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opinion

Michael Enright is a writer and broadcaster who was a host for CBC Radio.

In February, 2013, in one of his first public utterances as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry told a group of Europeans that in America, people have the right to be stupid.

As his listeners choked on their canapés, he went on to explain. Sort of:

“Now I think that’s a virtue, I think that’s something worth fighting for. The important thing is to have tolerance, to say, you know, you can have a different point of view.”

There must have been some in his audience who nodded sagely. Europeans have long thought that their American cousins were not the brightest bulbs on the planet.

And every four years, as presidential election campaigns got under way, they wondered if Americans would make wrong, indeed stupid, choices.

As always, a silent, bedevilling question hanging over this year’s politicking like a damp rag is this: Is the country’s dysfunctional state of affairs the result of widespread ignorance?

Are the Democratic nominee Joe Biden and the presumed Republican flag carrier Donald Trump smart enough to be effective presidents?

Or does being smart not matter any more?

With the erosion of political civility and the rise of distrust of facts, Americans vote with their emotions, not their intelligence.

A recent analysis of IQ test scores indicates that the Intelligence Quotient test scores of Americans has dropped over a 13-year period.

For researchers, this is a troubling reversal of the so-called Flynn Effect, which suggests that IQ scores rose consistently during the 20th century and would continue to do so. However, this does not mean that Americans are stupid.

In a 2006 study of IQ and global inequality in 190 countries, the American levels pretty much averaged those in other industrialized countries.

The dumb American is a stereotypical comic pillar in American culture, from the Marx Brothers to George Carlin. Comedian Bill Maher excoriates the country’s education system for failing to teach young people properly: ”They don’t know anything.”

Talk show host Jay Leno used to send interviewers into the streets to test average intelligence. Question to a young person: “Who was the first man to walk on the sun?” Response: “Lance Armstrong?”

In his important 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the noted historian Richard Hofstadter traces a suspicion of intelligence back to the founding of the republic by religious fundamentalists. The early settlers were uncomfortable with glorifying any virtue that wasn’t godly.

Hofstadter links the historic rise of religious and evangelical fundamentalism with anti-intellectual bias in all walks of American life, particularly pronounced in the politics of the country.

In the 1950s, the decade of Joe McCarthy, intellectuals were ridiculed. They were called eggheads. In the 1952 presidential election, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, former governor of Illinois, was defeated by General Dwight Eisenhower. According to Stevenson, “the New Dealers have been replaced by the car dealers.”

That all changed in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Earth orbiter Sputnik. As Hofstadter wrote: ”Suddenly the national distaste for the intellect proved to be not just a disgrace, but a hazard to survival.” Where before many Americans suspected the intellect as a subversive force, now being as smart as possible was important. After the somnolence of the Eisenhower era, Americans wanted a vigorous, obviously smart person who had read a book or two. They went for Harvard grad John F. Kennedy.

But smart people can and often do stupid things. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” put IQ levels through the ceiling of the Oval Office. But they also engineered one of the greatest political and military disasters in American history, the Vietnam War.

Thus, intelligence doesn’t always equate with smarts. For example, we all know intelligent people who have no idea about current events. Intelligence is mercurial, it comes in many shapes and sizes. To be an intellectual doesn’t make anyone the wiser. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: ”Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Any country which can invent rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, wipe out polio, create a COVID vaccine in a year, put a man on the moon and give us Oreo cookies at a reasonable price, must have huge, deep silos of untapped brain power.

It might just be that braininess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Which might be demonstrated in the coming U.S. elections.

The explosive CNN/Trump fiasco earlier this month was a catechism of lies, ridicule, racism, misogyny and bullying.

We can’t count on the coming political debates getting any better.

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