I’ve been thinking about the dumb thing: Where did the issue go?
The other day, I was one of the more or less hapless guests subjected to Fox doyen Bill O’Reilly’s fusillade of bluster and grievances. It was a confusing go-round wherein O’Reilly was attacking the liberal press for calling conservatives stupid – George Bush was stupid, and don’t forget Dan Quayle, and God knows O’Reilly himself has been impugned. There was, he implied, an organized conspiracy of name-calling, which put O’Reilly in high dudgeon: How can you say someone is stupid when you have no proof that they are stupid – huh? he demanded to know.
I was there either to be beaten up for this or to be the media critic who would criticize the media for this practice of calling conservatives stupid. I wasn’t sure which role I had been booked to perform (from O’Reilly’s suspicious look, I took it that he didn’t know, either).
Now, O’Reilly has an intent and animated face when he’s taking exception or expressing umbrage or unleashing resentments. But when he isn’t doing this – and the camera mostly isn’t on him when he isn’t doing this – his face goes slack, eyes heavy, and he clearly loses concentration. He looks … stupid. Without the anger, he appears mostly brutish and sullen, uninterested in the world.
So why, I wondered, would he want to call attention to the stupid issue? Bringing this up – especially when you’re on top of the world with high ratings and with the best-selling book in the nation, and when your stupid compatriots have lately been elected to the White House – seems like prime evidence of stupidity.
Let it go, man, I was thinking.
I wondered, briefly, if it wasn’t something campy. Or, a what-me-worry thing: I may be stupid, but I’m rich (indeed, O’Reilly recently renewed his contract for $4 million a year). Or, even, if what was going on here is that we just love watching a stupid guy spout off: O’Reilly knows he’s a clown and is playing the part.
Being smart – street smarts, emotional intelligence, market savvy, wonkishness, always looking for the edge, the insight, the new paradigm – is a go-go attribute, and go-go is done.
And yet, finally, in who’s-the-dummy-here slow motion, it began to cross my mind that exactly the way to flip the game on the smarties was to accuse them of rolling the dummies. Calling attention to the fancy-pantses is a classic strategy (egghead dot-commer Michael Kinsley is a particular O’Reilly bête noire – sort of O’Reilly’s Alger Hiss). The dummies in America always get the sympathy vote. Dumb has no airs. Dumb has no arrogance. Dumb has no fashion sense (except Hollywood dumb, which is a different story).
Dumb is good. Dumb is solid. Dumb is righteous.
And being dumb, possibly like a fox, is the best place you can be right now.
It is not just the right-wing media (i.e., the Murdoch media) making this case.
Adam Gopnik, as close as anyone comes to being the voice of The New Yorker – which is still a pretty reliable smarty-sensibility barometer – had a slight but significant piece in the magazine the other week. You read it, and out of the corner of your eye, you started to look to see if there was anyone noticing that you still thought George Bush was a dummy. You were stuck in this place, you suddenly realized, and now the smarties had moved to another place where they were now thinking of stupid as a style thing, as attitude, as even just another kind of intelligence.
Gopnik’s piece, which was both condescending and embracing, arch and elegiac, was inspired by a front-page story in the Times (the search for the Zeitgeist is often an attenuated process) about the middle-American management style of enforced schedules and strict dress codes now in place at the White House. And while it was not about intelligence per se, it was certainly about not being smart – about the return to the pre-New Economy, gentleman’s-C, have-my-girl-do-it, old-fashioned, dumbed-down corporate world. Gopnik described the Times as gushing over this counterreformation; Gopnik himself was trying to be more thoughtful. But if you think about it, he asked, so what if the Bushies aren’t edgy? So what if they don’t live in their offices and work all night? So what if they aren’t in hyper-overdrive? So what if these aren’t the brightest kids in the nation, in their silly T-shirts? What’s so wrong with just inheriting the mantle? (Some of this could be said about The New Yorker itself, so perhaps Gopnik was making a larger point.)
“One would have to be a committed and even embittered partisan not to find something mildly attractive about the new president’s indifferences,” wrote Gopnik.
Gopnik was having a monarchical moment – partly ironic, but not that ironic.
He was noting a cultural change, a Zeitgeist breeze, and positioning himself for it. If you were smart, you’d get onboard with dumbness (he doesn’t call it dumbness; he calls it “detachment” and “country-club bonhomie”). Even if you have to be arch in your appreciation, that’s where you want to be. You don’t want to be left behind in that other, neurotic place.
Being smart – street smarts, emotional intelligence, market savvy, wonkishness, always looking for the edge, the insight, the new paradigm – is a go-go attribute, and go-go is done (the economy changed the Zeitgeist, or the Zeitgeist changed the economy – I think it’s the latter).
The getting-it/not-getting-it divide has entirely flipped around. The dumbos get it now, and the smarties are at a loss. The “strivers” versus the “cheerful and well-adjusted” is how Gopnik parses the culture.
While the rate of change has taken my existential breath away, there’s certainly a media logic here (which, because I thought Bush was such a wonderful and easy target, went by me, I admit):
For one thing, a successful person, even if his is a hard-won success, is never dumb; those are contradictory ideas. In America, every successful person is some kind of smart person. George Bush, because he is sitting in the White House, is not dumb; Bill O’Reilly, because he has a big and growing audience, and $4 million, is not dumb.
For another, we media people never want to miss out on the next big thing. Our job is finding the next big thing – even if the next big thing is being dumb. The liberal press, contrary to what O’Reilly might think, is not the opposition press (and I don’t really think he thinks it is, which is why he beats it so strenuously – it doesn’t beat back). Our greatest fear is, in fact, to be caught outside the next big thing (for a long while, for instance, the media was caught outside the Internet, which is why it piled on so blindly, leading to bubble and bust). If we know where the country is going, we will go there. It’s part of the real usefulness of a president, and our obsessive interest in him – he implies a direction, a sensibility (also, sensibility is a more popular way to look at the guy than ideology, which, given the general belief that policy has reached some entropic condition, is interesting to no one).
Perhaps most important, beyond making fun of garbled syntax (and you’ll notice that, more than not, Bush’s sentences are now cleaned up for him), the media is not really allowed to call people stupid. It’s nearly a political-correctness thing. The bias is that when we say stupid it isn’t about aptitude; rather, it’s a cultural description (calling someone stupid is like calling someone fat – even if it’s patently true, it’s bigoted). It’s a demographic point – therefore, a demographic prejudice.
Indeed, if you pursue this, you quickly get into Ted Turner territory – only the stupids believe in Jesus, or whatever it is he said. It is not necessarily that the smarts disagree with that, but no smart, save one on lots of lithium (and with $9 billion in fuck-you money), would ever say it.
Then, too, it is particularly hard for the media to single out or disparage certain people, or groups of people, as stupid, because, obviously, most of the media’s customers are stupid – it’s one of the points of mass media. We depend on the stupids. We court them. And they are easily offended. (If you do describe someone as stupid, or fat – if somehow such a description slips through the careful filtering processes – the phone begins to ring with lots of O’Reilly-ish media rage.)
So we begin this process of rationalizing stupidity, or seeing the lack of intellectual curiosity or ambition or information savvy or cultural interests as a baseline of the human or at least American condition.
“It isn’t,” said a friend of mine who is always on top of the current media position, “about smart or not smart. It’s about decorum and maturity. Clinton, who was deeply intelligent, shared with the dot-com guys the same utter lack of self-control. Now the adults are back in charge. George Bush is your dad rather than your brother. Dick Cheney and Colin Powell are your dad’s friends.”
Stupid has this intrinsic P.R. component. George Bush can go to the Gridiron dinner and play up all the stupid attributes and bring the house down. Indeed, the late-night stupid jokes almost never play mean; they play more or less cute and cuddly. Stupid represents a bonanza of goodwill.
A stupid person is an easier person. A less competitive person. A less in-your-face person. (Except for O’Reilly – but he’s forgiven his combativeness and obtuseness precisely because he is stupid.) What’s not to like about a stupid person?
But also, and this is the great and interesting transformation, dumbness is not regarded as lesser than smartness – a legacy of the Reagan administration.
Now, it seemed that the nineties would tip the balance back, that this would be a logical result of the reinvigorated meritocracy. You get rich not just because you are a son of a bitch, or a salesguy, or because you are in the right place at the right time, or because you inherit it, but because you can think abstractly – you can invent new business models and what-all. But as so often happens, the smart guys were not very sympathetic (one of the surprising things about Clinton was that as a smart guy he could also be sympathetic – the fat boy trying to get out from inside the smart guy helped), and, it appears now, not particularly successful either. Too pushy, too competitive, too obsessive.
Whereas dumbness is a better lifestyle choice. Not a limitation but a perspective. And it’s so inclusive.