Thursday, February 03, 2011

Say That Again

I've added Charles Pierce's Idiot America to the bedtime reading rotation, because nothing is more conducive to restful slumber than having one's sputtering indignation aroused. As the inflammatory title suggests, it's about idiots--snake-oil-selling charlatans, conspiracy theorist nutjobs, young earth creationists, talk radio gasbags, Sarah Palin--and how they have infiltrated mainstream culture.

Pierce (you may remember him from such NPR panel shows as Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me) builds his thesis on what he calls the "Three Great Premises" of Idiot America, which are helpfully outlined on the back cover and referenced repeatedly throughout the book:
Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
Succinctly aphoristic, no doubt about that. But perhaps a trifle repetitive. The second premise, for instance talks about fact in the first sentence and truth in the second--but aren't all facts truthful, by virtue of their very factness? Still, it has a nice balance and cadence. The final premise, however, is really just a restatement of the previous sentence with slightly different flavoring.

It seems Pierce himself gets tangled up in the interchangeability of these ideas on Page 161, where he develops his "America as library" metaphor:
Idiot America is a strange, disordered place. Everything is on the wrong shelves. The truth of something is defined by how many people will attest to it, and facts are determined by those people's fervency.
If we go by the wording of the second great premise, the truth and the facts are transposed here. No matter, really, because it reads just as well this way. Which means that the two thoughts contained in the premise are pretty much describing a distinction without a difference. Again, no big crime and the premise as written has a pleasing musicality. I just expected the lyrics of the refrain to be consistent throughout the song.