Wissot: You can’t fix stupid
My good friend Pat (short for Patricia) gifted me the title to this column in a text message a couple of weeks back. Pat was a top aide to Bill Clinton during his first term as governor of Arkansas. She’s lived in Little Rock for over 40 years, was returning home from a long vacation, and was alarmed to learn about the spike in COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated in her state.
Knowing Arkansas quite well from her long experience observing its citizens, her reaction was: “You can’t fix stupid.”
Stupidity is not a phenomenon unique to Arkansas. We can point to many examples in our history of Americans who were fearful of science, reason and the influx of foreigners.
In the 1850s, a nativist political movement called the “Know Nothing Party” ran on a platform that was anti-immigrant, populist and xenophobic. Much of its animus was directed against Catholics and Irish immigrants, the discriminated ancestors of Muslims and Mexican immigrants today.
The historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote of an anti-intellectual streak that has always been a part of the American character. We are a country of doers, not thinkers. A nation of Einsteins we are not.
Our founding fathers were men who combined rigorous thought with vigorous action. They exemplified the dictum of philosopher Henri Bergson: “Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought.” Sadly, many in the generations who followed fell woefully short of that standard.
In the 1920s, the famous Scopes Trial took place in Tennessee. It was popularly called the “monkey trial” because it was about fundamentalist religious objections to the teaching of evolution in the public schools. It pitted two great trial lawyers, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Predictably, given the level of scientific ignorance rampant in the state and nation, prohibiting the teaching about our evolutionary kinship with monkeys was the outcome.
The blind, deaf and dumb loyalty to charismatic political figures can also be found in our past. In the 1930s, the populist governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, known as the “Kingfish,” wooed the rural hicks in his state with the promise of “every man a king.” His plan to place a floor on poverty by guaranteeing $5,000 in wealth to every family was noble in intent, but short on the details as to who would pay for all those kingdoms.
In the 1950s, a red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, ushered in the Cold War by threatening to expose prominent communists in the nation ranging from screenwriters in Hollywood, to members of the State Department and the higher echelons of the military. Before his demagoguery was stopped, he demonstrated how a ruthless politician with a penchant for shaming and branding his enemies could turn fear mongering into a powerful political weapon. A contemporary clone of his does much the same today.
Scammers, flimflammers, and hucksters ruled the roost in the latter half of the 19th century.
P. T. Barnum famously remarked, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Impresarios like Barnum and political party chieftains like Boss Tweed, who led the crooked Tammany Hall machine in New York, relied upon a steady stream of suckers to advance their greedy ambitions. “A fool and his money are soon parted“ served as the motto of the day.
Today we use disinformation to snooker suckers. The embarrassing remnants of the once-proud GOP could be cast in a sequel to the movie “Dumb and Dumber.”
The party’s base is composed of climate change deniers, vaccination opponents, and election fraud claimants. Their most outspoken leaders are conspiracy cranks like the Mensa sisters, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, who represent the nation of QAnon in the House.
Senate Republicans would also not do well on “Jeopardy.” Tommy Tuberville, former Auburn football coach and Alabama’s newest senator, appeared to be a couple of yards short of a first down when it came to a rudimentary knowledge of the three branches of government. He said in a press conference that they were “the House, the Senate and the executive.” Putting a positive spin on it, he only left one of them out.
One of the dilemmas in trying to address the subject of stupidity with stupid people is that they suffer from a psychological disorder called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. These individuals believe they are much smarter than they really are, or to put it more candidly, they are too stupid to know how stupid they really are.
If this condition was just limited to a few feeble-minded citizens, it wouldn’t be so alarming. But when the disorder is clearly present in a candidate for president who manages to get elected by attracting a following of loyal lemmings, the consequences are catastrophic, something you already know.
The greatest danger to the survival of a democracy is when ignorance is combined with power.
The Germans of the 1930s were not an inherently stupid lot. But when they allowed a mad man to seduce them with the insane promise that the social problems facing the country would be solved by getting rid of the Jews, they shut off the switches connected to their brains and became zombies of the Third Reich.
I don’t believe we are headed for the same fate. Our courts and free press have pushed back against the barbarians at the gate, the deranged and dangerous, the mob mentality miscreants. So far the center has held. Reason has returned to the executive branch. We are not, however, out of the woods yet. The former president’s pimps are still numerous in the halls of Congress.
Let’s hope that their numbers shrink and don’t grow in 2022 and 2024.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.