Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Democracy, we know, has its problems. Jonah Goldberg wrote about the ignorance of the crowd (in yesterday's LA Times, excerpted below).

Yes, there is Wisdom of the Crowds, existing side-by-side with ignorance of the crowd. Bright people can be ignorant people and some of each can be wise people.

But Robert Metcalfe made my day with his "It's All In Your Head: The latest super-computer is way faster than the human brain. But guess which is smarter?" in the May 7 Forbes. For starters, humans conceive, build and operate super-computers. Along the way, they become smarter while at the same time vastly extending the reach and scope of their capabilities and endeavors.

We live in a world where incredible accomplishment exists side-by-side with bottomless ignorance and great potential foregone. Is the glass half-full? I am happy to (still) believe that it is.
HUGE NUMBERS of Americans don't know jack about their
government or politics. According to a Pew Research Center survey released
last week, 31% of Americans don't know who the vice president is, fewer than
half are aware that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, a mere 29% can
identify "Scooter" Libby as the convicted former chief of staff of the vice
president, and only 15% can name Harry Reid when asked who is the Senate
majority leader.

Also last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that
two-thirds of Americans believe that Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales' firing of
eight U.S. attorneys was "politically motivated."

So, we are supposed to believe that two-thirds of Americans
have studied the details of the U.S. attorney firings and come to an informed
conclusion that they were politically motivated — even when Senate Democrats
agree that there is no actual evidence that Gonzales did anything improper. Are
these the same people who couldn't pick Pelosi out of a lineup? Or the 85% who
couldn't name the Senate majority leader? Are we to imagine that the 31% of the
electorate who still — after seven years of headlines and demonization — can't
identify the vice president of the United States nonetheless have a studied
opinion on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Atty. David Iglesias?

Oh, before we proceed, let me make clear: This isn't a column
defending Gonzales. This administration should have long ago sent him out of the
bunker for a coffee-and-doughnut run and then changed the locks. No, this is a
column about how confused and at times idiotic the United States is about polls,
public opinion and, well, democracy itself. We all love to tout the glories of
democracy and denounce politicians who just follow the polls. Well, guess which
politicians follow the polls? The popular ones, that's who. And guess why:
Because the popular ones get elected. Bucking public opinion is the quickest way
for a politician to expedite his or her transition to the private sector.

More to the point, Americans — God bless 'em — are often quite
ignorant about the stuff politicians and pundits think matters most. They may
know piles about their own professions, hobbies and personal interests, but when
it comes to basic civics, they just get their clocks cleaned on Fox's "Are You
Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" Though examples are depressingly unnecessary, here
are two of my favorites over the years. In 1987, 45% of adult respondents to one
survey answered that the phrase "from each according to his ability, to each
according to his needs" was in the Constitution (in fact, it's a quote from Karl
Marx). Then, in 1991, an American Bar Assn. study reported that a third of
Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was.