“Mama says, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’” My daddy liked to say, “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” The fictional Mrs. Gump and the quite real Mr. McCartney were probably kindred spirits.
Many of us were taught that “stupid” was a bad word and should never be used to describe another person. Perhaps that’s still the case in homes where children are being reared and such things matter. Mother, who had no problem trying to have things both ways, would say to me, “For someone as smart as you are, you can do some pretty stupid things” when the occasion called for it.
Big Mama, my grandmother who was a stickler for crossed ankles but not crossed knees, referred to some folks as “born simple.” That kind of got expanded in the family to “born with a case of the simples,” a rare example of the succinct needing to give way to the wordy.
Lifted out of context, Bertrand Russell once said, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Even though “cocksure” is one of those perfectly innocent words likely to raise an eyebrow when used with nonchalance, actually being cocksure is not a particularly good thing. Any poker player who went all in on an ace high flush and lost everything to a full house can tell you that.
In Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sissy Spacek has the wonderful line, “I may be ignorant, but I ain’t stupid!” Now whether or not Loretta Lynn ever said that, she and the rest of us should all be able to distinguish between the uninformed/ignorant and the unintelligent/stupid. Now back to Bertie.
Immediately following the aforementioned quote, the great historian/ mathematician/philosopher said, “Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.” Well, that’s some farsighted thinking from a man who’s been dead for 50 years and probably never sat in a roomful of Democrats.
Ready for that context I omitted earlier? (For those who already know the context, please feel free to skip the rest of the column and go back to Proust or Stendahl or whatever you’re re-reading these days.) The Russell quotes come from an essay he wrote called “The Triumph of Stupidity.”
Despite roughly half of this country seemingly thinking that the other half has cornered the market on stupidity (and vice versa), Russell wasn’t writing about America. He was writing about Germany in 1933.
He did mention America in closing. “In this gloomy state of affairs, the brightest spot is America. . . the men in power deal with what is amiss by constructive measures, not by pogroms and wholesale imprisonment. . . Perhaps America is once more destined to save Europe from the consequences of its excesses.”
And America was so destined. But in the here and now, it’s hard to assert credibly that we’re the “brightest spot” or that those in power (thankfully no longer all men) consistently address issues with “constructive measures.”
It seems to me that Mrs. Gump and Daddy, being of the 20th century, thought the revelation of stupidity could be masked by not doing or saying stupid stuff. One might think of it as the exercise of some restraint, a quality we are deeply lacking in the 21st century.
My nephew has broken me of the habit of inquiring, “Can I ask a stupid question?” After about the third time he responded with, “Better than anyone I know,” I took the hint. “Can I say something stupid?” perhaps requires a more nuanced response. Our free speech may be guaranteed by the Constitution, but if that speech is, let’s say uninformed, there may be a somewhat hidden cost to it. In which case, the correct answer to that question is, “Well, you CAN, but perhaps you shouldn’t.”