“It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.”
–John Maynard Keynes discussing Beauty Contests in the General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, 1936
Do you believe in big government? Then you must be a communist who looks to manipulate lazy poor people into voting for you by offering them the opportunity to spend the rest of their lives as indolent pikers. Dumb. Do you believe in small government? Then you must be an evil spirited misanthrope who doesn’t care one bit about anyone but yourself. Dumb. Are you pro-choice? Then you must be a maniacal baby killer who seeks to undermine basic human values. Dumb. Are you pro-life? Then you must be one of those religious psychopaths who want to force women back into the June Cleaver model of complete helplessness and social inferiority. Dumb. Do you like Obama? Then you are clearly in favor of the destruction of the American Way of Life. Dumb. Do you hate Obama? Then you are clearly a closeted racist unable to cope with the forces of progress. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
It’s all so insanely dumb. CNN had a question on their Facebook site last night asking all of their likers the question of what should be done about the economy. Everybody responded with some inane pet theory running the gamut from the flat tax to value added taxes to the repeal of all taxes to forcing the Chinese to send their entire work force to Africa to the Fair Tax to more sin taxes, etc. 2,658 comments in 15 hours. People inevitably started arguing and quoting dumb things they heard other people say. People called each other names. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Everybody’s an expert. Each man a king, each woman a queen. Dumb.
I am not exempt from this sort of asinine posturing. I have moments where I forget that I am part of the mob. Wishful thinking does occasionally overtake my brain. The wicked, awful truth is by contributing to the blogosphere, I have merely exchanged my pitchfork and torch for a MacBook. I get worked up over the horrors of military spending or the Ponzi scheme-like quality of modern finance or the disgusting, venal nature of American politics from time to time and write about it. Dumb.
The truth of the whole thing is far worse than a person can contemplate without a complete psychic meltdown. It’s not just that we are dumb, that idea by itself is tolerable, even somewhat amusing. It’s that the product of all modern discourse seems to be dumb. Let’s assume for a moment that some of us want to use reason as an antidote to the basic dumbness of our world. Fine. Good luck. The non-dumb folks among us are welcome to use subtle, intelligent arguments to understand the world. It’s a free country, as they say.
Now, let’s say one of the non-dumb want to step outside of the perimeters of their mental world and, say, lessen the suffering of others or effect social change on any level. Well, those folks will present their ideas to a population that, for the most part, is uncomfortable and even threatened by anything that resembles reason. Let’s say you are making a reasoned argument for the truth of global warming. How on earth could you possibly explain the nuances of a concept like that to a person who believes that science is completely untrustworthy and dinosaurs weren’t real? Every time it snows they will thumb their nose at you and scream out “SEE!” Let’s say you are a bright and articulate religious person and you want to make a reasoned argument for what you believe? You will be met with every anti-religious cliché in the book and lumped together with sycophants from Jimmy Swaggart to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. You can’t win.
Eventually, the pure force of dumbness will overpower any even moderately intelligent argument. Seeing this, a person making reasonable arguments might well begin to lose trust in their audience. In order to enact any sort of change in our world, one must not just have a great idea, one must have an idea that the mob can be talked into. When the realities of the situation begin to occur to someone with an idea, they naturally begin to tailor their ideas to the wild eccentricities of the mob.
Most people might not understand the nuances of the idea of a welfare state, but they can certainly be convinced that its not right that someone who has a private jet pay the same taxes as they do. Now, the argument has moved out of the realm of thought and into the realm of pure, visceral dumbness. Pretty soon, an intelligent point about general inequity has become a shouting match between “the defenders of those with private jets” and “those who hate America.”
The upshot of all this weirdness is that extremely intelligent people are forced into becoming absurd polemicists. The merits of the idea take a backseat to the constant push and pull of public opinion. This idea is perfectly captured in the earlier quote by Keynes. The whole thing becomes a Faustian Beauty Contest fought not on the merits of what is beautiful, but rather, on the merits of what the mob might find the most beautiful.
Finding a point of view that makes sense becomes a lot like defensive driving. You are not driving based solely on the rules of the road, rather you drive based on what the idiot in the Camaro doing 100 miles per hour with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his lap might think the rules of the road are. Even if you drive well, the moron next to you can still kill you. So, you adjust to the stupidity of the whole venture. In that adjustment, ideas that are logical are often jettisoned for more acceptable generalizations that can be absorbed by a mass of angry people. And those generalizations are met with counter generalizations, which are met with counter generalizations. The whole thing gets pushed out to the n-th degree. Suddenly, we are excitedly screaming at each other over what Joe The Plumber thinks. After a few hundred rounds of this everyone’s an idiot and no one can tell the difference. Over and over and back and forth. Dumb.
I offer no solution to this problem. This may well be how democracy works when you get it out of the textbooks; I’m not sure. I do wonder what the outcome of this insanity will be. I feel like I’m chained to 300 million lunatics going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Everyone is paddling in different directions. Everyone thinks that they know how to escape and are just as convinced that the morons next to them are messing things up. We argue over how we got in the barrel, we argue over how to best get out of the barrel, we argue over whether The Falls are even real, we argue over how big the barrel is, we argue over who should get out of the barrel first, we argue over whether we should work together or separately. The result of all this strain and turmoil is no different then if we did nothing at all. We move towards The Falls with no clear explanation of what is happening and no possibility of ever getting out of our predicament. Dumb.
#1 by Jim Wheeler on August 11, 2011 - 5:06 PM
I do believe you and JMK have captured the essence of it, Keith. Not only dumb, but depressing. My blogging colleague, Anson, as you may be aware has been reduced by the conundrum to repeating an acronym, WSTMM (we spend too much money) over and over. Sometimes I feel like sending him a bib.
The urge to simplify the thing is almost overpowering. In my own case I have devolved into repeating “entitlement reform” into the void. (Throwing granny under the bus, huh? Yep.) 🙄
#2 by Keith Spillett on August 12, 2011 - 7:10 AM
That Keynes quote blew me away when I read it. I felt like he really nailed the whole thing.
The more of these I write, the more powerful the urge to oversimplify becomes. It’s much easier and in someways it’s more immediately satisfying. I can imagine when someone depends on this for their livelihood, the pull becomes even more overwhelming. Just gotta keep climbing uphill, I guess. The whole thing can be remarkably depressing. I look at my two kids all the time and think about the world I’m leaving them when they get older. I’m not particularly proud of it and, honestly, I struggle with the ability to understand it enough to be able to explain it to them when the time is right.
#3 by johncerickson on August 11, 2011 - 5:38 PM
I see two parts to the problem. First off, and with present company excluded (including both Jim and Anson – I’ll be generous), any idiot now has access to a forum. When you speak, someone may look at you and say “You’re stupid”, and that hurts. But if you TYPE something, and somebody types back “You’re stupid”, well, you just delete that Email. And you end up surrounded by a chorus of a few dozen nodding and complimenting you.
Second of, nobody has time to fully understand the complexities of the world. (I don’t think there’s a single person that fully understands the entire US Tax Code, but that’s another issue.) We have work, home lives, TV, Internet, movies, music, and the list goes on. For us old farts, think back to the 80s. We had what, a total of about 10-12 TV stations in the Chicago area? And we were blessed in abundance! Today, our cable or satellite has that many ESPN feeds, minimum! (Really? We REALLY need 10 ESPN channels? 😉 ) We are bombarded by information, we need to know so many things to make our lives work. My dad needed to know how to fix a carburetor, do some basic wiring, and cut grass. Even unemployed, I have car knowledge, PC knowledge, blog knowledge, world news knowledge, and it goes on and on. We are blitzed, and as an old saying goes, “The more I learn, the less I know”.
Sorry, no answers here, either. Except maybe to suggest taking a breath. And if you want to learn, SHUT UP. (Again, present company excluded.) And if you don’t know what to say, to quote another old phrase, “Better to let people think you’re an idiot, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”.
Or else, join me in setting aside money to give to Keith, so he can summon the mothership from Korg (or whatever the name was). 😀
By the way, I also asked Blackjack. He said “Nah-hah”. When I decipher that, I’ll let you know……
#4 by Keith Spillett on August 12, 2011 - 7:05 AM
Well put, sir. I’d vote for Blackjack right now if he was running.
#5 by G-LO on August 11, 2011 - 8:23 PM
Well done! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that is tired and disgusted by our current state of affairs. Propaganda. That’s what the vast majority of the news media is selling these days. No more. No less. This is why I pretty much ignore the news, especially the paranoia inducing local variety.
Wait… that’s not entirely true. I do get a good dose of NPR during the morning and in the car. It’s just so soothing. And commercial free. And they have Car Talk. The Magliozzi Brothers rule!
#6 by Keith Spillett on August 12, 2011 - 7:03 AM
Gotta love Car Talk! That show is excellent. I don’t know a thing about cars and I find it entertaining.
I agree with you about the propaganda aspect. It’s an interesting term for this, because propaganda is usually associated with the attempt to further one specific political agenda. I think there are many different agendas being forwarded, but the common denominator is the agenda of paranoia. It’s as if the whole thing has been turned into a giant roller coaster ride, with no actual point to it beyond the ups and downs.
Thanks for the read! Be well.
#7 by G-LO on August 12, 2011 - 10:19 AM
You’re very welcome! A great, thought provoking read!
#8 by True thrash metal on August 11, 2011 - 10:24 PM
I was thinking about this the other day. I agree with everything in this article.
#9 by Keith Spillett on August 12, 2011 - 7:11 AM
I’m glad! I was hoping it would resonate with some people. Never fear….King Diamond will save us.
#10 by The Alemonger on August 12, 2011 - 9:15 AM
Maybe the best-articulated commentary on the state of our communal idiocy I’ve ever read. You need to stop doing whatever it is you think you do for a living and concentrate on writing.
Simple as that. Well done.
#11 by Keith Spillett on August 12, 2011 - 10:00 AM
Thank you!!! That means a lot to me. So glad you enjoyed it.
#12 by UA on August 17, 2011 - 4:08 PM
I can’t disagree with anything this article says…it’s all there in the open and obvious for anyone who looks. But it’s also important to remember, IMO, that if you turn off your computer and TV it all just disappears. It used to be that the luddites ran away from technology…now it seems to be the case that intelligent people are unplugging. 😉 There are too many goddamn voices on the internet or in the media and I refuse to believe that’s somehow a reflection or demonstration of “democracy.” Peace of mind and privacy are quickly becoming “commodities” worth throwing everything else away for IMO…to simply be silent is the goal?
#13 by Keith Spillett on August 19, 2011 - 2:38 PM
You make several outstanding points. In a lot of ways, I enjoy the voices and images that I am barraged by. I hate them, too. It’s a strange balance. My way of coping is to see the whole thing as an obscene carnival. I’m not sure that it helps the world that much, but I simply cannot find another way to process the whole thing. I feel like the Romanov family must have when the Revolution stormed the gates and they were too involved in Tarot cards to care one way or another.
I’ve never been able to be still or silent. It seems more and more appealing when I’m overwhelmed with the circus. It also terrifies me.
#14 by John Erickson on August 19, 2011 - 2:56 PM
Would it help you to know that I am currently watching “Cheers”, writing up stats on never-built Japanese battleships, and responding to your comments? That might help explain the occasional “Barbette armour – 14″/356mm” that pop into my posts.
#15 by Keith Spillett on August 19, 2011 - 5:11 PM
I love it!
#16 by itfitzme on December 26, 2011 - 2:58 AM
“300 million lunatics..” By this, I assume you refer to the US population. In all fairness, some 40% are under the age of 16 and don’t deserve to be called lunatics. They can be excused, being children. Future lunatics, perhaps, but not yet. We must keep in mind that 50% of the voting public has a below average IQ and reading level. That is an unfortunate truth that has always been so and always will be so. It seems that the information age hasn’t led to an increase in knowledge. Rather, it has led to an opportunity for every lunatic with a computer to voice his opinion, however uneducated and lacking in reason it maybe. And, as our sense of resolve is very dependent on the validation of others, the internet provides an opportunity for validation of whatever idea they may wish to confirm.
The lunatics have a lot of energy, there lunacy is driven by an imbalance of norepinephrine and adrenaline. They are loud. They repeat the same small minded statements that sound great, until you think about them or look beneath the surface to find that they rest on a misrepresentation of facts, faulty premises, or false logic. And, they each seem to know very little about nearly everything. It’s easy to have an opinion about everything when you know nothing about anything.
But, they don’t matter. Most people are reasonable. They are thoughtful. They are quiet. They are busy. They are willing to accept that they aren’t sure or don’t know. And they do read. They don’t have college degrees or advanced studies in statistics. Their knowledge is limited to what our public highschool education provides. But they recognize a reasonable tone. And they will acknowledge a reasonable argument that connects to what they do understand.
The best i can do is pick a subject to know how to understand, at whatever level I can know that I can be logical and factual. When I find some unfounded statement in an article, blog or comment, then I can do my part to respond to it with reason and facts. Often, it is a matter of demonstrating how the comment isn’t reasonable. There are three parts of knowledge; true, false, and “I don’t know”.
All to often, lunatics make statements when, in fact, no knowledge can be had. The climate change debate is full of it, claims that ten years of data has meaning when, in fact, it means nothing. And while I cannot argue for the larger part of climate change, I can at least argue for what I do know. And I can state that ten years of temperature measurement is like driving ten yards from the gas station and then trying to figure out what my gas mileage is. It simply isn’t enough to know. Reasonable people get this.
If all that reasonable people get to hear are the small minded, adrenaline driven, fact anemic, illogical slogans of lunatics, then it is all they have a chance to know. The least that I can do is to add a voice of reason.
The problem isn’t that everything is dumb, the problem is that the lunatics are so loud. And, all to often, lunatics are not dumb. Ted Kazynski was well educated. And, I am sure, if you didn’t listen to him for too long, he might have even sounded reasonable.
I like to think of myself as one neuron in a huge mind of some 180 million neurons. The human brain has some 100 billion cells. I can assure you, from personal experience, that there are plenty of them that are quite “dysfunctional” at any given time. All I need are a few thousand more telling me to wear my seat belt than not for me to make the right decisions.
By that measure, I am no less than 555 neurons in this big mind called the internet.
#17 by Keith Spillett on December 26, 2011 - 11:28 PM
“The problem isn’t that everything is dumb, the problem is that the lunatics are so loud.” I like that point better than my article. Super reply!!!! Thanks for taking the time to give such a nuanced, considered response! Awesome!