The Discreet Charm of Incorrigible Stupidity

Americans don’t much care for history – Henry Ford famously said it was bunk – and most kids merely endure their history classes that started in the seventh grade and never seemed to stop. And once released from the surly bonds of high school they don’t sign up for any college history classes – unless they must to get the degree. But if they must, they resent it. Who cares about this stuff? And as for history majors – they are always the strange folks, the butt of many a joke, which they accept with a shrug, and then go about their business in their scholarly way. They’re not the cool people.

And that makes sense – we are a nation of people who don’t look back. We make things. We do things. Cool people do that. Others can assess what they did later and write their books. But those who write those books are sort of ornamental to the culture – they don’t do productive work. They comment on the productive work of others. The study of history is thus seen as a calling for useless people. But it keeps them busy, and it’s harmless enough.

But it is hard to deny that there are times – certain years or even certain dates – when something happens that changes everything. And it’s not useless to figure out just what the heck happened, and why, and what it changed. – It helps understand where we are now and why things seem to be falling apart, again. There’s no point in flying blind, after all. Yeah, yeah – there really is only the now. But the now started in 1939 or 1914 or 1865 or 1727 or maybe in 1688 or maybe in 1066 or any big date you choose. The now is the continuum, not this evening. And those big dates matter, as they are part of the now.

And of course one of those big dates is 1929 – the stock market crashes and the economy collapses and day after day, month after month, year after year, the Great Depression worsens. The Jazz Age – exuberance and optimism and flappers and lots of goodies for everyone to buy – ends. And who we imagined we were as a nation goes up in smoke – suddenly it’s all scrambling for anything you can find for just food and shelter for your family. Exuberance is dead – it becomes an abstract concept, like the speed of light or platonic ideal. That’s gone, replaced by penny-pinching and worry. Those of us whose parents came of age in the Depression know how that shaped their lives – caution was all, even in the post-war fifties, when America was thriving once again. You still saved everything – old broken chairs and the scraps form last night’s supper. Waste not, want not. As a kid growing up in the booming fifties all that seemed so stupid, but it seems history does matter. Something happens and everything changes. Pay attention.

So at that point there was a vast cultural shift. But if course it wasn’t just that. That was the same year that almost all movies were finally released with sound – what had started in 1927 with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer became the norm. And that changed things too. That may seem minor, but at that time Hollywood movies were actually important – the nation’s unifying and uniform popular entertainment. Sure you could listen to cool stuff on the radio, and read books, but America found itself gathered together in large dark rooms watching glamorous or dangerous people on a big silver screen walking and talking and showing how one might live one’s life. It was life, illustrated, with sound.

And you wanted to be like them, which was understandable, as in the Depression your own life was a bitter joke, and something you’d rather not consider at all. It would be better to be Fred Astaire or that young John Wayne in his early cowboy movies, or Jimmy Cagney, the wise guy, or Groucho Marx, with a sly and devastating quip for everything. For women there was Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, and secretly, Mae West. It was the age of fan magazines, of course.

But something else happened – how the American adult male was defined slowly started to shift. You had hard times – the hardest of times – and you knew nothing was working for you, or ever likely to work for you, and there was Jimmy Stewart up on the screen, showing you how this adult American male thing is done. He played characters that were not very smart, and certainly not articulate, and often got used – but he was kind and generous and had a good heart, and that matters more than anything else. And he got the girl and won the day. Being a little slow about things and unable to quite say what you mean was, in the end, actually admirable. And Stewart rode that particular horse for two or three more decades. He was what the American man was, along with Gary Cooper – the sad man who says little but does the right thing – and John Wayne – the simple man who sees no point in talking and just takes care of the problem at hand, without thinking about it much, if at all. What’s there to think about?

But that was the start down an odd road. We had a nation that had decided that being a bit slow about things, and being unable to quite say what you mean, and not aware of detail, or scornful about detail, was the answer to the question of how to be in this sorry world. Women loved Jimmy Stewart. Guys got the message. You had a self-reinforcing feedback loop in place.

But over the years this worked out with the nation putting a bit of a premium on something like stupidity. That may have reached a peak with Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump – the man with an inability to reason and reflect – it seems to be something like brain damage – becomes rich and famous and wonderful in a thousand ways. Tom Hanks plays something like Jimmy Stewart after a lobotomy. Maybe that is charming and lovable. Your tastes may vary. But after that Jim Carrey developed a whole career playing characters that are essentially quite stupid, and of course succeed at everything. Watch Dumb and Dumber – one of of two such movies – where stupid is actually good, in an odd way. It all started when movies added sound, and provided a walking-talking template for the American male.

And of course that template, as important as it was to people, narrowed over time – the nice-guy-with-a-good-heart part of the package fell aside and we were left with only the rather stupid part. But even into this century the template was accepted and in use. This was not lost on George Bush, although his combination John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart came off more like Forrest Gump. And for many, that Forrest Gump charm wore off rather quickly. It took longer for others.

But we still like dumb. And in this item Steven Benen points to the curious case of the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne Jr. – and says something is going on there with Dionne’s Post columns:

I don’t agree with every word of every piece, but for the most part, Dionne has been an insightful and clever observer for quite a while. But I’ve noticed of late that Dionne, a pretty level-headed, even-tempered pundit, is getting increasingly frustrated, even agitated. I’ve noticed this because I can relate to the columnist’s exasperation. Today, for example, Dionne asks a question I’ve asked myself: “Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid?”

That column is here – and it’s pretty clear Dionne is fed up with the whole dumb-is-charming thing, although these days it’s more like a dumb-is-righteous thing. We seem to want to be incorrigibly stupid:

Start with taxes. In every other serious democracy, conservative political parties feel at least some obligation to match their tax policies with their spending plans. David Cameron, the new Conservative prime minister in Britain, is a leading example.

He recently offered a rather brutal budget that includes severe cutbacks. I have doubts about some of them, but at least Cameron cared enough about reducing his country’s deficit that alongside the cuts he also proposed an increase in the value-added tax, from 17.5 percent to 20 percent. Imagine: a fiscal conservative who really is a fiscal conservative.

That could never happen here because the fairy tale of supply-side economics insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich.

He goes on to discuss the Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year – and how they seem to want to make that into an election issue, as dumb as it seems. He says if Democrats give up on pointing out how stupid this is “they will have no standing to govern.” They’ll be just as stupid.

And he drops in that dreaded detail that bugs people so much:

Consider two reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. One, issued last month, highlighted findings from the Congressional Budget Office showing that “the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and 2007.”

The other, from February, used Internal Revenue Service data to show that the effective federal income tax rate for the 400 taxpayers with the very highest incomes declined by nearly half in just over a decade, even as their pre-tax incomes have grown five times larger.

The study found that the top 400 households “paid 16.6 percent of their income in federal individual income taxes in 2007, down from 30 percent in 1995.” We are talking here about truly rich people. Using 2007 dollars, it took an adjusted gross income of at least $35 million to make the top 400 in 1992, and $139 million in 2007.

The notion that when we are fighting two wars, we’re not supposed to consider raising taxes on such Americans is one sign of a country that’s no longer serious. Why do so few foreign policy hawks acknowledge that if they lack the gumption to ask taxpayers to finance the projection of American military power, we won’t be able to project it in the long run?

Ah, if you have a good heart and don’t think too much it will all work out, like in the movies. And of course it won’t.

And then there is Obama’s first big legislative accomplishment, the stimulus package:

It’s entirely true that the $787 billion recovery package passed last year was not big enough to keep unemployment from rising above 9 percent. But this is not actually an argument against the stimulus. On the contrary, studies showing that the stimulus created or saved as many as 3 million jobs are very hard to refute. It’s much easier to pretend that all this money was wasted, although the evidence is overwhelming that we should have stimulated more.

One thinks of Forrest Gump. Or one thinks of a hundred of them, the Senate:

When our republic was created, the population ratio between the largest and smallest state was 13 to 1. Now, it’s 68 to 1. Because of the abuse of the filibuster, 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the nation’s population can, in principle, block action supported by 59 senators representing more than 89 percent of our population. And you wonder why it’s so hard to get anything done in Washington?

And how will that work out as we move forward. We’re told not to worry about it. But Dionne argues that it comes down to this:

I’m a chronic optimist about America. But we are letting stupid politics, irrational ideas on fiscal policy, and an antiquated political structure undermine our power.

We need a new conservatism in our country that is worthy of the name. We need liberals willing to speak out on the threat our daft politics poses to our influence in the world. We need moderates who do more than stick their fingers in the wind to calculate the halfway point between two political poles.

And, yes, we need to reform a Senate that has become an embarrassment to our democratic claims.

John Wayne would say he’s thinking too much. Jimmy Stewart would look charmingly puzzled, and mention it all to his rabbit, Harvey. And Forrest Gump would offer Dionne a piece of chocolate from that box – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s all good. Stupid rules the day – and stupid rocks.

And the column before that one was about Fox News and “right-wing propaganda.”

The smearing of Shirley Sherrod ought to be a turning point in American politics. This is not, as the now-trivialized phrase has it, a “teachable moment.” It is a time for action.

The mainstream media and the Obama administration must stop cowering before a right wing that has persistently forced its propaganda to be accepted as news by convincing traditional journalists that “fairness” requires treating extremist rants as “one side of the story.” And there can be no more shilly-shallying about the fact that racial backlash politics is becoming an important component of the campaign against President Obama and against progressives in this year’s election.

Dionne is on a roll, as before that it was this column on Tea Party racism:

Good for the NAACP. We need an honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the Tea Party. Thanks to a resolution passed this week at the venerable organization’s national convention, we’ll get it.

The minute you say there are racist elements in the Tea Party – reflected in signs at rallies, billboards and speeches from some of its major figures – the pushback goes from cries of persecution to charges that those who are criticizing divisiveness are themselves the dividers.

So let’s dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The Tea Party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.

But guess what? Nothing the NAACP is saying contradicts this. Its contention is that there are clearly racist strains in the Tea Party and that the movement’s leaders and the politicians who profit from its activism should denounce them plainly and unequivocally.

In short, let’s not be stupid here:

Guilt by association is wrong, but it’s legitimate to insist that those who believe in democracy and freedom take forceful steps to disassociate themselves from people in their movement who peddle racism, intolerance and fear. That’s what the NAACP is asking.

And before that it was a column on conservative militancy – also just stupid. And don’t get him started on conservative judicial activism:

Citizens United is an extreme case of a general tendency: Conservative judges are regularly invoking their alleged fealty to the “original” intentions of the Founders as a battering ram against attempts to limit the power of large corporations. Such entities were not even in the imaginations of those who wrote the Constitution. To claim to know what the Founders would have made of Exxon Mobil or Goldman Sachs or PepsiCo is an exercise in arrogance.

What liberals forgot during the years when their side dominated the judiciary is that for much of our history, the courts have played a conservative role. But today’s conservatives have not forgotten this legacy. Their goal is to overturn the past 70 years of judicial understandings and bring us back to a time when courts voided minimum-wage laws and all manner of other economic regulations. …

So this time around, let’s have a new court debate that focuses on more than just where a nominee stands on Roe v. Wade. Let’s remember that the truly “elitist” judges are the ones who protect the privileges of the powerful over the right of Congress to legislate on behalf of workers, consumers and the environment. Let’s ignore the claims of conservatives that they are opposed to “legislating from the bench,” since it’s their judges who are now doing the legislating. If liberals can’t successfully challenge conservatives on first principles, they’ll never win the fights that matter.

And on and on it goes. And Benen says this of Dionne:

To an extent, it’s tempting to hope this is evidence of a larger phenomenon. Maybe millions of mild-mannered, center-left patriots are so bewildered by recent political nonsense, they’ll turn out in record numbers, feeling exactly the way Dionne does about recent events. Or maybe not…

Which it will be, of course, depends on how deeply embedded this whole dumb-is-charming and dumb-is-righteous thing is in our culture. Jim Carrey is still making the same movie over and over again, like Jimmy Stewart did a generation before him. And the narrative of the triumph of the not very smart still sells tickets.

And in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt notes that we are getting dumber:

In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium – “I am what I buy” – brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

But we have a tradition of that. Movies started to talk. There was nothing worth saying, really.

Of course Judt, who now has ALS, is a special case:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

Judt has become what some seem to aspire to. But he’ll have none of it:

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right – and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

Yes, and we cannot seem to string a few of them together to avoid being just plain stupid. And some seem to revel in that charming or righteous stupidity.

But if you’ve read this far there’s hope.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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