By Dr. Rafael Pérez Ortolá*
Am I stupid? Are you? These questions sound so damn hard to take that you might not even want to start looking for the answers. They seem to just float in the air. Because individuals tend to refer to their most inner concerns and knowledge of themselves—which is not really complete. And those responses arising from the society at large pay scant attention to ordinary individuals.
With all this in mind, I read the book “Are You Stupid?” with some excitement. It was written by Mihai Nadin (distinguished professor at the University of Texas), who has published several books on various aspects of modern society (The Civilization of Illiteracy, Mind—Anticipation and Chaos) and many articles on, for example, anticipatory systems, human-computer interaction, education, semiotics, the arts. The publisher Synchron (Germany) invites the reader to discover the author’s very provocative ideas. The large body of references prove that the author’s analysis is well grounded in research. The book is not difficult to read, which in no way detracts from the important questions it poses.
The book tackles the title’s provocative question—which sounds almost like an accusation—from the outset. The reader will immediately realize that the author condemns a certain indifference on the part of Americans when it comes to issues of import—lesser or greater—to society at large. Although he focuses on attitudes prevalent in the USA, readers from other countries soon discern the similarities with the European environment, and in other parts of the progressive world. How are we going to deal with the question posed? Should we be interested in the issues Nadin discusses? They pertain to us also.
Nadin brings up the American mantra, “What a country!” before presenting the four aspects of the American’s progressive alienation. He dedicates a chapter to each: politics and parties; the legal system; the media; and education. He reflects on the polarizations that frustrate Americans, even as they support the radicals who cater to their wants and interests. Important issues are never honestly explained. The complexity of living in modern society is boiled down to idiotic simplification. As long as Americans can live quite well at the expense of the rest of the world, they can have the illusion that they are better than the rest.
The first idiotic simplification is expressed in the formula “American exceptionalism.” Of course, the great achievements of the USA are indisputable: hospitals offering the most advanced treatments, powerful industries, prestigious universities, exceptional research, etc. Euphoric over all this success, Americans suffer the second simplification: collective delusion. They assume that they are the drivers of this train to glory. They do not realize that they are being driven by those who actually exercise power.
The next disconcerting truth derives from the high standard of living that Americans have enjoyed: well-paying jobs, homes, cars, all kinds of consumer goods, vacations and travel, entertainment. These contribute to a state of complacency, in which ever-less effort is made while expectations increase. Consequently, more benefits demanded from the state and the delegation of private functions to the public domain, that is, to bureaucracy. Thus, average Americans disengage themselves from the decision-making process, effectively marginalizing their role in “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” What will it take to shake Americans from this complacency?
The political image is a reflection of the private condition. Everything becomes a transaction: from private donations to charity (How much can I deduct from my taxes?) to big business: great numbers of enormous transfers of capital. Entities with no clear public identity, mainly an outward shell, continuously hunt for new lucrative prospects outside the bounds of their corporate charters. These colossal set-ups are conspiratorial by their nature. They infiltrate and overtake everything. Instead of acting as independent, impartial entities, the news media cater to big business and other power groups, on which they actually depend for money and access. What can the citizen do? All that is left is to conform, to surrender, after obtaining some collateral benefit. The huge numbers are practically deified by economists; for their sake human sacrifice is demanded. How have these power structures gained the ability to act on their own?
Collateral benefits are channeled through pre-determined conduits. Progressive patronage holds sway; it is practiced by those in positions of power. This patronage gives rise to an accommodating dependence for the recipients of some gift, no matter how large or small. Satisfying them anesthetizes any possible revolt on their part. On those levels more attuned to specific gain, especially in politics, cronyism is the reigning modus operandi. Although all this is evidence of collective servitude, with pitiful, demeaning aspects, it is a very widespread practice.
As to the role of the so-called citizens, one can discern a peculiar paradox: as their physical presence (population growth) increases, their engagement in civic life as thinking agents decreases. Successive abdication to the status quo and to any new abuse of power turns them into stupid persons, superfluous to the functioning of the system. Rather, the people are used, their incompetence is manipulated. They are of no use as a being that actually thinks. They don’t count in the high stakes of the future as business and government projects are hatched at their expense. Whenever the public’s concerns and desires are brought up, they serve as subjects for political propaganda.
This state of affairs is abetted at a time when information abounds in our Internet age. Each one of us is addressed through the omnipresent social networks that stalk us. Nadin, who has remained active in digital technology practically since its inception—amply describes how people have become the slaves of digital technology, not its masters. Moreover, “they”—businesses, state institutions, or the thousands of interest groups—pursue us simultaneously and incessantly. After having crippled our intellect and common sense, how are we to cope with the increasing demands on our minds and time should we even try to make sense of the (mis)information sent our way? In most cases, due to complacency or self-interest, we just don’t want to get involved, even if our mental faculties are still intact. Braudel is right: men make history, but they don’t know what they’re doing. This is a crucial dilemma: Are we, or are we not?
Let us recall the concept of the critical mass of minds (which Nadin elaborated in his book Mind—Anticipation and Chaos), this ensemble of collective thought. Signs and interpretations give shape to a certain functioning. They are the necessary foundation for the anticipation of the reality to which we aspire. They are the basis for the counter-attack by active individuals, persistent agents preparing for the demanding cooperation that society desperately needs, as it recovers the ground surrendered to networks of all kind.
No one is born stupid, but everyone can, and usually does act stupidly. The IQ does not play a role in stupidity. We need only observe the behavior of brilliant, as well as less intelligent or educated, individuals in today’s environment. In this case, the higher the intelligence, the more stupidity plays a role in the nonsense produced and, what is worse, the resulting damage done to everyone directly or indirectly involved.
With an expository clarity that the reader will enjoy, the author challenges us to confront stupidity in our social environment and on the broad scale of government. He points out the consequences of surrendering the responsibility that freedom entails: the USA can end up like the Soviet Union, imploding under its own heavy, inert bureaucratic weight. How we respond to the title question will be reflected in the role each one of us wants to assume. Neither in unfettered freedom nor in total inhibition, but with the natural simplicity of human dignity focused on doing our best.
*Translated from the Spanish by Elvira Nadin