The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, May 08, 2006

THE INFLUENCE OF STUPIDITY UPON HISTORY: A RUMINATION NOT BY ALFRED THAYER MAHAN: The philosopher George Santayana warned that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. This is an admirable sentiment, I think, and it must have simultaneously amused and annoyed Santayana that after all his hard intellectual work in a variety of fields—the Library of Congress has some 113 books by him on their shelves even as we speak—he was best known to the American reading public as the author of an adage. Other authors have to write whole books in order to become famous; Santayana did it in a single sentence, which brings up the inevitable question of just how do you go about collecting royalties when you are the author of a cliché?

Now I know that I should know better than to argue with a cliché; clichés, adages, old saws, and Oprah Winfrey being what passes for folk wisdom in this our Great Republic these days, but it has always seemed to me that old George was full of toad gonads. I mean, think about it for a minute: if those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, then how would the people repeating history know that they are repeating it, since they’ve forgotten what happened the last time they tried to pull off this silly stunt. And that, of course, doesn’t factor in willful stupidity.

And what, you ask, is willful stupidity? Well, maybe you’re not asking, maybe you don’t even care, and if you don’t, why should I? Answer me that, if you’re so smart. Having cleared that up, what is willful stupidity? Willful stupidity occurs when you do something you know is bone-jarringly dumb but you choose to do it anyway, for reasons best known to yourself and the Almighty, who will no doubt look at your reasoning and wonder if there’s anyway He can get out of that promise He made Noah about not wiping out humanity with another great flood because anyone as dumb as you are ought to be drowned and the sooner the better. The best illustrations of willful stupidity these days usually come from professional sports, where the combination of ego, money, fame, and testosterone can lead some players to think that they can slug a player from another team right in front of a referee during a very close game and not care about the consequences. When you think about willful stupidity in these terms, you can clearly see that willful stupidity is not merely an aberration, something that humanity has had to put up with ever since the first caveman set fire to his wife while they tried to cook a cave bear steak on a hibachi, but is, rather, the driving force behind the whole of human history.

Historians tend to underestimate stupidity as one of the great movers of historical destiny. After all, most historical figures were reasonably intelligent men (historically important women are, as a rule, exceptionally intelligent, since only by being twice as smart could they be just as dumb), with the exceptions of Peter III of Russia, Charles II of Spain, and Mayor ‘Wild Bill’ Thompson of Chicago, who really were as stupid as they looked; Mayor Thompson once threatened to punch the King of England in the nose if His Majesty ever dared show his face in the Windy City; and it is easy for historians to fall into the trap of thinking that there must have been a logical reason for some of the really stupid things these people did. So it is only natural for historians, being fairly intelligent people themselves, should discount the overwhelming influence of stupidity upon history. This, however, is a mistake.

For example, can anyone today deny that Japan’s attack on the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 was a pretty dumb thing to do, and that Germany's declaration of war on the United States three days later is proof positive that Adolf Hitler made some decisions with his head firmly wedged up his own backside? Or, just to indulge in some domestic dumbness for a moment, can anyone truly explain the origins of the designated hitter rule or why anyone goes to see a Pauly Shore movie? There are things in life you cannot explain in any other way except by invoking willful stupidity.

That this is the case should not surprise anyone, really. History is simply humanity’s daily story writ large and with a better soundtrack, so the wise historian should accept the stupidity for what it is. There are some five thousand years of recorded human experience, give or take the occasional cuneiform telegram or two, and in looking over that record it is difficult to say whether if it counts as five thousand years of experience or one year’s worth of experience repeated five thousand times, albeit with cooler toys as the millennia pass. Today a woman can find out instantly via email that the boyfriend is not going to divorce his wife for her, no matter how many times he says his wife doesn’t understand him; the spurned Sumerian girl friend had to find out via clay tablet and it took the post office weeks to deliver the bad news. To add insult to injury, the post office didn’t make the senders pay for the mail until after Zachary Taylor refused to pay for the official letter notifying him that he was now the President of the United States in 1848; Taylor, a sensible military man, saw no point in paying the post office to get news he already knew and so declined to pick up his mail. The post office, fearful that this action might start a precedent, decided to get their money up front and charge the senders instead of the recipients, a reform that came much too late for the dumped Sumerian girl friend.

Stupidity is not always a bad thing, of course, even if it does tend to get large numbers of people killed. Obviously, you want to avoid moronic generals, as they have the unfortunate tendency of adversely affecting one’s expected life span, but sometimes the occasional descent into dolthood is a good thing. If Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t poured acid all over himself like a complete dumbass, for instance, we wouldn’t have the telephone now, although with the arrival of the cellphone you have to wonder why Alex couldn’t have gone in for something less annoying like hydroponic gardening or making movie star mosaics from bottle tops, thereby protecting an easily shocked American public from the details of what you did with your significant other last Saturday night. It’s nice to know that being a complete schlemiel can work out for some people some times, even if you have to put up with all the adverse consequences.


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