06/16/2006 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Inquiry into Stupidness

Those fascinated with the deeply stupid--and who isn't?--should drop everything and rush, with insensate speed, here:

...where they can witness the unforgettable spectacle of the brilliant Stephen Colbert interviewing the significantly moronic Lynn A. Westmoreland, Republican Congressman from the 8th District of the great state of Georgia.

Colbert asks questions that a smart fifth grader could, if not answer in detail, at least persuasively fake. The Congressman answers like a man newly awakened from a brain surgery in which, tragically, large hunks were removed by mistake.

"What is your job as a Congressman?" Colbert challenges.

Who among us, and among our household pets, would not be able to improvise some answer, however facetious, about serving our constituents and the American people, and crafting legislation that improves the lives of people and dogs everywhere? Sadly, the Congressman can only muster something about fulfilling what he promised in his campaign literature--which, he notes in tones that may or may not signal sincerity, he has to re-read from time to time, to keep the memory fresh.

This, coming from someone (anyone) else, would in fact constitute a witty reply. But we have already seen him come up hapless and dumb on other matters, and when the reporter asks the legislator to name "all ten" of the Ten Commandments (a bill for the display of which, in the House and the Senate, our man co-sponsored), the gentleman from Georgia has to think. Hard. "Don't murder," is a good start, and "don't lie, and don't steal," are worthy follow-ups.

And that's it. Nothing about remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, taking the Lord's name in vain, and so on. It's enough to make one suspect that Mr. Westmoreland has spent his entire life murdering, lying, and stealing, to account for his being able to name at least those. As for having no other gods before God, and not coveting thy neighbor's wife, honoring your parents, all that--well, maybe that's why he wants them displayed in Federal buildings. As crib sheets hewn in marble.

Is it news, that some of the distinguished gentlemen and gentleladies in our nation's capital lack the intelligence God gave garlic? No. But it reminds me of a question I've been obsessing over recently.

Is it okay to say that someone is stupid?

I mean, is it not-nice, or "simplistic," or unfair, or strategically unwise, or--wait for it--"elitist"? It is, probably, juvenile: "stupid" is the word we apply to everything and everybody who frustrates us--which is to say, everything which impedes our childish (if not childlike) desire for immediate gratification. "My stupid math teacher gave me a C." "The stupid vodka is all gone." "The stupid Large Hadron Collider isn't finished yet." Indeed, back in its heyday, when it was published and new and everything, the National Lampoon featured an entire issue about "stupid" called, significantly, "The Stupid Issue."

Still, I don't know about you, but when I'm not being a cranky child, I'm being a sophisticated adult. And yet, when I review the current political landscape, I can't avoid seeing stupidity at every turn, and identifying it by name. Is that so terrible? Or is it?

"The American people aren't stupid," is one of every politician's favorite tropes. But aren't they? Some of them? Extremely? Come on. Admit it. They are. Even the scrupulously harmless Jay Leno has a little good-natured fun with them when, in his "Jay Walking" bits, his easy questions, posed to actual people, continually prove that the man on the street is, as often as not, an idiot on stilts.

But, okay. That's ambush journalism, and any of us can be caught, on a bad day, not remembering what year the War of 1812 took place. Let's look at a broader, less selective picture. How else can you explain the fact that George W. Bush's approval rating is anything above Absolute Zero? Who, at this late date, and given everything we've witnessed and heard over the past five years, can possibly "approve" of the man, except a) those complicit in his crimes and b) the stupid?

The point is not to "objectively" conclude that they're stupid, and therefore bad, while we're smart, and therefore good. And, as in the case of the religious, the private behavior of the stupid is entirely none of my business. I don't care if someone doesn't know who Proust (whom I have never read) was. I don't even proudly don't care. I just don't care.

But in the public realm, where representatives from Georgia and presidents from Texas are elected, and where laws are made that affect me and mine, how is one to deal with the kind of intractable, self-righteous stupidity that afflicts so much of the electorate?

Of course this is not a new question. Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life forty-two years ago and, while I have not had the privilege of reading it, I have a feeling it's really smart and true. We have always been a practical people, tied to the soil and wise in the ways of cows. We are a show-me people, a sez-you people, a go-fuck-yourself people, yes, in fine, a stupid people. It is who and what we are. It is our Way.

But look at where that's gotten us--Iraq, domestic spying, the drowning of New Orleans, the repeal of the "death tax," torture, outing CIA agents with impunity, death threats to the Dixie Chicks, an ocean of national debt, and the triumphant abandonment of Afghanistan (where the enemy was) in favor of Iraq (where it wasn't).

Where, during this waking national nightmare, do "differences in political philosophy" end and "sheer dumbness" begin?

This is not an elitist question, although it is, arguably, an obnoxious one. (For "elitism," look no further than to those who invoke the word, like Newt "I'm A Teacher" Gingritch, whose pomposity as an "intellectual" is as vast as his vanity as a "professor.") And there will of course be people who, in the Comments below, will denounce me as being snobbish, un-American, "French," etc. (Don't listen to them. They're stupid.)

In politics, today, we are obsessed with two things: the election in November, and the presidential election in 2008. So don't go getting on your high horse and telling me that this issue is alien to your humanistic, democratic soul. There are idiots out there, and the Republicans know how to appeal to them. Should we? Can we?

Worse: if Republicans continue to seek to destroy the public arena of government's actions, they'll seek to starve public education. (The only governmental program Rep. Westmoreland could think of ending, for the sake of balancing the budget, was "the Department of Education.") Everyone in America has a dream, and this is theirs: to foster a network of tightly-controlled private schools, where creationism and Biblical literalness can be taught alongside reverence for the traditional and contempt for, and disapproval of, and fear of, the new, and where such values as individuality and social justice can be replaced with corporatist obedience and all-American provincialism.

They know what Democrats don't, or don't want to, know, viz., that a stupid electorate is a Republican electorate. Why? Because dumb people are easier to manipulate with fear, demagoguery, slogans, half-truths, talk radio, lies, and simplistic appeals to "patriotism." And if, in the process, stupid people (in, say, Georgia's 8th District) elect stupid Congressmen, well, how better to represent such a constituency?

We want the working class vote, the women's vote, the Latino vote, the urban vote, the "soccer Dad" and "NASCAR mom" and "Reagan Democrat" vote, and so on. Do we want the stupid vote? Should we think (if not openly speak) of it in those terms? Do we have to be stupid--or worse--to get it?

I pause for a reply. (Shakespeare; Julius Caesar, III, ii.)