Stupid is the new smart
I am far from the first person to try to say something smart about stupidity. In 2002, NYU professor Avital Ronell published an entire dense and witty book on the subject, (Stupidity) referencing all kinds of extremely smart people like Deleuze and Nietzsche and Spinoza and Heidegger and Kierkegaard and the things they’ve said about stupidity. Since I’m fairly stupid about philosophy, I’m not going to use a lot of philosophical quotes in my discussion: if you want those you can just go to brainyquote.com anyway. But I do have something Ronell didn’t have fifteen years ago when she was writing her book. I have the election of Donald Trump.
I’m guessing your primary question may be the same as mine. What if, you’ve asked yourself and maybe others, it’s possible that people are just too stupid for democracy to really work?
Before addressing that exact question, let’s arm ourselves with a few definitions. The first concerns the meaning of stupidity itself. As Ronell obviously discovered, there is no simple answer. Even the dictionary equivocates, defines stupidity both as a quality and a behavior. There are serious implications to each of these avenues and we can’t actually move forward until we address them.
Let’s say stupidity is a quality. That means it is either something inherent, which brings up so many questions that it is its own separate essay, or a result of experience, though it might look inherent if that experience was early enough, say, in the womb or as part of bonding or infant nutrition or something like that. Regardless of origin, the quality of stupidity suggests permanence and lack of intention or control. If people ARE just stupid, it happened to them, like a bolt of lightning or a car accident, and they can’t help it. To define stupidity as a feature of temperament or disposition or biology is to distinguish it from ignorance, which is a state of potentially temporary or correctable insufficiency, an emptiness that can be filled, not a quality but a condition. And if stupidity is a quality, then it is NOT conditional, doesn’t respond to stimuli like when you poke a caterpillar with a stick, or vary depending on the context, such as whether the subject is walking through a modern art museum or standing in the 12-or-less check-out line at Walmart with a full grocery cart. We would also have to assume, then, because we are such rational and intelligent people, that as a quality, stupidity could be measured against some standard of not-stupid, that to know what is stupid we would merely need to assess one person in relationship to another, to compare. And, of course, we have those standards, those measurements, in the form of IQ tests and standardized tests and psychological assessments which we totally trust to give us a complete, firm and unbending understanding of the quality of stupidity. Right?
Oops. Yeah, not so much. The tests and the testing environment and the inherent bias in the tests and the narrow parameters of the test criteria and the complex motivations of test-creators and test-administrators, not to the mention the ‘conditionality’ of test-taking, all make a definition of stupidity dependent on quality assessments seem pretty, well, ignorant (as in it looks like stupidity but might have the capacity to change.) In addition, stupidity as a quality is pretty much equivalent to stupidity as an identity, a category of existence that, like it or not, inheres to bigotry and discrimination (as in justifications for everything from slavery to genocide), just the kinds of cultural responses that 20th century justice movements have worked to dissuade. To quote not a philosopher but my neighbors arguing in their yard: “Who is calling who stupid?” Yeah. So, it’s probably safe to say that the notion of stupidity as a quality has been, at the very least and like the post-modernist theorists like to say, problematized. (I’m not saying stupidity could never be a quality. Are there just some stupid people who would show up at the low end of any intelligence test, no matter how carefully and fairly constructed, no matter how suspicious we are of rationalist and essentialist arguments? Probably, but focusing on their contribution to the social circumstances or conditionality of stupidity is a little like asking people who fell asleep during the professor’s lecture to contribute to a conversation about the class. Sleep isn’t necessary blameworthy: it just makes a person’s experience mostly irrelevant. That leaves us with all the people who are metaphorically awake – as in stupid for some reason other than substantive mental deficiency – and with an initial assumption that the vast majority of people have the capacity to ‘stay awake,’ leaving us free to explore what defines the threat to that status.)
The other problem with stupidity as a quality is less theoretical than practical. It concerns how we respond to the concept of stupidity in everyday life. When we talk about others as stupid, we generally mean that they have shown a lack of ability to learn or understand things. We imagine it as a demonstration of fixed incompetence or intellectual bankruptcy. But when we articulate stupid behavior for ourselves, we say “I was so stupid” as a way of distinguishing circumstantial behavior from our usual aptitude. It was poor judgement. It was failure to predict consequences. It was incidental forgetfulness. It was momentary weakness or distraction. Even if we say, “I am stupid,” what we really mean is “I have the capacity to act differently.” (As Flaubert said, idiots are those who differ from us.) Because we are human, our complex and inevitably flawed worldview allows stupidity to be a behavior for us and a quality for everybody else (or at least everybody we don’t like or disagree with – the difference between saying you are stupid and you are acting stupidly.) As with most binaries, the truth – otherwise known as the most useful way to proceed – is a little bit of both. For the purposes of this argument, I’m going to assert unequivocally that we can’t have it one way for ourselves and another for everybody else and that the implications of judging every act of stupidity as a symptom of being stupid is as narrow-minded as stupidity itself. Either way, stupid behavior – that which we can see and observe and consider and that manifests itself in every crevice of private and public life – is a function of conditions that promote stupidity, whether they inspire just a temporary disruption of mental faculties, constitutive relationships with information and knowledge, sound judgment, or a permanent one. In other words, stupidity, for the purposes of this essay anyway, is a performance, constructed by, colluded with, and constrained by society.
Just because we have put pure biological determinism aside in our discussion of stupidity doesn’t mean that science has no contribution to make. While contemporary ‘brain science’ is notoriously adept at putting all human behavior in the context of those colors overlaid onto MRI scans, decades of psychological research have documented certain logical propensities that can provide us with a baseline for the ways in which stupidity is manifested. The examples below are attempts to identify broad logical weaknesses in cognition but apply well to building a useful definition of stupidity (see, for example, Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow if you like this sort of thing).
The power and paradox of narrative. Narrative is a common and often celebrated feature of human interactions, noted for its role in everything from local community building to global cross-cultural empathy. Instinctively, many of us recognize that information is more powerful in the form of a story, knowledge more gently received when it is couched in narrative terms. While this works well for elementary school teachers wanting to deliver a palatable dose of history or science, research has shown that stories also have the power to upend logic, that people are much more likely to believe a story to be true if the events described follow a clearly determined pattern with simple cause-and-effect equations (this formula works well for blame too, as in Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths in Benghazi because she was Secretary of State at the time). In addition, an assessment of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ is significantly more likely for stories in which the outcome is explained by the heroics or talents or motives (or pure evil) of a character rather than by chance or luck. This is not just a preference for simple stories. This is about what people believe to be true and how they construct those paradigms. And, in fact, even once people are made aware of the preference, are shown exactly why they judged one story to be true over another (causative pattern, heroic protagonist) many still judged likelihood of truth by the same criteria.
The power and paradox of memory and repetition. Everybody knows that, in order to learn something new, the information or the behavior has to be repeated. Practice makes perfect. The pursuit of knowledge is associated with persistence and hard work. In many ways, our minds are ‘primed’ to recognize similarities and consistencies, to build on what we already believe we know. Unfortunately, that tendency can also encourage a preference for ideas which attach themselves to pre-existing thoughts or beliefs or attitudes, a commitment to information or scraps of ‘knowledge’ which confirm what a person believes they already know. Though most psychological priming research has been done on basic word associations (people will pick the word ‘dog’ after they’ve been primed with the word ‘cat’) this is also the theory behind a lowered threshold for rudeness, acts of rage and even violence (picture a Donald Trump rally where he uses inflammatory language, inciting his followers to send out hateful tweets or sympathize with racist or supremacist sensibilities.) A related concept is anchoring, whereby judgment is dependent on a previously accepted standard. This might be as innocuous as an association with the first time you heard a particular song or it could be as misconstrued as seeing Donald Trump on The Apprentice and consequently believing him to be a talented businessman and a tough, authoritative and trustworthy leader.
The power and paradox of umbrella thinking. The desire for familiarity or ‘mental comfort’ can be easily mistaken for truth. To arrive at some sense of consistency and conformity with existing ‘knowledge,’ a person might apply an umbrella to coincident or consecutive effects and fabricate a connection between them or extrapolate a feature or characteristic of one to the other. The same effect can also be achieved by framing events narrowly, ignoring details or choosing just one similarity in order to draw a conclusion. Sprinkle in a little novelty (especially in narrative form) and you have the perfect mix for ‘knowledge’ that feels true, defensible and potentially unassailable. (I recently traveled on a bus to visit my parents in Florida and had two different conversations in which the other person responded to a comment about climate change by saying that scientists had also predicted that California would, at some point, fall off the continent into the ocean and that had clearly never happened so climate change predictions were likely to be equally as unreliable. Neither person knew the other or had overheard the other conversation. One was a man and the other a woman though I guess they were both in their late sixties or early seventies. The man was Amish. I’m not saying they were necessarily stupid. I’m saying that a variety of conditions – more on that later – led them to exaggerate the effects described above.)
So, why do we accept this research, believe it to be true? Isn’t our attraction to the narrative, the preference for something both novel and familiar, guiding us right into the same rabbit hole of unexamined belief? While every one of us might clearly recognize these kinds of thought glitches (perhaps even in ourselves) and we are perfectly happy to believe that ‘people’ are susceptible to illogic, as they may very well be some or a lot of the time, susceptibility is not necessarily behavior. Stupidity is, though. It is behavior based on associations and as much about a relationship to truth as is any scientific or intellectual investigation. Scientists think they are right when they follow a certain protocol but stupid people think they are right without even knowing the protocol or directly as a result of thinking without it. Stupidity doesn’t require research parameters or logical processes and in fact rejects them. Stupid people believe they are already smart. They are much more interested in form than content, the package the information is delivered in, the quality (measured by celebrity, ‘success,’ a shared belief system, any type of heroics, a good story) of the purveyor. This is why it is so incredibly difficult and frustrating to attempt to reason with a stupid person: they think they already know, will judge your information based on the same criteria they used to judge theirs, and may very well distrust anything you say if it contradicts their beliefs because trust is how they determine what is true. Stupidity knows you are wrong and all the reasons you’ve been duped into your ridiculous opinions even while refusing to examine its own process and sources of information. The simple fact that you measure quality of information using a different and potentially threatening set of criteria makes you and your information suspect, unreliable, even foolish.
This is how stupidity acts. It raises gullibility to new heights. It despises nuance, complexity. It thrives in an absolutist frame, devoting itself to immovable standards and principles, determined to resist compromise or change. It generalizes without thought for context, extrapolates in the name of righteousness and at the expense of evidence. It cannot make distinctions: between sheer determination and blind (false) mastery, between loud voices and a good argument, between religious fervor and ethical justice. It sees no contradiction between its own absolutism and its relativistic extremism, sacrificing any chance at equilibrium or agreement for opposition and obstruction. Stupidity is uncompromising in praise of its own point of view and doesn’t care about conceptual coherence, gravitating to authoritarian tyrants while dismissing democratic leadership, supporting policies that undermine economic security while certain that the ultimate get-rich scheme is just around the corner, resenting lack of opportunity while demonizing education and those who have it.
Stupidity is its own justification and cannot be swayed by speech. Words are no ally to the stupid who see speech not as a pathway beyond the trap of self but as a weapon against a secure sense of individuality and distinctive superiority. Speech itself cannot convince the stupid because words are the threat, can both be manipulated and used as tools of manipulation. And of course the thing that is most frustrating for intellectual liberals is how stupidity stakes out territory well within the boundaries of progressive thought, not just in recognizing the repressive potential of words but also in arguing against rationalism, by wielding the sword of identity politics, questioning the power dynamics of ‘truth’ and mythology-building in science, social science, economy, and civic society. Stupidity is subversive in a way that leftist intellectuals can only desperately aspire to be.
Carlo Cipolla tells us in his book The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity that (and I’m paraphrasing here) a stupid person is one who causes losses. These losses can be to another person or group or even to oneself. Cipolla also asserts that there is no gain in stupidity and this is where I believe he is wrong. In fact, Nietzsche is among those who have argued that stupidity is actually a fairly effective survival strategy (ignorance is bliss and such). The stupid person can avoid ultimate responsibility. The stupid person can lie with impunity. He doesn’t have to learn anything new because he already knows. As Ronell argues, stupidity is closure and certitude, secure its own ground, has no shame or self-reproach, commands an unwavering and impenetrable corner on the truth.
In other words, stupidity is a form of narcissism. It has fidelity to one thing and one thing only: itself. It is self-serving, self-preserving and distressingly self-perpetuating. (I don’t mean to be the least bit glib about comparing stupidity to a mental illness. Sufferers of narcissistic personality disorder are no more likely to be stupid than anyone else but our concern is with the reverse.) Stupidity displays significant overlap with widely agreed-upon narcissistic character traits. Some of these include:
Immaturity, as in failure to take responsibility, for example;
Self-congratulation, often hyperbolic;
Fragile ego, often supported by pathological lying;
Desperation for approval and easily seduced/manipulated by flattery or attention;
A simplistic moral universe that is more than willing to substitute popularity for standards of ethical conduct;
Lack of concern (or obliviousness) to other people’s feelings, especially people who are considered less important;
Extreme sense of entitlement.
The paradox here is that stupidity, from this narcissistic viewpoint, is actually a maxim for success, articulated like this: know as little as possible, even lie about it, and get ahead anyway. Stupidity is a strategy for bypassing the conventional channels of success. The stupid person can be great, terrific, even loved, without having to know anything, learn anything new. While narcissistic, stupidity is also essentially lazy. If something is important to know or do, let someone else know or do it.
It’s no surprise that lack of curiosity or openness to new information combined with supreme self-interest results in a parallel lack of empathy. This is another kind of closure: the limits of the body, expressed as a kind of Dummy’s Guide to Solipsism. If all that you can know is already inside your own mind, not only is the experience and point of view of others irrelevant, it is barely real, exists only as an obstruction to the approval and attention and well-being earned by stupidity. Good, kind-hearted, generous people whose worldview considers the welfare of others are actually seen as weak and naïve, bleeding hearts, Communist sympathizers, do-gooders. All that education and look where it got them. Stupidity intentionally equates itself with avoiding the undue influence of information, thereby celebrating lack of awareness, including lack of self-awareness, as a point of pride.
The pride is important. Pride is, by definition, self-absorption, dependent on an exalted sense of achievement, association and admiration, the A-list, so to speak. Stupidity’s narcissism and lack of empathy make it extremely sensitive to pride claimed by others and susceptible to the reductive rage of threatened advantage and authority. Within the closed and constrained scope of stupidity, limitation becomes a mindset, a worldview, a form of intellectual poverty. Thus, the all-encompassing A-list is perceived as a set of circumscribed resources, doled out selectively to the lucky and deserving few but regularly claimed by those who haven’t properly earned them, who are inferior due to any number of (dis)qualifying categories and therefore represent an obvious threat to the well-being of ‘normal’ people who have been clearly favored by history, religion and circumstance.
The terrifying result of this inferred schema is pride conflated with supremacy, dominance, and, of course, whiteness, Christianity, patriotism, European descent, conservatism, and so on. Stupidity isn’t a plight to overcome but a privilege. Why seek confusing, boring, and threatening information that contradicts your belief system when you are already the best? Stupidity vilifies higher education as a pathway to success for people who are not already superior and who are trying to take that superiority away from those who see it as their own. What many commentators have been calling anti-intellectualism isn’t about being stupid but about protecting stupidity.
Hate emerges as a central paradigm in any defensive scenario. It feels like strength, is self-iterating much like stupidity itself, but cannot maintain itself without being fatally uninformed. Stupidity grows and divides and replicates as a failure of reflection, continually fed and ennobled by the presence of the ‘new.’ Hate acts as the armory against these ‘new’ evils of identity and liberalism and diverse claims to civil rights, economic equity, and participation in the political and economic power structures. Hate allows stupidity to assert its prerogative in moral terms, privileged by the lack of appreciation and compunction so often convergent with moral positions, and reinforced by absence of evaluation, unbending righteousness, and resistance to information. Supremacy and privilege are about defiance of identity appeals: what does a white, male, Christian American need with identity when he represents the norm, when everything else is measured against his standard, when his devotion to his authoritarian and colonial legacy has, from his extremely limited perspective, definitively validated his claim to power? I know I’m supposed to say here that not all stupid people are white or male or live in a mobile home where the spare bedroom is used to store the gun collection, or that not all the people that fit that description are stupid. Of course that’s true. We’re talking about conditions. We’re talking about the social forces that construct, permit, and promote stupidity. I am arguing that they are some of the same forces that also construct, permit, and promote patriarchy, racism, misogyny, fascism, or any other kind of hate and supremacy in its numerous forms.
So, what I’m really saying is that even if Cipolla is wrong about the advantages of stupidity, he is right about the harm. And, in fact, philosophers and educators have been concerned about the harm stupidity might have on society for thousands of years.
To the Ancient Greeks, stupidity was apolitical, meaning not that its manifestation or effects were outside of the realm of power but that it was literally defined by a failure or inability to participate constructively in community. Many of the Greek writers would have agreed with second wave feminists that ‘the personal is political’: a ‘private’ life or the life of an individual always has political relevance (what we call the systemic nature of social issues) so to be apolitical is to reject participation in the ‘polis,’ the organized entity of human civic or public relationships, while still influencing it since no choice or action can be irrelevant to the whole. Ancient Greeks were ‘citizens’ in the way that modern Americans are ‘consumers,’ which tells you a great deal about the respective attitudes toward power and economy. To consider stupidity apolitical, then, was to acknowledge its destructive role in the functions of society.
This perspective was constitutive of early conceptions of democracy. An inability to participate in community (stupidity) was, in essence, the corruption with which most Greek philosophers were primarily – sometimes obsessively – concerned. In practice, the Greeks seemed to believe that any person should be able to do almost any job, given the opportunity and proper instruction. Greek officeholders and decision-makers, other than for some specific administrative roles, were not elected but were instead chosen by lot. Ordinary men (not women and not slaves, which left about twenty percent of the population) were considered more representative and less likely to be corrupted, especially by the process of campaigning for election, which was recognized to require pre-existing wealth and power. (Socrates even went so far as to argue that the emphasis on oratory and argument by elite education would lead to the rule of the few with no necessary skills other than persuasion: this is the idea that got him convicted of treason.)
While modern allegory places the Greek philosophers as progenitors of democracy, Aristotle equated democratic government with ‘the rule of the mob’ and Plato feared that sensible decision-making was impossible as long as the opinions of the ‘ignorant’ were considered equally with those of the well-informed. Plato further argued that the desire to influence the ‘beast’, which was the demos or the public, and the concomitant exigency to pander to the lowest common denominator, would inexorably corrupt rulers with self-interest at the expense of the common good.
Thus, stupidity was equated with corruption, the two inextricably linked. Even if stupidity had no intrinsic motive to corrupt, corruption was the inevitable outcome of its presence in political affairs. By virtue of its nature (apolitical) it had no concern for its influence while still making it impossible to ignore the disruption it necessarily generated.
It seems like a pretty logical conclusion to blame stupidity for corruption. It’s also a rather nice distraction from the actual corruption of the powerful to suggest that something other than their own greed and ambition is responsible for any tears in the social (specifically democratic) fabric. The fear of giving ordinary (stupid) people too much power continued to resonate strongly with monarchists, Enlightenment philosophers and Constitution framers over the centuries, though, and still guides a great deal of our political worldview and decision-making today.
But what if it was actually Socrates who was on to something? Might there also be some logic in suggesting that the systems themselves – the forms of education, the hierarchical structure of a ruling elite, an economic system based on humans as commodified labor (slavery in the case of the Greeks) – might be as much of a corrupting influence as the stupidity of the demos? What if stupidity was itself a form of corruption, not a condition of minds but of constituted organizational frames, a result of harm rather than the cause of it, the political and economic composition of society preserved and defended and made to look smart by making people look (and act) stupid?
We’ve looked at how stupidity acts. But how does corruption act? Political corruption, at least within the United States, has a rather specific legal definition and takes two forms. The first is when someone uses political power for personal gain. This type can be categorized as ‘extractive’ and may or may not involve illegal money-making activities but certainly entails abusing one’s position to extract wealth from any sector, whether private, public, or the economy at large. The second type might be labeled ‘exploitive’ and involves getting or holding onto power through corrupt means, generally some type of favoritism or patronage, nearly always involving subterfuge and deceit.
Some forms of corruption, generally referred to as ‘institutional’ corruption, do not require personal acts of, say, theft or bribery or undisclosed conflicts of interest. Institutional corruption might not even be illegal but it biases the process of governing in favor of exclusionary and usually camouflaged advantage. This corruption can occur any time actual purposes or motives are incoherent or concealed. It can result when financial support is non-transparent, comes from sources whose primary interests conflict with those of the institution, or when it subverts influence from general to individual welfare. Institutional corruption undermines the efficacy and validity of (especially public) institutions by fracturing the ethical foundations of honesty and purpose, violating the public trust upon which (especially democratic) institutions rely.
Just like stupidity, corruption generates and reproduces itself through mythology. As a form of institutional or systemic stupidity, corruption seeks to control the narrative, proves its own fidelity (see Walter Fisher’s Human Communication as Narration for more on this) through closure: ignoring or deleting pertinent facts or information that might ‘pollute the Kool-Aid,’ demonizing knowledge (or pretending to promote it when doing the opposite), assessing ‘truth’ as a function of narrative quality (‘packaging’ and ‘branding’). Conflating and extrapolating. Self-congratulatory. Simplistic. Secure in its own moral universe while labeling any disagreement or obstruction to its narrow belief system ‘foolish’ or ‘dangerous’ or ‘elitist.’
We’ve all been made complicit in the stupidity, the best example being the story of democracy itself. Yes, we all know it goes back to those Greek guys, their Senate and their dialogues and their commentaries. But did we know that they weren’t exactly big fans, that they didn’t trust the electorate or the representatives to properly conduct the business of the state? Did we know that the idea of a Roman ‘republic’ deteriorated as the empire’s borders increased, the ‘state’ effectively the purview of a centralized dictatorship and a small cadre of military governors? Has it ever been pointed out to us that democracy wasn’t exactly on anybody’s mind (at least in the Western world for which we have the best documentation) again until well over a thousand years later? (Both Egypt and India probably had democratic conventions which included elections and representative leaders, though not on a national level. These democratic practices have also been applied in a scattered manner throughout a multitude of societies worldwide though, again, not as a function of a ‘state’). And yet, the dominant mythology tells us that democracy is a ‘natural’ feature of human affairs, ‘evolving’ over time from less advanced (and therefore inferior) forms of civilization. And, in fact, ‘civilization’ is one of those code words that signifies superiority, intelligence, manifest destiny while concealing the implications of that mastery.
There are others, many others, words and phrases and concepts that effectively make us stupid about our own history. Remember the Pilgrims, those amazing people in the funny hats who hung out with those friendly Indians over Thanksgiving? We were basically indoctrinated throughout elementary school and beyond by cardboard turkey cutouts and Indian war bonnets to believe that the poor white people deserved to be generously welcomed in their new land because they were religious refugees escaping oppression. While we heard all about freedom, liberty, and democracy (still about 150 years away), nothing was said about greed, exploitation, bigotry or genocide. The details of a dishonest or half-baked mythology are disturbing enough but it is the set of implicit assumptions that have become so dangerously and invisibly woven into our institutional stupidity: white people are better than brown people; white people ‘deserve’ whatever resources they happen to stumble upon, even if they might already ‘belong’ to someone else; the pursuit of ‘economic freedom’ (read ‘greed’) is always justified; the story of the ‘losers’ or ‘victims’ is irrelevant to an overall prosperity/liberty myth, or worse, threatening to the superiority of the ‘winners.’
And winning is of utmost importance. Framing history as the story of armed conflict, as it nearly always is, ensures that it is told by the winners and that a ‘winner’ mentality drives the dominant mythology. (Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, does a great job of outlining the way that history is written as a form of enforced stupidity – my words, not his.) Thus, our ‘stupid’ understanding of history protects the security of institutional stupidity, masking the cracks of corruption. We learn, either directly or discursively that:
Competition is the driving force of human affairs.
Winners deserve to win: they are stronger, smarter, better equipped, better funded and their ideas are more compelling or convincing.
Violence is a viable solution to problems, potentially the only solution.
The spoils of ‘winning’ (also known as ‘progress’) necessarily outweigh the costs. Genocide, slavery, loss of local sovereignty or sustenance are simply examples of high costs.
The stories of the losers and victims must necessarily be downplayed, twisted or simply ignored because they are barely footnotes to the ‘real’ story of success, they represent a ‘minority’ opinion or experience, are simply symptoms of inferiority and weakness.
And, most importantly, negativity, criticism, alternate viewpoints, or overwrought analysis are the most tangible threats to a blind form of patriotism built on the foundations of stupidity. A corrupted democracy is dependent on our belief that we are the best, the richest, the freest, the least corrupted, and the most morally noble system in the world. All you have to do is ask us.
And where does that belief come from? Well, everywhere, but nowhere more ‘noble’ than our educational system. Avital Ronell tells us, “At this point in our shared experience of history it may be time to contemplate getting off the thought drug, powerful and tempting as it is, that allows equivalences to be made between education and decency, humanism, and justice.”
I would add that the ‘thought drug’ also includes equivalences between education and success, the myth of an American dream in which everyone is equal because they have equivalent educational opportunities (clearly NOT the case) and therefore also have equivalent access to the benefits of society (wealth and power.) We are told that an educated citizenry is a requirement of democratic governance, forcing the conclusion (by extrapolation) that the system we have provides that education and that anyone who doesn’t take advantage of it is to blame for threatening the efficient functioning of society (poor people, people of color, immigrants). While inducing us to believe that the educational system we have in place is uniquely and consummately well-designed to do the job, the narrative also manages to distract us from all the ways that democracy is threatened by far more corruptive influences, specifically the fact that democracy is not what schools teach at all. Schools teach the skills we want children to have, provides them with the information we want them to learn. As Paolo Freire has been arguing for decades, “It is not systematic education which somehow molds society, but, on the contrary, society which, according to its particular structure, shapes education in relation to the ends and interests of those who control the power in that society.”
Thus, we are made and kept stupid by a potent combination of power and secrecy, manifested in a mythology that effectively camouflages intent and by the ‘particular structures’ of education.
According to Freire and many others, these structures include the belief that information is equivalent to knowledge, denying the relationship of cognition to understanding, and that knowledge is available only through special channels opened by particular methods. Tell kids they have to listen to the teacher (authority), read the text (controlled narrative), and then take the test (sort society into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’), and you have a flawless blueprint for educational if not political tyranny. Teach people that there are right and wrong answers to the most complex questions of history, science, language and government and you have essentially made their own critical thinking skills irrelevant. There is no better way to undermine personal will and agency, impose conformity, encourage identification with and devotion to traditional social norms, order, and leadership, and suppress dialogue and dissention than through what Freire calls, “Manipulation, sloganizing, depositing, regimentation, and prescription . . . .” We don’t have to dig very deeply into memories of our own or present observations of our children’s education to see the ways that all of these strategies are clearly in place, the more insidious because they prevail through all aspects of the educational setting (the rooms, the teachers, the content, the hierarchy, the interactions, the desks, the bells, the cafeteria . . . ) and powerfully regulate so many other aspects of our lives (standards for achievement, standards for gendered and sexual behaviors, standards for peer relationships, standards for raced and classed identities, standards for participation in the workforce – how could parents participate in the labor market if their kids weren’t in school? – and standards for capitalistic hegemony.) The ultimate (philosophical) conflict between intelligence and education is our failure to acknowledge that intelligence is the freedom not to know, the opportunity to use one’s own creativity and resources to find out, the open-mindedness to recognize that ‘knowing’ is simply a kind of cognitive process coupled with experience, not an end in itself. Education as we know it is (by design) teaching people to be stupid.
As always, criticism is dangerous. If we question the quality, fairness, or efficiency of public education, we are simply falling into the hands of those who would privatize education, making it even more a function of the demands of a market economy than it already is. The market, like an abusive lover, threatens us with the consequences of not loving it enough and then tries to smooth it over with romance, i.e. more of itself. As such, the market acts as an autocrat, a narcissistic tyrant whose goal, as with all stupidity, is to make anything that is not stupid (reading, writing, intellectual pursuit, independent and creative thinking, progressive ideals of compassion, intersectionality, equality) look stupid.
The market is education’s shadow partner. By framing education as a purely democratic institution, even the primary defense against the stupidity of any other system (arguing directly in response to Hobbes’ concern that citizens are not well-enough informed to contribute to the political process) the market successfully positions itself – in collaboration with the educational system – as the only recourse for correcting economic inefficiencies and inequalities when it is in fact the primary contributor. This is what is meant by corruption: a narrow and controlled narrative that biases the process of governing in favor of exclusionary and usually camouflaged advantage.
But contemporary free-market capitalism didn’t need to invent the shadow partnership model, nor is it exclusive to the manipulation of education philosophy, policy and practice for purposes of preserving modern feudalism. Its source is the far more pervasive influence of an historically omnipotent institution: the church.
Religion is, of course, the primary reason why it is so hard to fight stupidity, why it is not susceptible to reason, why it is equivalent to narcissism and thrives on dissimulation, gullibility, absolutism, and superiority/patriarchy paradigms. As the exemplar for extractive, exploitive and institutional stupidity, religious institutions (and I’m going to focus on Christianity here because it is most relevant to our discussion of American democracy) have been the driving force behind the perpetual wars that Howard Zinn tells us have defined most of human history (or at least our retelling of it.) While establishing geographic power in exact proportion to their moral inviolability, men calling themselves representatives of god corralled the power of the state behind them, or perhaps it was the other way around. It is impossible to say since the two – church and state – were inseparable, sovereignty established and legitimized through divinity and sacred right and religious institutions the enforcers of state doctrine and, not incidentally, the collector of fines, fees, taxes, penalties, and indulgences paid to commute sin and penance (thereby funneling social wealth directly into powerful pockets in order to secure complete authority and control). It would be impossible here to document even a fraction of the heinous crimes – extractive, exploitive, and institutional – committed in the name of religion.
From the perspective of hindsight, it’s not even fair to call the behaviors of medieval Christian institutions corrupt since they were generally not in the least bit subtle, the narrative they propounded a pure function of governance. The Protestant ‘reformation’ and the ‘rationality’ of the Enlightenment sent faith leaders scurrying for cover. Once the age of exploration no longer justified marching in and taking over other people’s land and resources in the name of the Christian god, killing anyone in the way, considering them expendable because they weren’t using their resources right anyway and if God loved them as much as he loved us, they’d be as rich and civilized and devout (to the right god) as we are, religion needed to reframe its mythology and methodology. The behavior (and the mythology) didn’t go away. It was simply called by a different name. Colonialism. Imperialism. Moral justice. Capitalism. Democracy.
The framers of the Constitution incorporated the separation of church and state as a key feature of their vision. Ostensibly, they were guarding against the divine right of monarchy, less because they didn’t believe it existed than because they wanted the freedom to control the narrative without it. The beliefs and intent of the framers of this country’s founding documents are impossible to reconstruct (though many people have tried, with mostly contradictory results) but no one questions that the men in question believed in a Christian god. With eighty-three percent (at latest count) of Americans calling themselves Christian and all but one of our elected Congressional representatives professing a religious affiliation (you can Google it), it would be absurd to pretend as if Christianity is not playing a role in public affairs.
My argument would be well-supported if I just went ahead and called Christianity stupid. The story is believed for all of the same reasons that were outlined earlier in this essay concerning the types of narratives that people, especially stupid people, believe to be true. No part of Christian mythology stands up to rational evaluation any better than a belief in Zeus and his cohorts, talking animal spirits, fairies, or alien invasion can do but I’m still not going to go there. It’s not the point. Faith is not the point. Conflating faith with governance is. Failing to distinguish faith from scientific methods and fact-based investigation is problematic. Being stupid about faith and then using that belief to justify harm, wielding faith as a tool of corruption, is the reason for having this discussion in the first place.
So, I am going to argue that a particular type of faith in a Christian god sets us up for stupidity. Above all, Christianity promotes a patriarchal worldview, defers human agency to divine and omnipotent authority. The Bible tells us, in the voice of Matthew, “Verily I say until you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” A threat and a promise, the hallmark of psychological abuse. The word of a ‘father,’ unquestionable, closed to argument, superior. Combine that with the sense of being chosen, selected especially for attention and reward, and you have the perfect recipe for blind conformity. This type of Christianity puts itself on a pedestal, knows it’s right, defends against threats by encouraging ignorance. A faith that can only maintain itself through exclusion (of both questions and unbelievers) is one predisposed to corruption. The mindset is that of a narcissistic ego, prone to defensiveness and vindictiveness. We are presently seeing in vivid illustration the way that this type of faith extrapolates its values and virtues to other unrelated fields, specifically the science of climate change. By engaging in pure circularity (God would never let mankind destroy the planet and because He has ultimate power and authority, the planet is not being destroyed by mankind), religious piety echoes stupidity in every significant way and, not surprisingly, allies itself with the extractive, invasive, and institutional corruption of political and economic systems.
In the final analysis, what we are talking about is myth-making and the consequent inability to distinguish between mythologies that might actually benefit us and those which corrupt democratic forms of sovereignty. Whether we think it is a good thing or not, Christian values did absolutely guide the framing of our country’s version of democracy but not in the way we often think. While the framers may have been seeking a form of government free of the stranglehold of old-world values and power structures, they either intentionally or inadvertently imported a whole other form of dynastic control: that of the market.
As pure products of their own time (just as we all are), the framers of our country’s founding documents were scholars of the Enlightenment. Following the lead of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Adam Smith, they believed in reason as the primary source of legitimacy and authority, the rule of law and the deterministic value of the scientific method, and the role of liberty in resisting the tyranny of either the church or the state. The question before them was essentially how, without monarchies or churches running the show, might it be possible to ensure the rights of individuals and maintain social order. Who decides the law and how might that authority be enforced and distributed? From where do ‘rights’ and sovereignty arise? How much can humans be trusted to do what’s right, balancing self-interest with civic responsibility?
If they were listening to Hobbes, the answer to that last question was that humans couldn’t be trusted at all. ‘Nature,’ he believed, was all chaos and disorder and conscience was the constant war between human moral weakness and the authority of a powerful state. Rather paradoxically, this view provided the foundation for classical liberal thought: a naturalistic view of humanity, while having little faith in honorable motives, also supported the notion of a ‘natural’ and universal equality, the legitimacy of the state dependent on representation and consent, and government, as an ‘artificial’ invention of mankind, responsible only for minimizing the conflict that would arise naturally between people if there weren’t laws to prevent it. In addition, (and central to our discussion) was the idea that, because the natural state of man was so sketchy, the only way to dispose laborers toward work was to motivate them with financial incentives.
John Locke agreed with Hobbes that laws and forms of order were not the ‘natural’ state of humanity and existed as a kind of ‘social contract’ by which men would agree to abide by them as long as the state was effective at protecting ‘civil rights.’ These rights, in Locke’s view, were God-given and thus inalienable, and extended not only to freedom from oppression but to economic liberties in the form of ownership of property. With cause-and-effect rationale, Locke went on to argue a similar type of contract between labor and economy which asserted that the natural world has no ‘value’ until labor converts it into something that is beneficial to society. Thus, ownership of property is justified by the labor that goes into production.
Adam Smith took Hobbes’ and Locke’s work one step further and placed it in a securely moral context. Conscience, he argued, was a function of observing others and comparing one’s own judgments with theirs in an effort to reach ‘mutual sympathies’ resulting in common behaviors and principles. Since no ‘natural’ moral judgments existed, the incentive to conform (out of self-interest) was the driving force of social order. Disregarding the contradiction between a lack of ‘natural’ morality and a ‘natural’ incentive to conform, Smith concluded that this desire for personal advantage not only was but should be the basis upon which economic systems were constructed. A free-market economy which supported and promoted self-interested competition, he argued, would both reflect the ‘natural’ tendencies of human endeavor and benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low, while still building in an incentive for a wide variety of goods and services. Through division of labor, rational self-interest and competition would lead to economic prosperity, this wealth gained through labor a significant moral improvement over the prevailing system of wealth collected, controlled, amassed and stockpiled by institutions of power.
Smith’s ideas are often referred to generally as the theory of the ‘invisible hand.’ The two basic tenets of the theory are that society benefits from competition between self-interested individuals and that an unregulated free market is essential to realizing the full measure of those benefits. In other words, the Market was advanced as a ‘natural’ and absolute (equivalent to divine) force in human affairs, beneficent in its conduct and perfect in its wisdom. Laissez-faire economics and trickle-down economics are both modernized takes on this theory, both depending on the notion that, though each person (or corporation) works only for its own gain, he or it is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” namely, the overall “revenue” of society and the general public good. In its description of the historical impact of the invisible hand theory, Investopedia.com tells us that, “the business climate of the United States developed with a general understanding that voluntary private markets are more productive than government-run economies.”
Though other writings and modes of thought certainly influenced United States founders, we have within these three philosophies the basic conceptual framework for capitalist democracy. First is the idea of God-given and universal human nature, a set of both rights and characteristics around which society and governance must be organized. Complementary to that is the Biblically-inspired injunction to dominate and subdue nature, with man as the justifiably ‘natural’ ruler over the rest of worthless creation, made valuable only through the ‘transformation’ of use. In addition, the ‘social contract’ philosophy assumed a moral exigency on the part of the state to maintain order against the ‘natural’ tendency toward chaos, to protect civil rights in an equivalent manner so as to ensure fair treatment to all (male, propertied) citizens in an exchange for the trust required for men to submit to that authority. Finally, the framers believed that financial self-interest arises from ‘rationality’ and is the primary motivating factor for hard work which necessarily leads to the production of value that benefits society as a whole.
Competition is, in this scenario, the driving force of enterprise – and of all earthly systems – and, thus, the key contribution to social benefit, and a ‘free’ market, allowed to operate without human intervention, inevitably results in wealth, progress, and unfettered success.
Steeped in the mindset of an authoritative and patriarchal god, the framers had no difficulty accepting the ‘nature’ and divinity of economic motives, the role of the market as a substitute for divine monarchical governance. Liberty as a function of universal right translated easily into the notion of property and commerce as a viable expression of enlightened rationality, just another kind of moral sanctity. This was the religion of capitalism. That some men were destined to provide labor while others were destined to control commerce was simply a natural inequality that drove incentive (see David Hume for a full expression of this argument). That the accumulation of capital (like the church did during the middle ages), but this time through rational free-market mechanisms, would benefit society in some moral and concrete way was supported by the psychological/philosophical need for some other divine, unassailable force, this time the market. The rational truth of capital required only faith and devotion to make its benefits known and almost any act of commerce was justified (and proof of the rectitude of this new deity) as long as it resulted in growth and prosperity for someone, even if that benefit didn’t end up to be particularly widespread.
Democracy is not modeled on social benefit or common good. It is modeled on self-interest with pure faith in the beneficial mechanisms of the market, as if the ‘invisible hand’ actually were some kind of god operating the puppet strings of the economy from some puffy cloud in the sky. The assumptions of free-market capitalism could not be more consistent with or predictive of the mechanisms of stupidity we have already identified. The authors of these theories were not speculating based on evidence but on a set of beliefs about how things might work in some kind of perfect world in case anybody ever wanted to try them out because no one had at the time. And those beliefs were purely in reaction to the upheaval of their own times: centuries of war, the decline of church and state power, fear of the masses and the desire to occupy them in the production of value for society, new scientific discoveries that suggested that maybe the world operated by predictable and predetermined rules that were just waiting to be discovered. In other words, limited information extrapolated to apply in unrelated contexts. A compelling narrative that fulfilled hopeful expectations without excessively threatening existing beliefs. A worldview ‘primed’ by a crumbling status quo but anchored in absolutism. A simplistic frame oblivious to complexity and nuance, protective of normalized privilege, a maxim for success made ignorant by infatuation with its own argument.
So, what are we doing about it now? Well, the stupidity, in exaggerated form, continues in the form of virtually total neglect of the actual implications of self-interested extraction, exploitation and corruption on the victims of ‘progress’ (in the U.S., people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor, the environment and pretty much everyone and everywhere else in the rest of world.) Time, plus the scope and scale of free market capitalism, has made it and its practices seem beyond question, so infallible and unequivocal that criticism just ends up reflecting badly on the ‘communists’ or ‘liberals’ or ‘traitors’ or ‘atheists’ who dare challenge its rationales. The framing of the discourse prides itself on its attachment to ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’ while ignoring the majority of facts.
Yet, despite how incredibly far-fetched the very idea of an ‘invisible hand’ in human affairs might seem, we don’t need to argue about the pure stupidity of continuing to believe in it because we know for an absolute fact that it simply is not true. The pursuit of profit cannot be defended as a moral mandate. Unrestrained capitalism and poorly regulated markets have not resulted in a higher standard of living in the United States than in those countries that protect their citizens from corporate greed and take responsibility for social welfare, nor certainly in the rest of the world. (A 2016 Oxfam report shows that just 1% of the world’s population owns more wealth than the other 99% combined. Just 62 billionaires own more wealth than half of the world’s poorest members combined, and that number has grown smaller each year since 2010.) The economy does not operate for broad benefit, evidenced by banks and finance companies and mortgage lenders and private equity firms who blithely gamble away our security, fossil fuel companies who spill millions of gallons of toxic oil into our oceans with barely a slap on the wrist, private military contractors conducting war for profit. Private property rights do not do a better job of protecting public interest than government ownership of land, especially if we include safe water, wildlife habitat, soil conservation, climate change, or environmental diversity in our calculations. No one but the CEOs benefit from outrageous profits in pharmaceuticals, fossil fuels, chemicals, tobacco, technology, and gun manufacturing, to name but a few. In fact, the corruption of and by private enterprise has done far more to negatively impact the economy (jobs, income, health care, etc.) than any benefit that might be accrued from free markets has contributed to the common good. Even if we might have been able to argue at one time that competition helps to hold down prices (in small and very restricted markets), the interplay of supply and demand, labor and commerce is now gone the way of the dinosaur, completely irrelevant when most wealth is generated by a ‘synthetic’ economy of venture capital and speculation. How is it even possible that this theory of an invisible hand is still guiding our most cherished institutions (education, health care, social services, labor relations, commerce, foreign policy, democracy) after more than two and half centuries of evidence that the inherent good and intrinsic benefit of ‘the market’ is a fantasy and that an economy modeled on self-interest leads to the most perfidious forms of institutional corruption?
Adam Smith could not have possibly predicted the capitalist system we have today whereby global, multi-billion dollar corporations manage every aspect of the modes of production from raw products to supply lines, labor management to sales and marketing. Nor could the country’s founders, who certainly believed that ‘liberty,’ as a natural right, could be threatened and subdued by the power structures they were familiar with (church and state) but never by the market itself with which men were free to earn their own pathways to ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ It is not stupid to believe something and then test it out. It’s not stupid to act on your values. It is stupid to keep doing it when it doesn’t work or when it cause