Arguably, few blogs have garnered more criticism – simply for their name – than my blog Smart v. Stupid. The usual gripe is that it is arrogant to name and shame stupid (even though anyone who read the blog would know we criticize stupid ideas not stupid people. (People, we feel a little sorry for. But that doesn’t mean we want to take their advice on public policy.)
Whether calling health reform “socialized medicine,” blaming unionized workers for the failures of management, arguing that faith ideology should be taught in science classes, or blaming poor people for a sour economy, stupidity in politics is epidemic. In each case the claim is made simply to demonize, distance or distract. The socialists, trade unionists, godless heathens and lazy leeches are something different from you and dangerous to you. Or so the ruse goes.
No recent example better embodies the use of stupidity than Rick Tyler, a Gingrich surrogate who sought to defend his candidate’s racist comments by repeating over and over that Black people should vote for Republicans because “democrats abort their babies.” Whatever you think of democrats, you’d be hard pressed to give an example of them rounding up black women for abortions. Yet Tyler thought this was a good response to whether Gingrich was pandering to South Carolina racists.
The substantive question – is the candidate racist – is obscured by the ridiculous assertion – democrats murder babies. See how it works?
To some degree, we only have ourselves to blame. During the 1960s we began to believe that every person had value and this later morphed into a willingness to let people believe that their superstitious, wild-assed guess had the same relevance as well-reasoned analysis. And modern journalism – until recently – presented opposing views as equal; even if one was factual and one was entirely made up. Then Ronald Reagan told uneducated people they were actually smarter than college grads. “Intellectually elite” – something every World War II vet hoped his son or daughter would be – became a pejorative.
But finally, mainstream pundits and pols have taken up our War on Stupidity. Arguably, it began when Chris Matthews lost patience with silly campaign rhetoric and began rolling his eyes. Lately he has begun to call out the stupid-speak during interviews, an almost unheard of practice on cable news.
Then Paul Begala wrote The Stupid Party for Newsweek. Among Begala’s points, “today’s Republican Party is more the party of Sarah Palin’s defiant know-nothingness than the brainy conservatism of Bill Bennett. The GOP is a party of ideologues, not ideas.”
“It’s about emotion and scapegoating and finger-pointing,” continues Begala, “And so even the smart Republicans – and I do believe most of the candidates in the GOP presidential field are intelligent – have to at least play dumb.”
Just a few weeks later, Tim Dickinson penned The GOP’s Crackpot Agenda for Rolling Stone. Dickenson’s long-form piece outlines (in excruciating detail) a GOP platform well to the right of most Americans. Along the way he quotes yesteryear’s farthest righter, televangelist Pat Robertson, “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off. They're forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election."
If you thought Crazy Pat was the only Republican who was worried, you’d be wrong. The most recent conservative to jump on the anti-stupidity bandwagon is syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker. While Parker doesn’t quite have a fully formed understanding of toxic stupidity – she still imagines Gingrich is smart – she does get the point. Writing in The Palinization of the Republican Party she notes, “The big tent fashioned by Ronald Reagan has become bilious with the hot air of religious fervor. No one was more devout than the very-Catholic Buckley, but you didn’t see him convening revivals in the public square. Nor is it likely he would have embraced fundamentalist views that increasingly have forced the party into a corner where science and religion can’t coexist.”
Lastly, In These Times contributor and University of Michigan professor, Susan J. Douglas, writes (in a piece called It’s the Stupid Republicans, Stupid), “Various commentators have resorted to the word ‘sideshow’ to characterize the truly bizarre parade of serial Republican front-runners who brandish their ignorance like Olympic medals and promote the most extremist, numbskull policies to be heard in years.” Douglas continues, “This election year’s mantra should not be, “It’s the economy, stupid,” but, “It’s the Republican Congress, stupid.”
Begala summarizes the fight, “As with everything in politics, know-nothingness will succeed until it doesn’t.” Finally the war on stupidity is gaining new (and influential) allies. So this may be the beginning of the end.
Bottom line? All ideas are not equal. Some are just dumb. So the next time you hear someone try to derail a substantive policy discussion with a ridiculously stupid idea, stand up and yell “Horseshit!” as loudly as you can.
Art courtesy of Mario Piperni.