Friday, August 8, 2008

It's the stupidity, stupid!

Paul Krugman, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times entitled "Know-Nothing Politics," raises what might really be the core issue of the current presidential election campaign: stupidity. As many readers will, um, know, Know-Nothingism has a long and proud history in American politics. More about that in a minute.

Krugman's column is specifically about Know-Nothingism in the debate over energy policy, but he gives the term an interesting definition:

What I mean... is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

Krugman says that this was part of George W. Bush's appeal to many voters:

Let’s also not forget that for years President Bush was the center of a cult of personality that lionized him as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority. “Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man,” declared Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2004. “He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.”

But very importantly, Krugman points out that intellectuals, or at least those who think of themselves as such, are not immune from the siren call of Know-Nothingism:

What’s more, the politics of stupidity didn’t just appeal to the poorly informed. Bear in mind that members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002, even though the flimsiness of the case for invading Iraq should have been even more obvious to those paying close attention to the issue than it was to the average voter.

I think the proper conclusion to draw from all this is that stupidity is not an inherent quality in people inferior to you and me (it's always the other guy who is stupid, right?), but rather a political choice. Indeed, it is more than a political choice, it is a life choice--even if it doesn't necessarily last a lifetime, as those who have woken up and smelled the coffee can attest.

Nor is the relationship between ignorance and stupidity as straightforward as one might think. Are we stupid because we are ignorant, or are we ignorant because we have chosen to be stupid? Now, hard working people (and not just white ones) don't have as much time as intellectuals to read the New York Times, The Nation, and surf the internet for hours at a time, but anyone who has spent time in a working class environment will know that there is potentially a lot of wisdom there, the kind of wisdom that a lifetime of hard times can give you. And how many mothers and fathers of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq have switched from blind support for that war to vigorous opposition, when it became clear that stupidity can have a very high price? Not just Cindy Sheehan, I can assure you.

If we agree that stupidity is a political choice, that conclusion has some important ramifications. Like many on the left, I avidly read Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" when it first came out a few years ago, thinking I was going to find some answers to the stupidity crisis. While the book was very good--it made clear that the Republicans had made great inroads into the heartland by exploiting conservative "values" to induce people to vote against their own best economic interests--I came away dissatisfied, because Frank never really put his finger on what really was the matter with Kansas. It is one thing to say that someone was hoodwinked, fooled, lulled into false consciousness, etc., and another to explain how and why anyone would let that happen to them.

In my view, stupidity, unless one is mentally impaired--a rare medical phenomenon--comes down to an existential choice: Do we take charge of our own lives, or do we allow others to manipulate us for their own ends? And if it is an existential choice, then blaming Fox News, Karl Rove, or other outside forces and influences doesn't get at the core problem--which is that in the end, Americans have to take individual responsibility for their own intellectual lives.

Perhaps social and political activists should think of themselves of therapists, helping stupid people to get in touch with their inner smart person. Yet it is sad that it takes 8 years of war and a disastrous presidency before the percentage of people willing to do so creeps up even above the 50% mark.

More thoughts on ignorance: From Bob Cesca at the Huffington Post.

Tom Tomorrow takes a look at stupidity.

Impeachment news: The possible impeachment of Pakistani president Pervez Musharaff, that is. Perhaps he should resign and go help out with the military coup in Mauritania, where his talents might be more appreciated--at least by the generals there.

John Edwards' affair: I didn't jump to blog about this--no blogger likes to be just another voice in the blogosphere--but I also knew that I could count on someone else to express my attitude. My journalist-blogger friend Marc Cooper has now done just that, in a post entitled "John Edwards: Why His Affair Matters." And yes, Bill Clinton's "affair" with Monica Lewinsky mattered too, for many of the same reasons.

Goodbye to racial politics? Well, maybe not quite yet, but Bob Herbert finds joy in the primary defeat of Nikki Tinker.


terryt said...

Now that's a great post Michael. Not just applicable to the US obviously.

Richard said...

When you comment on the stupidity of the American People (sorry 'American People') and then go on to John Edward's 'affair', you're dropping just as low as those who tried to impeach a president for getting his cock sucked, while ignoring a lying, thieving president who's got 4000+ Americans killed, thousands permanently invalided, and hundreds of thousands of their victims dead or injured.

When something's going to happen that will surprise everyone, and make things worse for them, then count on the medja to do it's job of distraction.