Experience: The Age of Dumb


One could search in vain through the annals of American cultural history for a period in which stupidity was more in vogue than at present. This is the Age of Dumb. The Hero of the day is the Fonz, the star of TV's popular "Happy Days." He is the refugee from a remedial reading class, a character of coarse, unlettered sensibilities, who is nevertheless considered adorable precisely because he does not think. He blusters. And bullies. But he does not think. When a situation arises which calls for even a modicum of leadership, the Fonz provides it by threat of force. Duh.

It is no news, of course, that television has broadcast entertainment appealing to a low level of intellect. This has been true for years. Shows portraying people in unspeakably stupid situations date from the first days of television. That is not at issue. With the TV industry requiring so many original programs every week, many of poor quality are inevitable. The talent pool upon which the producers draw could not be large enough to allow for anything else. What I am noting is something different. Today's programming is not merely stupid in an unconscious way. It is purposefully so. The dumb punk is the man of the hour. The networks appear to be competing to see which can take "stupid chic" to the greatest extreme. ABC has gone so far as to air a series known as "The San Pedro Beach Bums."

The networks and advertisers have surveys which purport to tell what viewers enjoy. I have no doubt but that these surveys are accurate. They show, for example, that the highest rated program of last summer was "Szynsznk" on CBS. One show highlighted the academic exploits of a punk character, "Tony," whose prime worldly accomplishment was having progressed through 14 years of public school without managing to read or write. When his learning disability was first revealed to his fellow "Szynsznkis," "Tony" was somewhat embarrassed. But not for long. He soon found out that his stupidity was a character asset. It made him popular and gave him sex appeal. The fact that he could engineer a protracted fraud on the school authorities by hiring his more learned friends to do his homework showed that he was truly a "together" fellow. And what really counts is the state of one's mind, not what is in it, right? We fade out with an image of teenage girls dreaming that they too can find an ignoramus to love, someone who can give them a letter sweater without knowing his abc's. It is a fitting image for the entire romance of stupidity which is blossoming between the media and the public.

Stupid chic is not merely a phenomenon of television. It extends to the printed word as well. The trend in popular magazine articles is away from "thought" pieces toward the least thoughtful of all writing—gossip. Any article which calls for the reader's attention to more than three sentences of connected thinking is "too heavy." The reader is not to be challenged or disturbed. He is to be coddled. Tell him, by all means, with whom Linda Ronstadt is, or is imagined to be, sleeping. Tell him which squabble led Norman Mailer to punch Gore Vidal. Tell, even, that Nora Ephron got crabs. Such trivia has the inestimable advantage of being just that—trivial. What is trivial need not be integrated into one's understanding in any decisive way.

The glorification of ignorance and brute force is becoming a fixture of popular music as well. Punk rock and its stars, "Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols" are hailed in the Rolling Stone. They pierce their ears with paperclips, dye their hair blue, and wail out such lyrics as:

I don't know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passers-by.…

Other rock stars affect swastikas and intimidation. Columbia Records vocalist Ron Mael wears slicked black hair and a Hitler mustache. The advertising blurbs hail his music as "refreshingly demented." Other punks tell the Rolling Stone: "We are the future—no future."

Through all the rage and vulgarity of the punk movement the perception that there is "no future" is arresting. It lies at the bottom of the whole phenomenon. The impulse to embrace stupidity and thus discard civilization begins with the supposition that the mind is impotent to change the future, that one's plans and actions are inevitably frustrated by developments which betray expectations. When the sense of chaos becomes widespread because of recurrent frustrations suffered by millions, thinking itself is repudiated, along with the political, economic and aesthetic systems which thinking has seemed to create and justify. The sense that "experts" are at a pronounced advantage over the average person as long as there is reasoned discourse, leads the disaffected to reject the discourse along with the conclusions it seems to rationalize and justify. The masses do not trust thinking because they do not accept the received conclusions of thought, and thus we have the Fonz, who rejects all the learned chatter and muscles his way to success.

As unwelcome as this development is, it in some ways demonstrates the genius of Hayek's distinction between evolutionary and constructivist rationalism. When society falls too much under the domination of managers, who seek to shape its particulars through the use of articulated plans, the result is to frustrate the inarticulate expectations which are the rules that make rational behavior possible. Frustrated, people reject reason altogether. And they do so in a way which rejects "explanation." No one wants to think. He wants to watch "Wonder Woman" on TV and have his horoscope charted.

The Age of Dumb came upon us for very understandable reasons. And it is likely to stay for some time, perhaps until we suffer through the sort of collapse which Johnny Rotten is growling for. It need not be that way of course. Each person who objects to such a destiny can begin to fight it by thinking, and demanding thought from others. Instead of laughing at the supposedly fetching antics of punk pop heroes, we should reject them and the forums in which they perform. And we must also reject the heresy that what we do in attempting change is unimportant. An everyday plain person is competent to throw the meanderings of history into a different course. Edmund Burke put it well:

How often has public calamity been arrested on the very brink of ruin, by the seasonable energy of a single man?.…I am as sure as I am of my being, that one vigorous mind without office, without situation, without public functions of any kind, (at a time when the want of such a thing is felt, as I am sure it is), I say one such man, confiding in the aid of God, and full of just reliance in his own fortitude, vigor, enterprise, and perseverance, would first draw to him some few like himself, and then that multitudes, hardly thought to be in existence, would appear and troop about him.

If we are to have heroes, let them read, write and think.