Stupidity, I am sorry to say, is no joke, as it is portrayed on stage, screen and TV. It is the second worst crime against humanity and a very close runner-up to evil. It is neither necessarily heedless (it can be the very best and most considered that some persons can manage) nor headless (as it lodges snugly under many a cranium). It can crop up even in the oldest and wisest, perhaps most strikingly there.
It has many forms. It boasts in equal profusion crimes of omission and of commission. It can pop up in the most unexpected places, such as the philosopher who on an icy day steps out without his overcoat, or the accomplished cook who gets burned more than once. It can make heroism look stupid—rightly so—in those brave in a bad cause or heroic in a foolish war. How right Brecht, who was often wrong, was when he wrote, “Happy is the nation that has no need for a hero.”
Take the populations of the mightiest nations and ask yourself how many of those billions are immune from stupidity within or without. In the absence of statistics, I would venture an educated guess: close to zero per cent if you include minor or infrequent stupidities. As I suggested, it is protean in form, and ubiquitous in habitat. It includes even seemingly dutiful attempts at avoidance, as in those who year in, year out seek out psychotherapy that does them no good. As Karl Kraus remarked: “Psychiatry is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.” Nevertheless, one must admit that, used in moderation, it can be beneficial.
What makes stupidity especially sinister is that, like certain forms of cancer and other illnesses, it is impossible to diagnose before it is too late. With the passage of time, one may even look back benignly on earlier years’ stupidities. Yet how effective is recognition when it comes to reparation? It neither redeems past stupidity, nor resists the future kind.
In any case, does being wise about some things protect from being stupid about others? When it was finally realized that the earth is not flat and that the sun does not revolve around it, did mankind in other matters become smarter or better? Of course people are no longer burned at the stake as in Galileo’s time, but where is the improvement in so many other respects?
Granted, some stupidities are harmless or even useful. It is good that Erasmus was able to come out with his satire “In Praise of Folly.” But then look at the cost of not one but two atom bombs to end the war against Japan. They did, however, generate one harmless dumbness. The charming British actress, Sara Miles, had such loathing of anything Japanese that only the most desperate effort could prevail upon her to play a scene with a Japanese actor in a movie. “O.K.,” she finally relented, “I will do one scene with you. But I’ll never forgive what you people did to us at Hiroshima.”
It is especially easy to be stupid, or at any rate ignorant, about many things in our era of science and technology. I myself couldn’t explain even why, when I press on a switch and, lo, there is light. My only consolation is that , reciprocally, most scientists or technocrats have not read Proust. And even if they have, what could they glean from it?
Stupidity, by the way, doesn’t have to be gigantic in order to matter. To be sure it can be enormous, as when Lloyd George and Haig and the rest of them caused innumerable inexcusable casualties in World War One. This was caused by that very arrogance, that stubbornness that causes our much humbler stupidities. Great ones depend on great power. But the principle is essentially the same. Which of us hasn’t through stupidity lost a friend, a lover, a spouse?
You cannot tell me that Andreas Lubitz, the wretch who intentionally ran that German plane into a French Alp, killing also 149 innocent others, wasn’t, beyond depressive and whatnot else, also stupid. Why couldn’t he sensibly kill only himself by some private means? Did the mass murder give him a sense of power? That he was going to make history and reap immortal fame? Or did he stupidly think that dying in such extensive company makes it go down more easily? Or that jumping out of a window was somehow more difficult? And what about the stupidity of the people who thought him fit for piloting?
But for large-scale stupidity is there anything worse than war? Well, yes, a religion that, discounting your stupidity, allows or indeed encourages you to wage it. Aren’t almost all wars, to say nothing of jihads, caused by religion? The excuse that suicide bombers or ISIS misread the teachings of Islam won’t wash: any religion that lends itself to such misreading is clearly to blame. And fanaticism is surely one of the monumental forms of stupidity,
I am writing this as Easter is approaching, and wonder how many of us qualify as dumb bunnies, who not so much hide as lay an egg. And, speaking of eggs, how many greedy fools among us wouldn’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs if such a fowl existed?
There is an old joke about two loonies painting an asylum wall. The one holding the ladder says to the one on top of it, “I am about to move the ladder. Hold on to your brush.” That, only slightly exaggerated, is the archetype of stupidity. The only difference is that from this stupidity only the top loony will be hurt. From other, typical stupidities it is usually more than one person who suffers.
Now there are stupid men who want their women to be submissive, stupid. As Baudelaire said to a woman in a poem, “What matters it to me that you be wise? Be beautiful and be sad.” That is the view of a sexist or sadist. Stupidity in anyone very much does matter to both possessor and victim. Yet what about the men who lust after the beautiful bimbos on TV talk shows? They look absolutely smashing until they open their mouths. After that if you still wish you could have one of them, it is you who are stupid.