Prologue—The Pew pop quiz: Arrayed on Olympus, Homer’s gods were the first anthropologists.
Several years later, Aristotle came along.
In retrospect, the gods pretty much got it right. They laughed and laughed, then rolled their eyes, at the follies of us, the humans.
In their view, life among the early Greeks constituted an early version of the Springer show.
Aristotle was more upbeat. “Man [sic] is the rational animal,” he’s often said to have said.
In one way, you can’t blame Aristotle for making this notorious error. To cite just one example:
According to the leading authority, Aristotle posited the existence of a fifth element (aether) in addition to the four already known to exist (earth, water, air and fire). Having seen himself solve so many riddles, it was only natural for him to think that everyone else was highly “rational” too.
We’ll guess that the gods laughed hard at Aristotle’s saying. Also, at one set of results from Pew’s recent survey, which mortals can link to here.
Every few years, the folk at Pew execute one of their “political typology” surveys. Truth to tell, their categories are right up there with earth, air, aether and fire.
We’ll guess that the gods avert their gaze from this work. That said, everyone in the modern press corps is required to take Pew’s survey seriously, or to ignore it.
Here at THE HOWLER, we were struck by the results of the survey’s fiendish pop quiz. Even as their shared their opinions on every conceivable topic, respondents were asked two factual questions:
Factual questions from recent Pew survey:It has been widely reported that the Republican Party has a majority in the House. Despite this fact, a nation of rational animals provided these answers to Pew:
Q.41: Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Q.42: Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. Senate?
Answers to factual question from Pew:How many people actually knew the answer to that question? Ultimately, there’s no way to tell, since guessing was allowed. (If everyone had flipped a coin, 50 percent of respondents would have answered correctly, give or take!)
Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Republican Party: 58 percent
Democratic Party: 30 percent
Don’t know: 12 percent
That said, a smaller number—54 percent—correctly said that the Democratic Party was in the majority in the Senate. And here we reach our most telling statistic:
According to Pew, “just 40% of Americans” answered both these questions correctly. On that basis, we’ll take a guess:
We’ll guess that roughly one-third of American adults could truly be said to know the answers to those basic factual questions. This sets the framework for the anthropology lessons we’ll be performing all week right here at The Chuckle Hut.
To state the obvious, no one is required to know who holds the majority in the Senate. You aren’t a bad person if you don’t know. You aren’t stupid, unworthy or unintelligent. You aren’t even non-rational.
That said, those basic results to that Pew pop quiz give the lie to a great deal of posturing which can be seen all through the American press:
As it turns out, the American people aren’t pretty sharp when it comes to basic political knowledge! Despite this rather obvious fact, American journalists routinely insist that the American people are pretty sharp. It’s a modern equivalent to Aristotle’s high-blown claim about our rational greatness.
In the end, we the people just aren’t all that sharp! With the rise of talk radio, this fact began becoming uncomfortably clear. The later invention of comment threads has made this fact even more obvious.
Here’s the problem:
As part of our general imperfection, we tend to be able to see the dumbness of those in other political tribes. It may be harder for us to spot such qualities in members of our own clans. Just as they have always done, the gods are laughing about this trait.
All this week, we’ll discuss Aristotle’s anthropological error. Indecently, we’ll focus on the way it surfaces within our own political/cultural tribes.
Tomorrow: To the fainting couch