Dietrich Bonhoffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, offered what might be considered The Rosetta Stone that defines the source of almost all American problems. He wrote, and I submit his comment in its entirety:
“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”
If anyone understood the horrors of totalitarianism and the implications of stupidity, it certainly would have been Bonhoffer. As you read Bonhoffer’s quotation, written 80 years ago, I can almost ensure that most would be feeling, “Yes, Yes, Dietrich, you had that exactly right.”
In response to the constantly asked question of why so many of America’s problems seem irresolvable, I would propose, in the spirit of Bonhoffer, that we have become an increasingly stupid nation. Of course, a nation doesn’t become stupid overnight, nor without a serious commitment to achieving that end. If so, are there clues that help explain just how we got here and why the level of stupidity is rapidly increasing, threatening to engulf us all? I think there are.
As I discuss any of the areas that have contributed to the depth of our stupidity, I will first make note of the obvious. That is, not every person in each of these categories is irredeemably stupid. I will merely note the categorical contributions to stupidity and the growing percentage of members in those categories working every day toward the stupefying of America.
I believe we must also pause a moment and consider what is meant by being stupid…or, at least, what I mean when I say someone is stupid First, I am not saying it’s necessarily congenital, although, yes, many are born stupid and live their lives within its affliction. Fortunately, for those so distressed, this is not a barrier to success in America at any level. It may even prove to be useful. This would be like a 1972 Ford Pinto. It was never good, and can’t be made good, but a lot of people still wanted one.
The larger category, however, is acquired stupidity. During a person’s lifetime something has been inserted into a perfectly functional brain that prevents it from running as it was designed. This would be a Cadillac with a bad transmission or a bullet hole in its engine block…although this, surprisingly, seldom happens. This would be a correctible category but, until or if that happens, the brain, so affected, is stupid…and destructive.
For the purposes for of this essay I will not be able to delve deeply into each defined category …although each would deserve far more elaboration than I’m supplying.
Our public school system and universities must be considered as the “mother lodes” of American stupidity. Of course, in this category, I must stop and provide personal comments. As a retired college faculty member, have I been part of that “stupid” problem? I would like to think I’ve not been but…it can be presumed that most stupid people would feel the same way. They are blind to their own stupidity. That is one of the major problems with the chronically stupid. They don’t know they’re stupid and the stupider they are the greater is their inability to understand their own intellectual corruption. I would like to feel I’ve avoided the curse.
In my case, I will let you, and my forty-five-year depth of students, supply the answer. The problem here is this. If one of you thinks I’m stupid, I will think you’re stupid for believing that. You can see the problem that unfolds as we offer input to the stupid. It is exactly why talking to a radical Leftist is useless. They automatically think you’re stupid for rejecting their “profound wisdom….” But I digress. As more and more teachers are derived from generations with a higher propensity for acquired stupidity, the schools, and the citizens produced, have become increasingly more stupid.
Here’s the American stupidity problem in a nutshell. We are somewhat like a nation of idiot savants. This is a very dangerous category of stupidity that I’ll try to explain. We have large groups of people (millions) who only have one meaningful characteristic. It is a characteristic, however, that enables them to gain influence in our society even though they are stupid by every other consideration.
I’ll quickly list those that are causing stupidity to become more and more embedded in the American culture:
Stupid people who write well…a very dangerous category as it allows good writers to cloak their stupidity in well-turned phrases. Many think that if people write well, they can think well…tain’t so. Journalists tend to be in this category. They are hired for writing skills not, necessarily, thinking skills. Editorially, I would put Maureen Dowd in this grouping.
Another would be public orators…those that speak well and with emotional flourishes but are quite stupid underneath it all. These people have enormous impact as more and more stupid Americans are ruled by their emotions over real content or quality. Many dangerous and very stupid politicians can be found here.
Returning to the university, I think there is a stupid common denominator that can be found. Many PhDs, and I’ve known hundreds, tend to share one commonality. They have excellent memories. This ability enables them to project a superficial intelligence that totally obfuscates the fact that they are, often, quite stupid.
One more general category that explains the increasing stupid load in our nation…CODERS. This is an increasingly damaging category as people who may be incredibly stupid, but can code, can gain tremendous impact, to the largest extent because they become extremely rich and influential.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Hannah Arendt in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I believe this supports the Bonhoffer premise:
“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.”
To paraphrase Arendt, I would suggest she’s saying that what we call evil is banality. It is more defined by stupidity than could be reasonably be defined by evil. I believe if we can’t escape from our plague of chronic stupidity that America cannot be saved.