Stupidity

by A. Jay Adler on May 25, 2010
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It’s everywhere. You look to your right: it’s stupid. You look to your left: it’s stupid. Open a newspaper (really – does anyone “open” a newspaper anymore?): stupid. Turn on the television: stupider. Michael Steele, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin? So stupid.

It may not be contagious, but it sure is influential.

What’s a non-stupid person to do?

Try to get away from stupidity, say by reading the blog of a very smart person, Norm Geras, over at Normblog, and what does he do? He writes about a stupid person.

Thanks, Norm, for leading me to Sathnam Sanghera, who writes for The Times of London, and who, I’ll have you know is a graduate of Cambridge University. What does Mr. Sanghera, a particular kind of mentally-limited devotee of the scientific method have to say for himself?

Indeed, a bit of me dies whenever young people say that they want to study philosophy at university. There is a naive view that three years spent pondering questions such as “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” and “Why are we here?” will help you to understand the meaning of life, when the truth is that philosophy is the most whimsical and self indulgent of academic pursuits, raising more questions than answers and too often being an exercise in intellectual showing off for those involved.

Now, first, I am going to venture to say that a bit of Sanghera does not actually die when he receives the distressing news of some youthful innocent’s philosophical study. This particular little fey dramatic gesture suggests that Sanghera, rather than the feature writer for the Financial Times he once was, might have been better suited – despite that he protesteth too much – to imbibing Romantic and Symbolist poetry in Left Bank cafes.

If the feature writer had actually studied philosophy himself, he would know that it does not involve the consideration of best selling booklets by rabbis and ministers seeking to assuage the moral crises of the flock. Ignorance is not a sufficient, or even a necessary component of stupidity, but added to the beaker with arrogance, it will provide the necessary combustion. Sanghera is clearly completely unfamiliar with the enormous range of issues with which philosophy concerns itself, which do include, for some, consideration of meaning in life, and one of the fortunately erasable markers of stupidity is to dismiss as unimportant in life what is unimportant, because unfathomable, to oneself. If Sanghera had studied philosophy, he would know that the very first thing philosophical study does is teach one how to think, adequate instruction in which our writer manifestly did not receive at Cambridge minus the “whimsy” of philosophy.

Also conveyed to me via Normblog (Norm has a keen eye for this stuff) is the brilliance of Raj Patel, who, we are told by Wikipedia

received a B.A in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, from Oxford, and a Masters Degree from the London School of Economics, and gained his PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University in 2002.[2][11] He has been a visiting scholar at Yale and the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his academic training, Patel worked at the World Bank, World Trade Organization and the United Nations.[2] He has since become an outspoken public critic of all of these organizations, and claims to have been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against his former employers.[2][7][12]

We may have our answer to the following from the tear gas, and no doubt the reception of it on four continents is a particularly toxic stew. And what does Patel have to say, queried by The Sydney Morning Herald to write about America?

What is wrong with America? It’s a country founded on the brutal extermination of indigenous people, where inequality and racial intolerance are on the rise, and where the government – once seen as a huge improvement on its right-wing predecessor – seems happy to renege on its commitments to climate change.

What follows is an extended damning and damnable indictment of the USA, but, really, all of Patel’s stupidity is on display in these two introductory sentences. If one reads this blog with any regularity, then the reader knows of my positions regarding the conquest of Native America, but “founded on” in this passage is as empty a receptacle of slipshod terminology as one can employ. By “America” does Patel mean the United States? Because, of course, America is a place, given a name, and was not founded at all – and was not, instead, the United States founded, at least in part, on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, and a whole host of politico-philosophical tracts? But by America, Patel does, indeed, mean the United States, in which case what to make of his ignoring the historical truth that all of the Western Hemisphere was settled in the process of indigenous genocide, and not just the United States? What to make of the London-born Patel’s failure to note that it was not “Americans” who committed a major part of this genocide, but various European peoples, whose descendents today are not less consequentially connected to this history than are Americans, except that the Europeans, having been kicked out of the hemisphere through numerous wars of independence, got to withdraw across an ocean and pretend one to two hundred years later that they had nothing to do with what they left behind on another continent. We’ll leave “happy” to renege on climate change commitments till – well, we’ll just leave it.

Oh, and by the way, Patel became an American citizen in January of this year.

Finally, we have Roger Cohen of the New York Times writing on Iran, which is almost the definition of stupid. Let’s begin with Cohen describing U.S.-Iranian relations as “the most traumatized relationship on earth and the most tantalizing.” Then let’s note that one needn’t even travel out of the region, more than a few hundred miles, to find a more traumatized relationship. Guess?

But Cohen knows no bounds.

Americans see Iranians as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.” Iranians, in turn, see Americans as “belligerent, sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating,” not to mention bullying and exploitive.

I’m just going to ask right now – do you think Iranians are all or any of these things? I don’t, and I don’t know an American who does. The Iranians I know – and they are more than a few here in Tehrangeles – are quite impressive people. Or does Cohen mean the Iranians who bravely, stirringly risked their lives around this time last year trying to throw off the three decades of oppression? Everywhere I was looking, Americans were quite admiring of them. Or does Cohen conflate here our view of the government with our opinion of the people?

What Cohen is engaged in is the time-honored inanity of reducing all conflict to misunderstanding based on people’s unfortunate misconceptions of each other. The Ayatollahs and Ahmadinejads and Revolutionary Guards and Basij and the prison torturers since last June – types, with different details, you will find in any despotic regime – they’re all just misunderstood. Cohen’s memory extends in its deficiency not only over the whole three decades of Islamic rule in Iran, but even, blindly, over the past year. Nearly everything he writes in the column is either wrong – his description of French and Chinese reaction to the Brazilian-Turkish brokered “deal” – or, there is no other word, stupid.

I know, the 1,200 kilograms [of nuclear material that would be removed under the deal] now represents a smaller proportion of Iran’s LEU than in October and it’s no longer clear that the fuel rods will come from the conversion of the LEU in escrow. But that’s small potatoes when you’re trying to build a tenuous bridge between “mendacious” Iranians and “bullying” Americans in the interests of global security. [Emphasis added]

But that was the whole point – that the amount of LEU left behind would be inadequate to fuel offensive capabilities. And Cohen’s rationale for accepting a meaningless agreement is the frivolous straw man he constructed to characterize U.S.-Iranian relations? They guy, in fact, is not a bad reporter, but thinker?

Stupidity is not ignorance. Ignorance of the most fundamental kind – simple lack of knowledge –is mechanically curable by basic education. Ignorant people are by no means necessarily stupid, and as we see, very well educated people can be quite stupid. Sarah Palin isn’t stupid just because she’s ignorant, but because she has amply demonstrated her disinterest in curing her ignorance, in educating herself. Stupidity requires a form of arrogance, the presumption that one knows what one does not, or that what one doesn’t know doesn’t matter, and the foolishness to act in that ignorance.

Once, having given my feelings, my trust, and my hopes incautiously, I took myself out a door without destination, descended and stood in the night in front of an apartment building in a city not my own, and cursed the pavement and person on it.

“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”

AJA

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4 comments

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

copithorne May 26, 2010 at 12:16 am

You know I think Mr. Sanghera has a point.

I think that after the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, academic philosophy is a dead man walking. No genuine questions, no genuine answers. Just cleaning up after the party. Why cleaning up takes a few generations, is anyone’s guess.

Wittgenstein said “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language.” But philosophy is the betwitchment in a way congruent with Mr. Sanghera’s concerns.

Really if you were to answer who are the philosophers who caused even a ripple in the last fifty years, who could you say?

Noam Chomsky — for his linguistic work.

Then, who else? Richard Rorty? John Rawls?

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Silke May 26, 2010 at 12:03 am

when I retired one of my projects was to catch up on the exciting stories my Latin teacher had told us about Heraclit and Socrates. But ever since I found that none of those I can find podcasts of has any qualms about finding the trolley problem intriguing I am getting turned off more and more.

In my book the trolley problem poses questions that humans shouldn’t be asked to ponder, no matter how hypothetical and especially not in this kind of tongue in cheek gleeful way. I’ve always assumed that philosophy and ethics are related and contemplating killing as a mind tickling puzzle is indecent in my book.

Though I have found great lessons/lectures this thorn in the packet spoils a lot for me and makes me put close to wreckless scientists

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A. Jay Adler May 26, 2010 at 8:23 am

Silke,

Welcome to my little cabin in the woods. Pull up a chair. Some coffee? Tea? A good Pils or Bock?

Reply

ShrinkWrapped May 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Well said, Jay; you’re on a roll.

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