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  • Writer's picturemoe226

Stop the Stupidity

“No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

This oft-repeated observation is by H. L. Mencken, a journalist, satirist, and cultural commentator from Baltimore, who made it almost a century ago. Some say Mencken was racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semetic, while others say he used provocative language to stimulate thought rather than to advance a position. Regardless, I’m struck by how prescient he seems today.

Early in my campaign for Congress in 2020, I talked about people voting against their own interests. Advisors warned me to stop saying it because it implied that people are stupid. In hindsight, I wish I had ignored the advisors and been more like Mencken. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the election, but I should have had the gumption to tell people the truth, even if it hurt their feelings. So here it is now: Stupidity is no path forward for Western North Carolina.

Mencken’s famous quote is from his book, “Notes on Democracy,” published in 1926. The passage reads:

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

We’re witnessing the enormous power of galvanizing individual ignorance to achieve political aims. It’s how the wealth gap grew into a wealth chasm as ordinary folks swallowed the notion that “trickle-down economics” would lift their rafts along with the rich man’s yacht, and that the “right to work” was good for them and their families when it really meant “the right to live impoverished while the rich grow richer.” It’s how pro-lifers can argue that every life is precious while cheering the execution of death row inmates and the drowning of migrants snared in razor wire strung across the Rio Grande. It is how lies can masquerade as truth, cruelty as compassion, immorality as virtue, criminality as law and order, sedition as patriotism, and an election that was lost as one that was stolen. Mencken warned that “truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.” Many haven’t just gotten used to fiction, they gleefully wallow in it and turn hostile when confronted with facts.

The truth is Western North Carolina lags behind, and it has for years. Take your pick – healthcare, education, broadband, wages – there are so many areas where we could do better if we just tried. Instead, many of us fall for charlatans who ignore facts and pander to feelings, even when those feelings are untethered from reality.

To quote Mencken again, “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” It reminds me of the anti-crime summit Congressman Chuck Edwards held last summer where he spoke in ominous terms about “lawlessness” and the need to act before Buncombe County and Western North Carolina “turn into another crime-ridden Chicago or San Francisco.” Sheriff Quintin Miller responded that Edwards’s statement sounded like something “from Fox News” and was not supported by crime statistics kept by the State Bureau of Investigation. As the Sheriff said, “it’s irresponsible to have a conversation about public safety that is not rooted in data.” Unfortunately, truth becomes irrelevant when politicians ignore it to manipulate the feelings of the electorate to enhance their own political fortunes.

Perhaps it’s a pipedream, but I hope voters will ask politicians what they plan to do for “us” rather than what they plan to do to “them,” the imaginary hobgoblins they whip up to manipulate the malleable masses. And make them back it up with facts, not with just a play on feelings. To quote Mencken one last time, “the most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.” Western North Carolina can move forward, but only if it is willing to think.

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