On Stupidity
by Michael Brenner on 04 Sep 2023 0 Comment

Stupidity, stupidity everywhere – and not a word to witness.


“Stupid” is a commonplace term casually used in every-day conversation. Much less so in writing – especially when the subject is political personalities. It is heavily weighted with inhibition. Why this hesitation? Why at a time when there is more manifest stupidity in speech and action, by far, than in recorded American history?


“Stupid” is both blunt and conclusive. Straight-forward Anglo-Saxon. It does not welcome qualification or discussion. It implies: matter settled, closed. Moreover, it suggests a character flaw as well as inadequate intelligence. That somehow makes us uncomfortable. So we prefer: dense, slow, dim or dim-witted, or elaborate euphemisms, e.g. “not the sharpest tool in the kit,” or “out of it.” 


There are words that disparage intelligence that are even sharper or stronger than “stupid.” Think of these: blockhead, lamebrain, numbskull. In addition, there are those that refer directly to intelligence: moron, imbecile, idiot. They, too, are in currency but suffer from the disability of taking in vain a descriptive word that refers to the poor souls who are born with mental deficiencies.


“Stupid” is used as an epithet 95% of the time. Not as a depiction of someone’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). To do so in the latter sense is to complicate matters. Intelligence, as we now are aware, is a broad concept that covers 4 or 5 or 6 mental attributes whose correlations are quite low. So, almost no one thinks that through before throwing the word around. To the degree that one might consider basic meanings, it implies lack of logic – the core characteristic of conventional IQ intelligence.


Squirt kerosene on a simmering barbecue – that’s stupid. Sending more troops to Afghanistan when you’ve failed miserably to achieve your objective over the past eight years with much larger contingents – as Obama did in 2009 – is stupid, i.e., illogical. Threatening North Korea with a military strike by a naval task force and sending said task force in the opposite direction is stupid, i.e., illogical. Bestowing praise and honours on the Saudi leaders as declared brothers in the “war on terror” when in fact these very persons have done more to propagate the fanatical creed that inspires and justifies acts of terror is stupid, i.e., “illogical.” However, they do not derive from sub-par intelligence in the IQ sense.


These instances of stupid behaviour draw us to the connections between intelligence and knowledge – between “stupidity” and “ignorance.” Stupid (illogical) behaviour is more likely when you don’t know what you’re doing because important information is lacking. Here, though, the information at the heart of logical thinking is known to the parties taking those actions. Not just accessible – it is lodged (somewhere) in the brain of the actor. “Dumb” in popular usage is the word that combines “stupid” and “ignorant” – with the connotation that the ignorance is wilful. That notion is of cardinal importance.


Obama’s decision to instigate the Maiden Coup in 2014 had nothing to do with IQ. Rather, it was a matter of flawed judgment. Similarly, his decision to abet the jihadi controlled opposition to Assad in Syria, with all its dire repercussions, derived from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the forces in play and a very narrow strategic perspective. Bill Clinton’s plan to unleash the financial predators who gave us the great Wall Street crash by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act stemmed less from irrationality than from ideological commitment to a dogmatic market fundamentalist ideology reinforced by political corruption.


Assuming that the “stupid’ actors are not mentally deficient, why do they act as if they are? That is the persistent question that crops us as we see and read the antics of public officials, commentators, and a host of celebrity personalities. Several explanations, not excuses, come to mind. Above all, wilful ignorance is a form of stupidity. The Biden people chose, in some sense, not to inform themselves about the realities of Russia’s resilient economy and political stability before embarking on it woefully misguided strategy to cut the Putin regime down at the knees by provoking the crisis in Ukraine.


Equally, it put on blinders to avoid seeing that the deepening Sino-Russian partnership would be greatly strengthened by the plan to knock Moscow out of the great power game before confronting the ultimate challenge represented by China to America’s global hegemony. Intellectual laziness of this sort is convenient in allowing a simplistic – if mentally and comfortable – mindset to guide behaviour undisturbed by dissonant, more complex formulations of reality.


A second noteworthy consideration is that some highly influential players in the policymaking game may be acting on an unspoken implicit logic that is not acknowledged but salient for the person(s) involved. The Pentagon brass may well have been less concerned about “winning” in Afghanistan, whatever that means, than they were living with the intolerable perception that they “lost.” No general cum security policy-maker wants to be saddled with the label of “loser.”


That sensitivity can become generalized. Individuals like Generals Mattis and McMaster were in little danger of being blamed for failure in Afghanistan. What seems to have counted is that they did not want the U.S. military to be stigmatized as a failure. They were acutely aware of how much the image of the uniformed military suffered as a result of America losing its first war in Vietnam. It follows that they might hope against hope that the outcome in Afghanistan would be fudged enough so as to escape that fate.[1]


There is a practical side to this concern, too. Failure, as perceptive in the public eye, could tarnish the splendid image so successfully cultivated during the “war on terror” era. That could translate into less support for bigger budgets, less lucrative consultancies after retirement, and less acclaim. And a weaker voice in policy debates.


A second truth to keep in mind is that governments are plural nouns – or, pronouns with multiple antecedents. The numerous organizations, bureaucracies and individuals involved in decision-making typically leads to a complicated process wherein it is easy to lose track of purposes, priorities and coordination. Where little discipline is imposed by the chief, the greater the chances that the result will be contradictory, disjointed, sub-optimal and often poorly executed policies.


We can observe a related phenomenon of compounded ‘dumbness’ unfold on a far grander scale in regard to the Ukraine-plus exercise in fantasy strategy. There, in the face of manifest failure to achieve the original objectives (and suffering enormous collateral diplomatic damage - formation of the BRICS counterforce to the collective West), our leaders, joined by virtually the entire foreign policy community, plow ahead heedless of the mounting costs, and the foredoomed plight of the Ukrainian forces. This mindless behaviour is rooted in a common inability to contemplate not only a national failure of the first magnitude, but also the need for a drastic reworking of profoundly held beliefs about American singularity and predestined place as global supremo.


All of these adverse consequences are more likely to register, and actions to be stupid, when the man nominally in charge lacks the intelligence, emotional stability, self-awareness and advisors to recognize either the requirements for sound policy-making or for implementation. A lack of capacity to accept responsibility and to be held accountable exacerbates matters.


For a President to avoid acting “stupidly,” he need not have an exceptional IQ – or score remarkably high on other dimensions of intelligence. Two things are most important: he must be honest with himself; and he must put in place a policy system that is both logical in process and self-aware as to why decisions are taken with what end in mind. To borrow an analogy from the football terminology favoured in the corridors of Washington power: you can win a championship with a mediocre quarterback if the other pieces are in place (e.g. Bart Starr of the legendary Green Bay Packers, Nick Foles of the 2018 Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles).


A corollary is that an emotionally handicapped or narcissistic quarterback – however talented – will cripple a team sooner or later. One who suffers from the latter condition(s), along with an utter lack athletic talent, is a guarantor of disaster. “Stupidity” will be the least of the derogatory terms applied to the ensuing performance; that word should be reserved for those who chose him.


Moral: we should not hesitate to call things as they are. Feigned politeness in situations marked by systematic deceit and ill-will serve no good purpose. Concerned about the proverbial “dignity of the office?” Take your shoes off before entering the Oval Office. If “stupidity” displayed by stupid people it what we observe, virtue lies in calling it as such.



[1] Vietnam is the central reference point for McMaster’s strategic perspective. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Duke on the topic – the work that has given him the reputation of being the best mind in the Army – the embodiment of the “soldier-scholar.” The book’s thesis is that the uniformed military’s leaders failed in their duty by not remonstrating against Lyndon Johnson misrepresentation of conditions in Vietnam. The premise is that they had an accurate, unbiased understanding while Johnson was a chronic liar who had his political image foremost in mind.


This is a very dubious proposition. The top United States’ commanders in Vietnam were as blind to realities as were the civilians in Washington. Their lying about capabilities (theirs and the Communists), the battlefield picture, and what was going down became proverbial. The daily briefing at command headquarters in Saigon was universally called the “Saigon follies” by the press corps. Today’s daily follies heralding successes in Ukraine is a moveable feast offered at the White House, State, the Pentagon, and at every media site. The difference is that today’s ‘reporters’ don’t recognize the folly, nor dare announce it in the very rare instances that they do.

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