“In America, you have the right to be stupid if you want to be”, said John Kerry, Obama’s new Secretary of State, in a recent speech to German students. It seems, however, that some are abusing the privilege, including members of the current American government. (The fiscal cliff comes to mind.)
Of course, Kerry was actually talking about the importance of free speech, and observing that even unpopular or wrong (“stupid”) views should be permitted, which is a valid point. (That is increasingly untrue, by the way — there are several politically incorrect facts that cannot be mentioned in contemporary discourse in America, and criticizing minorities in any way is strictly verboten, as the German students would say.)
Nevertheless, we can also take his words literally, and wonder up to what point American culture is promoting stupidity, in the phenomenon commonly known as “dumbing down”. It is true that American pop culture has been leading the world in celebrating stupidity, and where American pop culture goes, global culture goes. We are all Americans now.
“Be stupid“, orders us a recent international campaign for Diesel jeans — an Italian brand, but the ad was created by a New York agency. The message is clear: to be reckless and irrational in the search of cheap thrills is to be alive. This is pretty much the general message of the media, from reality shows to commercials.
There have been many American films celebrating stupidity, from “Dumb and Dumber” to “Jackass”. Even “Idiocracy”, while having an interesting opening that criticizes the demographic dumbing down of America, ends up becoming the same form of mindless entertainment that it purports to criticize.
“Forrest Gump” is perhaps a more interesting film. Here the dim-witted protagonist ends up as becoming a moral example, whereas the supposedly smart Jenny ends up joining hippies and dies of AIDS. The film can be seen as a criticism of the cultural revolution of the 60s, although it always bothered me a bit the fact that you’re supposed to see dumbness as the equivalent of moral good.
It is true that, in many cases, because of the leftism indoctrination in American Universities, to be “smart” and to have a diploma merely means to have a high degree of Marxist and progressive ideas inculcated in the brain. But it is also true that there is a stereotype in the USA that liberals are “smart” and culturally savvy, while conservatives are usually seen or portrayed as dumb hicks, clinging to guns and religion.
Of course, that is not really true. While conservatives might be less attuned to contemporary culture and many don’t “get” abstract art, liberals are in many cases just as ignorant of basic economics, such as the fact that money doesn’t grow in trees and you can’t just tax people to death to provide welfare for the non-productive. And, while progressives apparently seem to care a lot about Latino immigrants, their ignorance of Latin American culture and even geography is abysmal. They really see things through they parochial progressive eyes and think that everyone is the world is just like them.
However, what is is true is that there is a certain anti-intellectual bent in part of the American right, which is a pity. While this is understandable, since “intellectual” today in the U.S. usually means “leftist activist”, it seems to me that it is wrong to reject high culture and literacy, throwing the baby along with the water. What Americans should do is get rid of the politically correct claptrap that is currently being taught in the Humanities departments, and return to an education that values the Classics and the canonical works of Dead White Men, as Harold Bloom already argued in 1994 in “The Western Canon“.
We might have the right to be stupid, but it’s not an obligation.