After a few rejections by traditional publishers, I elected to make my short manuscript of Dumbing Down Dissent available on the print-on-demand platform of CreateSpace, owned by Amazon, in 2011. Since the publishing industry was and is being transformed by the Internet, it seemed an option worth pursuing: rather than invest in producing hundreds of physical copies of one’s own book and then trying to get retailers to stock it, as in the usual vanity press process, why not just upload a formatted document online, and then claim a larger share of revenue any time it’s printed for paying readers? It turns out that what worked for 50 Shades of Grey didn’t work for Dumbing Down Dissent, although I stand by the work’s messages.
Much of the material compiled into my chapters on anti-Americanism, conspiracy theories, groupthink, and charges of media bias had been explored in shorter pieces of mine which previously appeared in the Vancouver Sun newspaper and the American quarterly Skeptic during the traumatic post-9/11 years – Dumbing Down Dissent expanded on my appraisals of reflexive “opposition” which offered little in the way of useful alternatives or good-faith engagement with contrasting views. While I was thinking largely of the smug disdain directed against US president George W. Bush (who has come to seem almost a paradigm of statesmanlike dignity today), I was careful not to limit my analyses to the rhetorical and logical failings of progressives. By the time the book was made available, Barack Obama was in the White House, so I also dissected the conservative reasoning, such as it could be called, of people like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. I’m proud to have called out early one position whose most prominent adherent later rose to high office: “If Barack Obama was born outside the US and is therefore ineligible for the American presidency (so say those in the “Birther” movement), why would he even admit to a foreign father and a childhood residence in a foreign country? Up close, Conspiracy Theories construct tantalizing webs of cause and effect…that sustain some suspension of disbelief. But step back to consider the fundamental logic behind such elaborate entanglements, and they are not so credible.”
In Dumbing Down Dissent‘s concluding chapter, “The Vanity of Virtue,” I went deeper into the psychological motivation behind many modern political philosophies, a theme which I have also taken up in shorter pieces posted here on this blog. Essentially, the extremes of partisanship and polarization we see today are driven by cultural style more than ideological difference – it’s not just that the personal is political, as the saying goes, but that nothing except the personal is political, that our opinions on given issues are shaped by our places in a social community rather than an intellectual one. “Preaching an open-ended distrust of the right or left wing, of small-town evangelicals or ivory-tower academics, of big corporations or big governments, is not a recipe for actually undoing their influence,” I wrote. “It is a signal of solidarity with others, meant less to achieve any particular goal, such as an electoral victory or the repeal of a law, than to find comfort and sympathy with the ostracized…No one’s standards are higher, or less constructive, than those who know theirs will never be enforced.” As a commercial product, Dumbing Down Dissent hasn’t succeeded anywhere nearly as well as I’d hoped, but as an exercise in critical commentary its considerations of current divides and widespread calls to somehow “take back the country” remain, unfortunately, all too relevant.
Next week: Led Zeppelin FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Greatest Hard Rock Band of All Time