Monday, January 28, 2013

An end to the Age of Stupid?

Speculations on the second inauguration of Obama

Not long after the election, I was visiting a friend who has an interesting background in network television.  Naturally the topic turned to the election-night television coverage and since I now live in sat-dish country, I had sampled a couple of new channels plus some of the channels I had not seen in a while—CNN, MSNBC, RT, Current, etc.  I skipped the networks and Fox—there ARE limits to my curiosity.  This experience had brought out the full curmudgeon in me.  Considering the seriousness of the problems facing humanity, I found the level of political commentary just hopelessly superficial.

The guy who had bothered me the most was CNN's Wolff Blitzer.  Wolff?  Blitzer??  Not even an SS lieutenant would have been so arrogant as to have people call him that name.  He stares vacantly into the camera.  But mostly, this man cannot even imagine that there are sentient beings in places like Minnesota who would rather discuss politics on some higher level than the horserace.  Of course, part of his problem is that he is Israeli so he actually has some excuse for not understanding what the middle 95% of the country is up to.  I sputtered, "Don't we have enough total idiots in the land that we have to import another?"

Warming up I continued, "I am just totally amazed at what we are supposed to treat as informed and wise.  The sheer level of cluelessness is breath-taking.  Yes, I know we are all God's creatures and we are all entitled to an opinion.  But if I must listen to it, I want that opinion to be informed, reasoned and logical, thoughtful, and relevant.  New rule, unless folks are historically, mathematically, scientifically, and technologically literate, I don't want to hear their opinions on any subject whatsoever!"

"But," responds my friend, "that pretty much shuts up every public figure I can think of.  And it takes virtually every pundit on TV off the air."

We left it at that.  But somehow I don't believe my request was so unreasonable.  Think about it.  In most high schools in the land, virtually everyone can take chemistry, biology, physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, several years of social studies that include some history, and even band or wood shop if you want to train your hands.  The point is that everything I consider the minimum to participate in the public debate are skills almost universally available at no cost to the student.  My minimum standard for someone participating in the public debate is merely the citizen that the taxpayers are paying for when they fund their high schools.  In other words, I am only asking that our public intellectuals know what they were expected to learn by 12th grade.

So the question becomes, "How can anyone in this era of universal opportunity for learning wind up as fucking goofy as Thomas Friedman or William Kristol?  What goes wrong?"

Reagan made lazy and stupid fashionable.  Actually, this phenomenon was predicted in the classic comedy Animal House.  The fraternity has just learned they have been kicked off campus and the head animal Blutarsky (played magnificently by John Belushi) is trying to fire up the troops for one last act of pure insanity.  He asks rhetorically "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"  Two of the upper class ringleaders give each other a puzzled look when Otter utters the phrase that will define the next 30+ years, "Forget it, he's on a roll."  Soon it would be, "Sure Ronnie, whatever you say.  An if you need an astrologer to help you plan your life, go for it.  After all, no one has ever been hurt by an astrology nut (cough-Hitler-cough)."

TV is stupid because on-air personalities are chosen for their looks and charm—NOT their journalistic abilities.  We forgot that an informed citizenry IS necessary for democracy.  Expense and time constraints made television what it was.  Yet depending on the market, there were local stations that spent their monopoly income on quality children's programming, well-researched documentaries on serious community problems, in-depth interviews, etc.  Here in Minnesota, the main proponent of on-air journalistic virtue was WCCO but others were forced to keep up.  Then in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated and so soon were the programs of civic virtue.  By then, news was supposed to be a profit center so TV "journalists" took to chasing the vehicles with sirens—ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars because that's what the reptilian brain responds to.  Of course these tales of blood and mayhem were presented by pretty people with megawatt smiles who chatted cheerily when they sent us off to watch the prepackaged and scripted lies called commercials.

The preservation of archaic traits.  In a world made possible because of applied science, it is astonishing how few people understand the key concepts that allows scientific endeavors to vastly outstrip the other human endeavors in innovation, progress, and refinement.  People might be surrounded by an ocean of science, but it doesn't make their thinking scientific.  They cope with this disconnect using methods such as appeals to authority (example: fundamentalism and other religious-style social organizations.)  Perhaps the worst idea to emerge from the era was that effective collective action was impossible.  This stupidity of individualism stood in stark contrast to the cooperation and organization necessary to electrify a nation or build a transportation system.  Those who have attempted self-sufficiency soon discover how important honest and reliable trading partners, contractors, and yes even governments really are.  So while it may seem harmless to idealize the individual because it is impossible to ignore the practical benefits of cooperation and collective action, as a practical matter, this ideological waste of time came at a moment when we needed to organize a global cooperation to tackle the big problems like climate change.

Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.  Because everyone hates a thief, the Predators must operate in secret.  From that secrecy comes an economics that is utterly uninformed—bad ethics, bad history, a bad understanding of how science has transformed the land, and a bad understanding of how the Producers must run an economy.

Can we think like grown-ups in time to save our sorry asses?  In the final analysis, this is really the only interesting question we face.  On one hand, we just spent a generation telling ourselves that it was all right to be utterly ignorant if only we believed the unbelievable hard enough.  So any argument that ends with "Ignorance WINS" has plenty of evidence to support it.  Yet how can a society stay ignorant in the age of infinite information?  Yes, I understand that the Internet has large sections devoted to crackpot theories and the worship of ignorance.  But even if the sections devoted to reasonable debate backed with facts that can be demonstrated only account for 1% of Internet traffic by volume, the net is so large, this 1% could keep highly intelligent folks occupied nearly forever.  Ignorance may win but not without a serious fight.

And so for the first time in a very long while, we are seeing the pillars of organized ignorance such as neoliberalism and American exceptionalism trembling in the face of the reality that they are utter failures.  So while the old is dying—or at least at long last beginning to feel shame—a replacement narrative is struggling to be born.


  1. One of the Excellent Guidelines of Business economics According to economics market research report.
    "If you are wealthy, you have to be an fool not to remain wealthy. And if you are inadequate, you have to be really intelligent to get wealthy.”

    1. Yes indeed. Money can still buy someone's way out of the consequences of serious stupidity and carelessness.