over 48,900 poems penned by some 2,200 Tang authors have survived to the present day. As a result, skill in the composition of poetry became a required study for those wishing to pass imperial examinations.
Chinese goods such as silks, lacquerware, and porcelain wares were coveted in other parts of the world.
Technology during the Tang period was also built upon past precedents. Previous advancements in clockworks and timekeeping included the mechanical gear systems inventing the world’s first clockwork escapement mechanism in 725. This was used alongside a clepsydra clock and waterwheel to power a rotating armillary sphere in the representation of astronomical observation. This device also had a mechanically timed bell that was struck automatically every hour and a drum that was struck automatically every quarter-hour; essentially, a striking clock.
There were many other mechanical inventions during the Tang era. These included a 3 ft (tall mechanical wine server of the early 8th century that was in the shape of an artificial mountain, carved out of iron, and rested on a lacquered-wooden tortoise frame. And in terms of architecture, one example is the Xumi Pagoda; this square-base stone and brick pagoda was built in the year 636 CE during Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. It stands at the height of 48 m and has been well preserved since its initial construction. The monastery that once surrounded the pagoda, however, has largely been destroyed, with the exception of a few structures. The pagoda has nine tiers of eaves and a crowning spire,
Contrast that with Europe of the time. In comparison, the Chinese capital, The Tang capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), was then the world’s most populous city. The most populous city in Western Europe then was Paris, with less than 50,000 inhabitants. Western Europeans did not have the agricultural or water issues to sustain any significant population. Their constructions were initially one-story models and, in Britain, mostly made of wood.
Did Europe get dumber after the fall of the Romans? Not really. A stable governmental system, for all of its ills provided by the Romans, enabled the kind of learning and accomplishments. The Romans had seven-story buildings, robust maritime trade, roads, and aqueducts, the latter instrumental in bringing water to a city of hundreds of thousands. So one ingredient to a smarter set of accomplishments is not just a stable Government but one that focuses on the right things.
Until about 70 years ago, the massive changes wrought by the industrial revolution were physical. But the information was still similar. Sumerians would read information, and so did Americans living in 1900. Since the advent of what Chris Stirewalt wrote in his new book Broken News, which designates passive information, radio, TV, then the Internet, especially video, this has changed. It is the subtle difference between being entertained and informed. The difference between the generation of ideas, as is the case when we read or listen, and the ideas provided for us as we view imagery or our limited to 270 characters. We are not dumber; we approach things in less engaged ways with all sorts of issues therein.
More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level. Video, however, requires only eyes on screens. But such passive media cannot communicate a civilization defined by ideas. Our nation, Stirewalt says, “requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them.”
In the 1830s, new printing methods radically reduced the cost of producing a culture of literate news readers. In the 1930s, however, radio — which was more transformative than what it paved the way for television — became, Stirewalt, says, a passively absorbed alternative to the comparative arduousness of literacy.
Humans have always craved easier answers. So is the Sun, or is it a god riding his chariot through the sky? And some complex issues, like slavery, are not that complex. Individual liberty means there can be none. But the issues we face today, immigration, massive debt and deficits, aging population, taxation, trade, crime, the continuance of African American under development, and the nature of voting in our Republic, all are highly complex issues, and there is no easy fix. No silver bullet. Take a hard line on immigration and watch our labor issues spiral.
Cut taxes without cutting spending, and watch our debt balloon. Forgive student debt and watch those, including the next group of students, borrow more and more in the expectation that more debt will be forgiven.
In addition, the way we receive information has changed, and the sheer amount of it we try to process is nearly incalculable. According to the Frontiers article “Too Much Information, Too Little Time: How the Brain Separates Important from Unimportant Things in Our Fast-Paced Media World,” authors Sabine Heim and Andreas Kiel state, “Scientists have measured the amount of data that enters the brain and found that an average person living today processes as much as 74 GB in information a day (that is as much as watching 16 movies), through TV, computers, cell phones, tablets, billboards, and many other gadgets. Every year it is about 5% more than the previous year. Only 500 years ago, 74 GB of information would be what a highly educated person consumed through books and stories in a lifetime.” So even allowing for some brilliant Tang architect, we receive far more information than the smartest functionary at that imperial court.
And yet the type of information we receive and how we process it is at a dumb level. Technology — radio, television, the internet — turned journalism from reporting what had happened to reporting what was happening, and now to giving passive news consumers the emotional experience of having their political beliefs ratified. “By 1983,” Stirewalt reports, “the percentage of Americans who got their news from television alone pulled ahead of all newspaper use” by offering “a passive, more emotionally engaged product”: “Television news can be far more emotionally compelling than the written version, and does not come with the need for nearly as much cultural literacy or the challenge of … internalizing ideas.”
And that has been lost with converting the written work to passive media. This helps explain the difference between those 19th-century letters and dumb Twitter. Unfortunately, like our media, our leaders have taken the passive road to intelligence, and sadly, it is paying off.