Stupidity Was The Other Plague We Mismanaged

Having failed to prevent or contain it, aggressive stupidity is now washing over us.

I have no doubt that Representative Louis Gohmert is a stupid person. He has made a career out of arguing strenuously for stupid positions. A quick Google search will reveal many of them, such as his belief that there was a German disinfectant that kept surfaces free from COVID-19 for 14 days. He does stupid things, like escorting children around the Capitol Building after being exposed to someone infected with COVID-19. Now that he is infected, he blames his infrequent mask wearing, which seems to happen as often as he quotes Marx and Engels. He announced that he was infected to his staff in person, in the enclosed space of their offices, not wearing a mask. Gohmert is so colossally stupid that you could easily imagine his name becoming a synonym for a stupid person. “You’re really being a Gohmert today!”

Normally, you would expect some percentage of public officials to be stupid, just as a result of the bell curve of the quality of elected officials. Unfortunately, there are a lot of stupid people in both elected and appointed positions. Another recent example is Nino Vitale, a state legislator in Ohio. Vitale is trying to lead the charge in his state against COVID-19 testing (“!! NEVER GET TESTED !!”), mask wearing (“One of those principles is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. That image is seen the most by our face. I will not wear a mask.”), and public health officials (Vitale called the state’s health director a “dictator” and “an unelected, globalist health director”).

Stupidity, of course, is not the same as ignorance. Stupidity requires either the inability to learn, the unwillingness to learn, or both. Getting into epistemological questions about whether Gohmert and Vitale are actually (1) moderately intelligent people putting on an act to play to a particular constituency, or (2) sincerely stupid people, isn’t really necessary. they speak and act in stupid ways.

And there are far too many Gohmerts and Vitale in public life today.

The Framers certainly had their doubts about human nature. For example, the Federalist Papers argued at length about the danger of “faction” as a natural human tendency that, unless unchecked, would inevitably divide the people responsible for making Solomonic decisions into hostile camps warring over petty differences. The results would be bad for everyone, but people drunk on factionalism aren’t thinking that far ahead. I do not believe, however, that the Framers anticipated stupidity at the scale that we are seeing today. Even if they had, no one, not even the smartest leaders, might have been able to devise a “machine that would go of itself” that could have erected a dam against all the damage that unchecked stupidity could inflict. The problem of stupidity requires human solutions, not legalistic, electoral, or constitutional formalities.

Stupidity is a genuine political force, at both the elite and mass levels, to use a bit of political science framing. For every James Inhofe bringing a snowball into the Senate chamber to “disprove” climate change, we have tens of thousands of people dedicated to “disproving” climate change, evolution, the efficacy of vaccines, or a thousand other subjects. These individuals are mostly stupid by choice, because they refuse to learn. (My earlier post about conspiracy thinking discussed one strain of this particular disease.)

Perhaps you think my choice of words is overly judgmental, or I am merely exaggerating for effect. I am not. Instead, I am deeply concerned that the United States, as a country, is unable to cope with our simultaneous crises — the pandemic, economic collapse, creeping authoritarianism, and the world’s horror at what we’ve become — because of a deep-seated denial of any responsibility to learn, a hostility to people who have deeper understanding of particular topics than themselves, and choruses of hosannas from people with the same uninformed opinions. Trickle-down economics will work, but it just hasn’t been tried hard enough. All politicians are the same. Evolution is just a theory. The Framers wanted the Bible to be the basis of government. Climate change isn’t a problem. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Earth is flat. Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure. No amount of evidence can demonstrate the wrongness of these beliefs, to people who are as dedicated to not learning, or as organized in their collective stupidity.

Ignorance has always been a far easier issue to handle. Sure, average voters could not be an expert in macroeconomic trends, nuclear treaty verification, and the efficacy of particular teaching methodologies. However, they could have rough understandings of the economy, national security, and education, and they could certainly know what outcomes in those spheres they wanted. Therefore, they could be entrusted with the vote to select others who could be more expert than themselves. Even if those selected were not expert in everything important, they could manage a bureaucracy that included experts.

Now, we have a much worse situation. A segment of voters want their leaders to push the same uninformed opinions as themselves. They cheer officials who assault the experts within the government. As a result, people have died and more are dying, millions have lost their jobs (and health care, and homes, and careers, and hope for the future), hospitals are filling, people with other health problems than coronavirus infection are not getting treated, our relations with allies and adversaries are at an historic low point, trade and supply chains are disrupted, children are not being properly educated, a segment of the population will not take countermeasures against viral spread today, and may refuse inoculation later… This is not some depressing, Spenglerian wallowing in dark fantasy. This is where we are, because of stupidity run wild.

Anti-intellectualism has always been part of American political culture. An observer as early as Alexis de Tocqueville noted it, and later scholars, such as Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, made note of it. What we are suffering now, a plague of stupidity, far outstrips anything that these earlier writers witnessed. Some American always wore their lack of learning as a badge of pride, while they bragged of their “homespun wisdom.” That bragging has become an aggressive attack on people who can and want to learn, in the midst of a pandemic that requires all of us to be capable of learning.

Our current institutions are not capable of handling this level of aggressive stupidity. Perhaps no institutions can. A healthy political culture undergirds and animates political institutions. Without it, the choice of leaders, their authority in making decisions, and the consent of the populace in executing those decisions, is impossible. There is no magic combination of electoral laws, division of constitutional powers, or federalist arrangements that will substitute for the virtues of a democratic society, such as compassion, respect, humility, adaptability, and responsibility. Weimar Germany, after all, supposedly had the best constitution in the world before the Nazis and their right-wing allies at the time tore it up and burned it.

There is an immediate problem that requires an electoral remedy. It is only the first step in a long course of treatment. Recovery will not happen until we admit how shamefully, willfully stupid a country we have become, and then do whatever is necessary to repair that situation. We’ve seen the warning signs for decades, but the symptoms didn’t rise to the level where we felt motivated to do anything about it. Now, we’re faced with the necessity of either handling our stupidity plague, or succumbing to it.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Politicians, Society, US Politics, , , ,
Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. Jim Brown 32 says:

    How about this:

    Seriously?!?! Don’t effin Ghomert me Bro!

    6
  2. Kylopod says:

    Here is a relevant excerpt from John K. Wilson’s 2011 book The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh’s Assault on Reason:

    Limbaugh’s lack of formal education has haunted him for decades. As a college dropout, he has always felt jealous of his better-educated peers, which is why he mocks the Ivy League graduates and anyone else who is well educated. However, the problem with Rush Limbaugh is not that he’s uneducated but that he’s stupid. There are plenty of stupid people with PhDs and plenty of smart people who never got a degree of any kind. In Limbaugh’s case, he avoided an education because he resists having his views challenged; instead of learning about ideas different from what he already believed, Limbaugh preferred to live in a bubble of his own beliefs.

    Back when I read this book some years ago, I was struck by how the author just came out and called Limbaugh stupid. Not even Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot went that far–the title was intended as an ironic inversion of Limbaugh’s habit of name-calling; Franken never really seriously argues that Limbaugh is an idiot, just that he’s a dishonest grifter, basically. Wilson’s book was a much more cerebral, in-the-weeds critique of Limbaugh, and I had to admit there was a certain weirdness to having him declare straight out, “he’s stupid.” It’s not the sort of thing you normally see people say in a non-tongue-in-cheek manner, and even many of the attacks on Limbaugh over the years often come with an implication that Limbaugh knows what he’s doing and is even rather clever in how he goes about it.

    In the right-wing world, for years it has never been easy to tell where grift ends and stupidity begins. But I’ve noticed that the pandemic has made the distinction more visible than usual–contrast, for instance, Gohmert’s behavior with that of Matt Gaetz, who earlier brought a gas mask into a meeting then a few days later after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 went into quarantine for two weeks.

    Of course, I still don’t think there’s any bright line separating these two categories. The grifters are still putting themselves in situations that risk their own health. And the “stupid” people are still, for the most part, grifting. I don’t believe Gohmert when he says he’s going to be taking hydrochloroquine, for instance. My sense is that there’s a sliding scale among these folks–some are more knowing than others, but all are still locked in an echo chamber of disinformation that influences even them.

    Michael Steele the other day mourned the passing of his “buddy” Herman Cain, and he warned people against “being stupid.” In context he seemed to be implying that Cain was guilty of stupidity (he wasn’t saying Cain was actually a stupid person–smart people can do stupid things). But this is the same Michael Steele who once said global warming couldn’t be real because Greenland is covered in ice. Of course that was back during his RNC chair days. Now he’s one of MSNBC’s chin-stroking “Reasonable Conservatives.” He’s got a different role to play, and he’s adapted to it well enough.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    I know everyone is annoyed when I do this, but there is a link between stupidity and religiosity:

    At that point, however, the similarities end: U.S. adults – both Christian and unaffiliated – are considerably more religious than their European counterparts by a variety of other measures, according to an analysis of data from Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study in the U.S. and a 2017 survey of Western Europeans. For instance, about two-thirds of U.S. Christians pray daily (68%), compared with a median of just 18% of Christians across 15 surveyed countries in Europe, including 6% in Britain, 9% in Germany, 12% in Denmark and 38% in the Netherlands.

    Similarly, 27% of religious “nones” in the U.S. – those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – believe in God with absolute certainty. Across the surveyed nations in Western Europe, however, the share of religiously unaffiliated who believe in God with absolute certainty ranges from just 1% in Austria, France, Germany and the UK to 12% in Portugal, with a regional median of 3%.

    We are far, far more likely to believe fairy tales than other ‘advanced’ nation, and we are infinitely more protective of believers. Once we decided as a society that we had to pretend to take these people seriously, we endorsed stupidity as a national choice. We’ve confused two related but very different ideas: freedom of expression and the obligation to protect that right, with freedom from questions or ridicule. I absolutely support the right of stupid people to believe whatever stupid bullshit they insist on, but that does not mean I am in the least obligated to respect that belief.

    The stupid tracks with age in this country. The yutes have done a bit better, not I suspect because our educational system is much improved, but because kids today have far more access to far more sources of information, and are more likely to have their beliefs challenged on social media. But we still despise academics and elites and reject skepticism, hence anti-vaxxers et al.

    And we absolutely hate intelligence as a concept because it runs counter to our egalitarianism. It suggests we are not all born equal (another misunderstood idea) and goodness we can’t have people thinking that a goober in a trailer park in Shitheel, Georgia isn’t every bit as smart as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

    Religion and egalitarianism = a defense of stupidity.

    11
  4. dazedandconfused says:

    Louie’s test may have been a false positive. Same thing happened when they gave him a brain scan.

    Facts are brutally dictatorial. They are also arrogant condescending elitists. True freedom can only be obtained by crushing them.

    9
  5. a country lawyer says:

    The very mention of the word stupid brings to my mind an image of Louis Gohmert. It takes some effort to say as many dumb things as he does or to be so completely wrong about everything. And yet checking his Wiki page, not only is he graduate of Baylor Law School, which has a pretty good reputation despite once having Ken Star as Chancellor of the University but he was also president of the student Body at Texas A&M and was brigade commander of the corps of cadets. Perhaps he suffered some traumatic brain injury or maybe it just says something about the respective schools.

    6
  6. dmichael says:

    Thanks. I like your “aggressive stupidity” better than my fondness for “belligerent ignorance.”

    2
  7. CSK says:

    @a country lawyer:
    Maybe he’s just representing his constituents, and what they want. I hesitate to make judgments about people’s IQs on the basis of their politics, since I’ve known some abysmally stupid liberals and some very smart conservatives.

    I happily admit that Gohmert is a master of unusually asinine utterances.

    5
  8. Kathy says:

    Am I the only one reminded of Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons?

    7
  9. Jen says:

    I’ve always guessed that Limbaugh’s issue was similar to Trump’s–there’s an inferiority complex at work. Limbaugh’s brother is quite accomplished, his uncle was a US District judge, father a lawyer, and his grandfather was a lawyer, legislator, and an ambassador. Limbaugh seems to have had multiple *ahem* issues with authority, he wasn’t just a college dropout he was repeatedly fired from jobs.

    One minor nit, I think you meant either “left unchecked,” or “unless checked”:

    For example, the Federalist Papers argued at length about the danger of “faction” as a natural human tendency that, unless unchecked, would inevitably divide the people responsible for making Solomonic decisions into hostile camps warring over petty differences.

    4
  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @ Kingdaddy

    aggressive stupidity

    Perfect. Thank you.

    BTW…where in CO do you live?
    I lived in Telluride for a bit.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    Getting into epistemological questions about whether Gohmert and Vitale are actually (1) moderately intelligent people putting on an act to play to a particular constituency, or (2) sincerely stupid people, isn’t really necessary. they speak and act in stupid ways.

    Thank you for that. There is the ongoing argument about whether W lied about WMDs in Iraq or if he actually believed it. Pragmatically, what difference did it make? He said things that were untrue and there was every reason to expect he’d continue to say things that weren’t true. Was he a “liar” or not by some weird Calvinist standard? Who cares. A day or two ago there seemEd to be an argument that when Herman Cain said and did bad stuff it was OK because he wasn’t really a bad guy, he was acting. As a bad guy.

    A quibble, evolution really is just a theory, but that doesn’t mean what the people who keep saying it think it means.

    And I don’t know how you talk about this modern conservative stupidity without getting into the role of conservative media.

    3
  12. Michael Cain says:

    When I consider what the media and political opponents put any candidate through these days, I am astounded that anyone of even moderate intelligence runs for office, or accepts a high-level appointed position.

    3
  13. CSK says:

    @Jen:
    Trump and Limbaugh seem ideally suited, don’t they? They’re a pair of old, rich, fat white men who used to live in NY and now live in Florida, have multiple trophy wives, live to play golf, are badly educated, have made a career out of being show biz hucksters, pretend to be patriots, share the same politics of opportunism, and have huge followings of suckers.

    13
  14. drj says:

    Stupidity requires either the inability to learn, the unwillingness to learn, or both.

    In this context, I am quite sure it’s unwillingness rather than an inability to learn.

    I’m not really an expert in Heartland(tm) psychology, but I strongly suspect this unwillingness to learn is the corollary of an unwillingness to admit that someone else might know better, which is tantamount to admitting to weakness.

    Only liberals are so emasculated that they willingly submit to intellectual authority. Real men don’t care about truth or admit to doubt. Not backing down is the far more important virtue.

    Unfortunately, this also means that facts and evidence (or even reality itself) are meaningless to the conservative* mind if they can’t be used to “win” the argument.

    * in the limited sense of the modern-day political movement

    5
  15. Gustopher says:

    I plugged the Chris Hayes “Why is this happening?” podcast in the open forum, and I will do it again here — the latest episode (a repeat, actually) is about how we accept information, and how we incorporate new information into our worldview.

    (I also always wonder about where the stress in the show’s title should be, and am disappointed that he doesn’t stress any of it… on any given day, you might wonder “*Why* is this happening?” or “Why is *this* happening?” with different levels of panicked desperation…)

    @Michael Reynolds likes to equate religion with stupidity, but there’s something else at work — people learn most things by listening to people they trust, and a lot of people who believe stupid things aren’t themselves actually stupid or uninformed, so much as they are misinformed and their set of trusted sources have cut them off from better information.

    There’s lots of sciencey stuff that we on the left don’t personally test and just assume it is probably right. Butter is bad for you. Butter is good for you. Masks reduce the spread of viruses. Etc. We have faith in it because we have included sciencey people in our set of trusted sources — which is a very good thing. And when someone is wrong about sciencey stuff, and we know better, we like to correct them because we’re pretty smug, and it’s generally at least a little welcomed.

    There’s lots of religious folks on the left, and they believe in global warming and viruses and all sorts of things. The cities aren’t some godless paradise. There are even religious traditions that encourage an open mind and thinking for yourself (that was the point of the Protestant Reformation, after all, even if Catholics are further to the left than some of the Protestant faiths now).

    The problem isn’t that 46% of the country is stupid, it’s that 46% of the country gets their information from a closed loop of trusted sources that are insane. They’re like 9/11 truthers — often amazingly well informed with cherry picked information.

    Gohmert, however, is just genuinely stupid.

    15
  16. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Is that where Woody Allen got the inspiration for Sleeper?

  17. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    No clue. I’ve never seen Sleeper.

    But it does look related to Idiocracy

    1
  18. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Well, it’s about a guy (Allen) who suffers the kind of medical accident the guy in Marching Morons does, gets cryogenized, and is woken up a couple of hundred years later. And a dictator and a sheep-like populace are involved.

  19. Scott says:

    I don’t have anything profound for a Friday afternoon so I will just leave with this:

    Wanda: But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?
    Otto: [superior smile] Apes don’t read philosophy.
    Wanda: Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it! Now let me correct you on a couple things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian! The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself!” And the London Underground is not a political movement! Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked ’em up.

    7
  20. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    That’s a long literary tradition going back to Buck Rodgers, to H. G. Wells’s “The Sleeper Awakes*”, to at least “Rip Van Winkle.” Possibly further back

    Kornbluth’s also features an accidental sleeper waking up in a different era.

    * I started reading that one years ago, but misplaced my copy.

  21. Moosebreath says:

    As Frank Zappa said, “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”

    6
  22. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Oh, I know. It was the other similarities that engaged me.

  23. Kathy says:

    Ayn Rand (yes, I know) claimed thinking is a choice. While this has led to countless arguments, mostly involving semantic minutiae, she is right: thinking is a volitional act.

    The common misunderstanding is that making a choices presupposes thought. that is, “If you have to choose whether or not to think, then you must think about whether you want to think or not, therefore you’re already thinking.”

    But thinking is not automatic. Reflex reactions aside, we often resort to heuristics, other biases, or emotion, when presented with information. We can decide to ignore it, accept it, or reject it without giving it any thought.

    It goes without saying that not thinking is easier. Imagine how social media would work if you took every relevant nuance into account, fact-checked every fact you’re not certain of, etc. Well, somewhat like this blog, I guess.

    1
  24. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    And wouldn’t that be nice?

    2
  25. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    And we absolutely hate intelligence as a concept because it runs counter to our egalitarianism.

    I’m going to challenge this statement, if only because it relies too heavily on the rightist framing of egalitarianism as a principle insisting on equal outcomes versus its true meaning as a doctrine supporting equal rights and opportunities. As Kingdaddy so artfully describes, Gohmert level anti-intelligence is a willful and aggressive act based on presumed superiority. An legitimate egalitarian anti-intellectual would accept that the intelligent person might have an equally valid point of view.

    As you note, today we have far more access to far more sources of information than ever before. Thinking that challenges our beliefs is readily available and in some cases even thrust at us. In this age, someone, especially someone in public life like a politician or a radio talk show host, has to work really hard to insulate themselves from thoughts contrary to their own.

    These people have to WANT to be that stupid.

    5
  26. Chip Daniels says:

    I think hate makes people stupid.
    Hatred, and the wellsprings it rises from- fear, insecurity, greed and so forth- causes motivated reasoning which is to say, a desire to put conclusions first and facts not at all.

    This is why people like Gohmert have very specific targeted stupidity; In other areas they can be very intelligent, but in areas ruled by their fear and hatred, stupidity reigns.

    4
  27. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    It might destroy the whole social media concept and business model.

    So, yes, it would be very nice.

  28. Jen says:

    @Scott: I loved that film, and at first, Trump reminded me of Otto. (Archie: “Oh, so you’re winners? what about Vietnam?” Otto: “Vietnam was A TIE.”)

    Otto, even with his worst masochistic tendencies, is a better person than Trump.

  29. Jax says:

    There is an immediate problem that requires an electoral remedy. It is only the first step in a long course of treatment. Recovery will not happen until we admit how shamefully, willfully stupid a country we have become, and then do whatever is necessary to repair that situation. We’ve seen the warning signs for decades, but the symptoms didn’t rise to the level where we felt motivated to do anything about it. Now, we’re faced with the necessity of either handling our stupidity plague, or succumbing to it.

    I do not know what “electoral options” we have to correct such willful stupidity, besides voting them out. Voting them out is not going to get rid of Trump, Fox News, OAN, Limbaugh, Levin, Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Tomi Lahren, Diamond and Silk, et al. We can give them a resounding “Fuck You, and All You Stand For” at the voting box, but grifter’s of this caliber are not EVER going to quit grifting off the ground they’ve so ripely sown with stupidity/willful ignorance.

    7
  30. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m sure the framers were deeply worried about stupid, and the stupidity of faction. They set it up so only literate and elites were to choose who held high office so they knew how easily the mostly illiterate population of the continent could be swayed by passions and passionate demagogues. I suspect they were naive in thinking literacy is much protection.

    The attraction is power. People rally around power and forcing a new reality on people is power, probably the easiest form of power to grasp. “Ignorance is Strength!” …and the more desperate a people are, or perceive themselves to be, the more they seek power. Socrates was wise because he knew he knew nothing but that also rendered him unfit for leading crowds of people.

    2
  31. wr says:

    @Kathy: I’ve never really known what heuristics are, but they always make me think of this Eno lyric:

    But if you study the logistics
    And heuristics of the mystics
    You will find that their minds rarely move in a line
    So it’s much more realistic
    To abandon such ballistics
    And resign to be trapped on a leaf in a vine

    1
  32. Liberal Capitalistb says:

    This thread can be summarized by this graphic:

    https://images.dailykos.com/images/563150/large/Vote_Dem.jpg

    It says:

    Vote Democrat
    We’re not perfect
    But they’re nuts

    3
  33. Paine says:

    Kingdaddy, are you the same kingdaddy who wrote the lengthy review of GMT’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror at a popular gaming website about 10 years ago?

  34. james hunt says:

    There is no cure for Stupidity! The person has to want help so most Democrats and ALL Liberals will remain “STUPID”!!!!!

  35. grumpy realist says:

    This is why I take as my aphorism: “Stupidity should hurt.”

    I think we’re seeing the inevitable result of what happens when a “have it your way!” McDonalds marketing mentality takes over public policy. We’ve confused “the customer is always right” with “the citizen is always right.”

    We’ve also set up a system where we keep rescuing people from the consequences of their own stupidities. It used to be that if you did stupid things, you died. We now whisk them off to the hospital, or find other sources of income for them, or shake our heads sorrowfully and say “yes, but we have to let people believe in their own beliefs” (after one of their kids has just died from lack of vaccination.)

    Let idiots die from the consequences of their actions.