How Low Can We Go?

The angry, and baffling, refusals to take Herman Cain and Joe Paterno to task make fools of us all

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I was disturbed this week by the public’s nonplussed response to allegations of inappropriate and disrespectful sexual behavior towards women by the Republican candidate Herman Cain. But when I woke up Thursday morning to news images of Penn State students rioting over the firing of their beloved football coach Joe Paterno, I grew disgusted. And a little bit scared.

Disgusted that fealty to football wins could trump the inexcusable fact that Paterno, entrusted with an eyewitness account of sexual abuse in his own locker room did nothing more than to report it to a superior and then wash his hands of the whole business. And scared about the message sent by those willfully obtuse, morally unhinged, ragefully self-righteous students, who toppled a lamp pole into a crowd and turned over a news van in payback for what they viewed as the media’s destruction of their fabled football hero.

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I heard a similar message coming from the booing crowd Wednesday night that castigated CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo for daring to ask Cain, in the course of the latest Republican debate, whether the multiple sexual harassment allegations against him raised questions about his character. A similar message from a snarling Newt Gingrich, who, backed by the jeering crowd, shot Bartiromo a disrespectful snort of “What?” when she followed his attack on “the inability of much of our academic world, much of our news media and most of the people on Occupy Wall Street to have a clue” with a request for a more detailed description of precisely what the media had gotten wrong.

That message said: don’t bother us any more with your namby-pamby sensitivities. Your pointy-headed hair-splitting. Your hand-wringing, your boo-hooing about things like “rape” and “sexual harassment.” Your “whining,” as Rush Limbaugh put it this week, when he went after one of Cain’s female accusers. We don’t want any more of that.

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What we do want is to have complex global economic dilemmas boiled down to single syllables (“9-9-9!”). We want to blow smoke in the face of the do-gooder elite. “We want Joe back,” the Penn State students chanted. “From a student’s perspective,” one first-year said, flailing verbally as she strove to invest her anger with higher meaning, “It’s like where do we go from here?”

There’s a movie that, for the past four years or so, I haven’t been able to get out of my mind: Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. If you haven’t seen it — and it really is a must-see — it tells the story of a man of very average intelligence who is sent in a time capsule to the future and discovers that our country has become so incredibly dumb that he passes for a person of freakish genius. “The English language,” an omniscient narrator notes, has “deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, Valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts.” When the time traveler speaks, in more or less complete sentences, he is said by the people of the future to sound “pompous and faggy.”

Idiocracy was all I could think of during the debate, as Newt Gingrich, who has a doctorate in history, made sure to blast academia, Michele Bachmann declared “Freedom isn’t free,” and Mitt Romney, who just a few debates ago was speaking correctly, worked hard to muck up his grammar and drop his gs.

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It was a horrifying spectacle, this race to the bottom, cheered on by an alternatively chortling and growling crowd which, like the Penn State kids, saved its greatest scorn and anger for the presumed eggheads in the news media. Rick Perry’s descent into total inarticulateness, which accompanied his only slightly less horrifying statement of wanting to plant a “big ole flag” declaring the United States “open for business” in response to a serious question about our economic future, ought to give all the candidates real pause. Maybe the dumbing-down of our politics — and of our culture — has gone far enough. The willful ignorance and insensitivity are cynical and make fools of us all.