- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
America has been suffering an outbreak of especially virulent and acute stupidity recently. It has been particularly manifest at town hall meetings devoted to “discussions” of health care reform in which incensed Republicans scream at the top of their lungs about provisions that are not actually in any of the legislation under consideration — for example the so-called “death panels” that would have bureaucrats deciding when to pull the plug on “grandma” (as President Obama characterized it yesterday).
Scientists are, of course, fascinated by this phenomenon which, given the behavior in question, has a better claim on the term swine flu than the current influenza flavor of choice does. Does it represent something new in the long history of stupidity? Or is it merely the latest manifestation of a time-honored component of the political process — the cries for help of one of America’s most important minority groups: idiots? (At least I hope it is a minority. There is some debate about that. It calls to mind Gore Vidal’s famous line when asked about what he felt about studies that showed that only half of Americans read newspapers and only half vote and he said, something to the effect that at least he hoped it was the same half.)
Now, frankly, I don’t know what the idiots have to complain about. This country has done more for them than perhaps any other single segment of our society. The constitution is packed with protections for the stupid. Grade inflation was designed especially to make them feel good about themselves. Self-help sections in bookstores and most daytime television talk shows are focused around the idea that morons are entitled to the same self-esteem that is enjoyed by people who actually think before they speak and act. In fact, catering to the nit-wit market has built the American entertainment industry into the world serving behemoth it is today (there are dummies everywhere, in fact globalization threatens a shift in the global balance of stupidity that may give an edge to more populous nations although China and India do have cultural inhibitions against some root causes of American assininity. They for example, as societies, seem to value education more and respect for those members of society that have somewhat more experience.)
Religious idiots are given the right to insert made up fairy tales for which is there is not nor could there be one single scintilla of evidence into “science” books as if they really happened. They demand and are actually accorded respect for ideas that are so preposterous that they wouldn’t make it into the cosmology of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Conspiracy idiots have created an industry out of the idea that weather balloons are alien spacecraft and that those of us who are Jewish, who have been getting our asses kicked for all of human history, are actually in control of global affairs. Special-interest idiots are given the right to plead the case that if their children fail at math, can’t spell or speak English badly enough then rather than being taught how to correct it, tests ought to be adjusted to ignore their shortcomings or, alternatively, their linguistic “innovations” ought to simply be treated as creativity or even as new forms of language. (You wonder why the math idiots have not managed to get algebra and calculus revised or just dropped from the curriculum for similar reasons. But then again… they are idiots.)
The financial industry caters to the idiot market and depends on the idiocy of congressional overseers to enable the embrace of techniques that anyone sound of reasoning would instantly reject. Congressional idiots are allowed to stand up and say that when legislation becomes too long it shouldn’t even be read. We even several years ago elected and then re-elected an idiot president of the United States.
Last week, I spent a couple days — after a beautiful trip of whitewater rafting in Colorado and hiking through the amazing Utah desert — in the idiot capital of America: Las Vegas, Nevada. While many decry Las Vegas as a fleshpot, a blight on civilization or just the tackiest place on the planet Earth, first and foremost it is the Capistrano of idiots, the place to which nature draws them all (or at least the ones who could not get full-time work in Washington or Hollywood). You can tell because even at the airport, they have games of chance that guarantee that whoever plays them will lose their money… and long lines of people waiting to play. And the airport is just the tip of the iceberg of an entire industry built on the notion that people can’t count or won’t, that they believe in magical outcomes (see earlier offensive religious reference) or are just too damn dumb to breathe.
The city offers shows that cater to idiot tastes (how else can one explain the long and flourishing career of Carrot Top or the fact that every other person in town seems to have a tattoo that they are certain to regret in a matter of months if not minutes?). The city even seems to think that if it doesn’t build windows into casinos that the idiots will lose track of the time and stay in them forever (much as horses will reputedly continue to eat until their stomachs explode or as right wing conservatives will continue incessantly to hammer the policies of the ’80s regardless of how outdated or discredited they have become).
In fact, it is telling that Las Vegas is so dependent on stupidity that it is one of the few cities in America where alcohol (read: stupid juice) is sold on every street corner and practically handed out free on casino floors. There is really nothing that gives you a clearer picture of what the city and much of America is about than watching a cluster of bloated conventioneers, recent excess testing the very limits of their pants’ sans-a-belt technology, weaving down the sidewalk along Las Vegas Boulevard while sucking on the twisting plastic straws in their two foot tall day-glo margherita containers.
This past weekend, despite the recession, Las Vegas was choked with people mouth-breathing their way from all-you-can-eat buffets to one opportunity after another to fritter away their kids college funds. Which just goes to show: There really is one recession proof market in the United States, a market that flourishes in good times and bad, and one that canny politicos everywhere are depending on as the last line of defense against common sense and the big fixes America urgently needs in health care, energy, climate and fiscal policy. Powerful people in America have come to depend on our idiots precisely because they know that when it comes to stupidity, they will never let us down.
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