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Who’s Stupid?

Lately there has been a rash of news stories and columns decrying the stupidity of Americans, mostly based on a finding by the Pew Research Center that 18 percent of Americans think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Predictably, the New York Times joined the pile-on with this column by Timothy Egan: “Building a Nation of Know-Nothings.” Egan focuses, however, not on Americans in general, but on Republicans:

That ill-informed woman — her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a pre-schooler — now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican party. It’s not just that 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.

So Egan thinks Republicans are dumb. But let’s take a closer look. His 46 percent is an unpublished number from a Time magazine survey that is described in a Politico article to which he links. The Pew survey found that 31 percent of Republicans purport to believe Obama is a Muslim. The difference is likely explained by the ways in which the question was framed.
But what about non-Republicans? In the Pew survey, 10 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of independents say Obama is a Muslim. Not only that, a majority of Democrats–51 percent–say either that Obama is a Muslim, or that they don’t know what his religion is. Obviously, something is going on here, and it isn’t merely that Republicans are stupid.
Egan writes that “fully half of them”–Republicans, evidently–”believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.” Here, Egan betrays an ignorance of elementary civics that leaves in the dust any confusion that poll respondents may show regarding TARP. Neither President Bush nor President Obama had the power to “enact” legislation. In fact, TARP I was enacted by the Democratic Congress (including Senator Obama, who voted for it) during the last days of the Bush administration. But if a lot of people–Egan doesn’t give us the percentage for Democrats or independents–are confused about this, it is probably because the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration devoted the early days of that administration to amending TARP I and implementing TARP II.
Egan now gets to his real point: who is to blame for the appalling stupidity of Republicans?

In the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in ignorance, those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. But no reputable news agency — that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly — has spread such inaccuracies.
So where is this “media?” Two sources, and they are — no surprise here — the usual suspects. The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans.

But wait! The Pew folks, if you merely follow Egan’s own link, explained, at least in part, what “media” their respondents were talking about:

When asked how they learned about Obama’s religion in an open-ended question, 60% of those who say Obama is a Muslim cite the media. Among specific media sources, television (at 16%) is mentioned most frequently. About one-in-ten (11%) of those who say Obama is a Muslim say they learned of this through Obama’s own words and behavior.

Guess what: Rush Limbaugh isn’t on television. Neither the summary to which Egan links nor the full version of the report contains any further information about the “media” from which respondents got their information, beyond the 16 percent who said “television.” So Egan just made up the part about Rush Limbaugh.
Now Egan switches horses and indulges his hatred for Fox News:

Finally, there is Fox News, whose parent company has given $1 million to Republican causes this year but still masquerades as a legitimate source of news. Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck.
Beck tosses off enough half-truths in a month to keep Politifact working overtime. Of late, he has gone after Michelle Obama, whose vacation in Spain was “just for her and approximately 40 of her friends.” Limbaugh had a similar line, saying the First Lady “is taking 40 of her best friends and leasing 60 rooms at a five-star hotel — paid for by you.”

But wait! Weren’t we talking about Republicans’ moronic belief that Obama is a Muslim? Egan can hardly blame that perception on Beck, who says:

Let me quote the president if I may — “let me be clear” — President Obama is not a Muslim.

So Egan can’t construct a column that makes logical sense, and his editor–I assume he has an editor–doesn’t notice. Egan skips around a lot, so it’s hard to stay with a single topic in a coherent way. Let’s stay with the Muslim thing for now, then go to the Spanish vacation. Egan attacks the Rev. Franklin Graham:

That’s not enough, apparently, for Rev. Franklin Graham, the partisan son of the great evangelical leader, who said last week that Obama was “born a Muslim because of the religious seed passed on from his father.”
Actually, he was born from two non-practicing parents, and his Kenyan father was absent for all of his upbringing.

It’s not clear what Egan’s point is. Graham wasn’t expressing an opinion on Obama’s current spiritual life; on the contrary, he specifically says, “Obama has renounced Islam, and he has accepted Jesus.” Graham’s point is that under Islamic theology, the son of a Muslim is a Muslim, and to abandon the faith is the worst possible sin, apostasy. That is, as far as I know, an accurate description of Islamic theology. So Egan’s point is: what?
Now let’s go back to the Spanish vacation, according to Egan another subject of Republican ignorance. He writes:

Of late, [Glenn Beck] has gone after Michelle Obama, whose vacation in Spain was “just for her and approximately 40 of her friends.” Limbaugh had a similar line, saying the First Lady “is taking 40 of her best friends and leasing 60 rooms at a five-star hotel — paid for by you.”
The White House said Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha were accompanied by just a few friends — and they paid their own costs.

But Beck and Limbaugh didn’t make up the part about the 40 friends; that was widely reported at the time. The White House’s assertion that the Obamas were accompanied by “minimal staff and a small group of family friends” was put out in response to those reports, but the White House never said how many friends or how many staff members accompanied Michelle Obama. What we do know for sure is that the entourage occupied 60 rooms in one of the world’s most luxurious resorts. If it is true that only a handful of those rooms were occupied by friends or staff, the rest were taken by security–paid for by you.
Sometimes when liberals get going, they can’t stop until they have ridden the last pony. So Egan adds this:

Climate-change denial is a special category all its own. Once on the fringe, dismissal of scientific consensus is now an article of faith among leading Republicans, again taking their cue from Limbaugh and Fox.

This is a subject for another day. For now, suffice it to say that there is no “scientific consensus” on global warming, and when global warming advocates are challenged to debate, they almost always refuse; when they do not refuse, they are crushed. Egan wraps up:

It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?
But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.

But the “false belief in weapons of mass destruction” was not some sort of popular (let alone Republican) delusion. It was the considered judgment of the CIA and every other intelligence agency, world-wide. As for home values, let’s not go there: it was Democrats led by Barney Frank and Chris Dodd who pushed policies that turned out to be ruinous, based on the assumption that it could never be a bad thing to make a home loan, no matter how marginally qualified the borrower. And with regard to those Holocaust deniers who run Iran, does Egan actually propose to do something about them? Don’t be silly. It is only those dumb Republicans who take seriously the idea that a nuclear Iran could be a threat to our security.
To conclude: are there a lot of dumb Americans? Sure. What else is new? Are there some dumb Republicans? No doubt, but by any objective measure–educational attainment, income, success in life–Republicans are, on the average, smarter than Democrats.
If you want some really stupid poll data, let’s take a walk down memory lane and recall that 35 percent of Democrats told pollsters that President Bush was in on the September 11 attacks. Now, that’s what I call dumb! And they did it without any help from Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. If there is a glimmer of hope here, it is in the assumption–reasonable, I think–that respondents don’t mean everything that they say to pollsters. Being called by a pollster is an opportunity to sound off. Do one-third of all Democrats really believe that President Bush knew about or orchestrated the September 11 attacks? They can’t possibly be that dumb, but it was an opportunity to get something off their chests. Likewise, do 31 percent of Republicans really believe that Obama is a Muslim? Probably not, but stating this view to pollsters is a way of expressing frustration with Obama’s apology tour, with his feckless “outreach” to Muslim countries that work against our interests, and his general lack of loyalty to the United States of America and its people.
Finally, this: the American people haven’t gotten any stupider lately, but there has been a precipitous decline in the competence of those who write for the New York Times. I think it is now safe to say that the average New York Times columnist is not as smart as the average American.

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