“Against stupidity the gods themselves strive in vain.” F. Nietzsche
“Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former.” – A. Einstein
What is stupidity and where does it come from? To define stupidity I will use a variation on another famous saying of Einstein’s. “Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The original was about nsanity, but I think it works even better for stupidity.
And what causes stupidity? One possible answer is fear or the lack of it.
Fear makes people do stupid things. I doubt many people would argue with that, so let’s apply it. For decades we were taught to be afraid of communists. This resulted in gross violations of our legal rights and a serious distortion of our politics for most of the 20th century. McCarthyism and HUAC, the Black List, J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive FBI, the 1920 Palmer raids, and more were the result. The ascendancy of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about could only have happened in a climate of fear.
After 9/11 we panicked. The results included severe abridgement of our legal rights and two pointless and unwinnable wars that took up the next decade. Those who profit from fear, still the military-industrial complex, needed a new national bugbear to justify itself. This country’s economy is being sucked dry by a bloated defense budget that takes up at least two thirds of federal discretionary spending and in reality runs to about $1.2 trillion per year. We spend more on wars past, present, and future than the next 16 nations. Fiscal discipline and rational programs would probably cut this enough to take us out of the red within a few years.
Our national fear of crime and drugs means that the United States has a larger percent and a larger number of our citizens in the penal system (incarcerated , paroled , probation) than any other nation on the planet. The numbers at the end of 2009 were as follows. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,266,800 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2010 – about 0.7% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Additionally, 4,933,667 adults at year-end 2009 were on probation or on parole. In total, 7,225,800 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 – about 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States
This is not a picture of a healthy society or nation.
The lack of fear where fear would be appropriate also leads to stupidity. The best example I can think of is the economic crash of 2007-8. This was caused by finance institutions gaming our economic system without any regard for consequences to our national economy or the world’s. They made loans that were risky, including those sub-par mortgages. They gambled with other people’s money on schemes that enriched themselves. According to one of my sons, who works in the risk management field, the banks knew that their behavior would lead to a crash, but they kept going anyway because they were making so much money.
We need to heed FDR’s famous warning, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
How can we avoid fear and learn when fear is appropriate? My first advice is to be skeptical and take nothing in government or finance at face value. My second bit of advice comes from the “Dune” series: the litany against fear.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.