“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.”
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.