The Year of Living Stupidly

It's time to tell ourselves we're doing a heckuva job.

2005 is the year of the idiot, the moron, the incompetent, of the man in over his head. It is a reverse renaissance—when bad ideas are in ascendance.

Once, humanity dreamed of the great instauration—a rebirth of ancient wisdom that would compel us into a New Age, a Golden Age.

Now, we dream of a return to the less-bad scenario, we pray for the avoidance of future catastrophes—all the while behaving in ways that make them more likely. We claim homeland security is a priority, then we allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be dismantled under the hapless stewardship of Mike "Heckuva Job" Brown. We say Social Security is sacrosanct, then allow the government to pursue spending that virtually guarantees future gutting. We ships jobs to Bangladesh so that we can have bargains at Wal-Mart.

The American dream is reduced to hoping that China will treat us nicely when we become her bitch as she forecloses on the mountain of debt we owe to keep our credit-binge society floating.

Religious extremists of various stripes magnify our dumb self-destructiveness. These folks pray for worse times to come. They embrace the negative as part of a spiritual cleansing, be it through a global jihad driven by suicide bombers or the welcoming of global warming as harbinger of a biblically predicted apocalypse. Never mind that you don't share their world view.

While these folks exist on the fringes of the bell curve of faith and reason, they are influential beyond their number. Much of our time and resources are consumed combating their ignorance. And it isn't just in fighting Islamic terrorism. The one big debate in education this year has been whether intelligent design ought to be taught as a scientific theory in public schools. To do so is to make a mockery of all those reforms designed to hold our schools and students to objective standards. If religious ideas can be taught as science, then the only standards we have are the kind the Taliban would sanction.

Are these the worst of times? Well, we're not in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as documented in Seattle author Timothy Egan's grand new book, The Worst Hard Time, which I review on p. 96. However, our civilization—led by America—might well be in the process of making a figurative dust bowl on a global scale, one that is environmental but also political, cultural, and spiritual.

The American fish is rotting from the head down. Seattle-based History News Network took an informal poll of some 400 historians, and 80 percent of them dubbed George W. Bush's presidency a failure thus far. They ranked him among the worst presidents: Richard Nixon, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan.

Being ranked with Buchanan is a particularly ignominious prize. Here was a man who, when faced with a national crisis, made every wrong step. He surrounded himself with cronies and yes-men and looked after the rich. He clung to strict constitutional constructionism that protected the slave-holding class, though only when it suited him. He rattled the saber of manifest destiny with an unprecedented jingoistic gusto: He sent the U.S. Navy to attack Paraguay, which is landlocked. Instead of preserving the Union, he tore it apart. Sound like any president you know?

We know incompetence closer to home, too. This was the year that we were offered an $11 billion monorail project—potentially the worst boondoggle in the city's history. A project that should have died in the cradle was allowed to waste $100 million of the people's hard-earned cash, for no benefit but the reminder that building castles—or monorails—in the air doesn't make sound public policy if you don't have the foundations to support them, like financing and leadership. To Seattle's credit, the city came to its senses and killed the project—not the first time a civic mercy killing has been performed. But it is no great tribute that the best public deed of the year was to prevent a huge self-inflicted disaster from becoming an even bigger one. I thought of that as I paid my $246.75 motor vehicle excise tax to help fill the financial hole left by the Seattle Monorail Project.

Another dubious achievement was our ability to hold an election in King County that stayed out of the courts. While Ron Sims and his staff get credit for getting us through November more or less intact, they still have not solved the underlying personnel, cultural, and management problems with the elections department that exploded in 2004. Now that they've got some breathing room, they need to fix any remaining systemic problems.

But one thing they can do little about is to fix the incompetence of the electorate itself, and I'm not talking about the choices we make at the ballot box. The Seattle Times reported this week that 45,000 ballots in King County, and more than 100,000 statewide, had to be redone by hand so they could be read by tabulating machines. The problem is that a significant number of voters—about 8 percent—don't know how to fill in a simple ballot. They can't, don't, or won't read the simple instructions. In other words, there are tens of thousands of people in this state who cannot take a pen and color in a tiny oval.

Does that thought help you sleep better? Me neither.

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