The cleverness of stupidity

Whether real or feigned, the political and media establishment are clearly benefitting from being very dense.

The cleverness of stupidity

Whether real or feigned, the political and media establishment are clearly benefitting from being very dense.

An otherwise unremittingly bleak book, Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel Catch-22 nevertheless closes on a note of profound hope. Just as the protagonist Yossarian is in utter despair at his inability to escape the War, as his friends lie dead and his various institutional enemies close ranks around him, he receives word from the Chaplain about the fate of Orr, the “warm-hearted, simple-minded gnome” with whom he once shared a tent, who has been presumed dead after crashing his plane, one final time, into the sea.

“Sweden!” cried the chaplain, shaking his head up and down with gleeful rapture and prancing about uncontrollably from spot to spot in a grinning, delicious frenzy. “It’s a miracle, I tell you! A miracle! I believe in God again. I really do. Washed ashore in Sweden after so many weeks at sea! It’s a miracle.”
“Washed ashore, hell!” Yossarian declared... “He didn’t wash ashore in Sweden. He rowed there! He rowed there, chaplain, he rowed there... He planned it that way! He went to Sweden deliberately.”

And then suddenly, for Yossarian, everything makes sense. Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, Orr had been tormenting him with his bizarre, circuitous speeches about why he likes to go about with apples and horse chestnuts stuffed into his cheeks; with the mystery of why he was once seen paying a girl in Rome to hit him over the head with her shoe; with his baffling, cheerful willingness to keep flying despite crashing his plane, almost every time, into the sea.

But now Yossarian realizes that this was all part of a grand escape plan: that behind Orr’s façade of stupid, buck-toothed innocence was a cunning far great than anything he, Yossarian — openly scheming against the military high-ups determined to get him killed — was ever capable of mustering. Orr got himself shot down into the sea, landed the plane safely with his months of practice, and then rowed for weeks to Sweden, surviving by catching cod and eating it raw — something his crewmates had seen him doing on previous missions, to their general bafflement. And so hope arises, with Orr as Yossarian’s exemplar.

“’Bring me apples, Danby, and chestnuts too. Run, Danby, run. Bring me crab apples and horse chestnuts before it’s too late, and get some for yourself.”
“Horse chestnuts? Crab apples? What in the world for?”
“To pop in our cheeks, of course... Oh, why didn’t I listen to him? Why wouldn’t I have some faith?”

“One of the lessons of the Hitler period,” Adorno and Horkheimer tell us in the aphorism “Against Knowingness” from Dialectic of Enlightenment, “is the stupidity of cleverness.”

“Clever” people, after all, always set themselves against Hitler — and yet they were powerless to stop him. During the period of his rise, “expert... well-informed” arguments proliferated, dismissing its likelihood even after it had become inevitable. (There are, of course, clear parallels with the response to Trump in 2016.) Meanwhile, whenever smart, “reasonable” people attempted to confront Hitler, as Chamberlain did when attempting to negotiate with him at Bad Godesberg, they did so essentially by insisting that he respect the rule of the old order: that there be — in some sense — an “equivalence between giving and taking.” But this cleverness — which Adorno and Horkheimer refer to as “traditional bourgeois intelligence” — is “helpless as soon as power disregards that rule and simply appropriates directly.”

“Hitler was against intellect and humanity,” Adorno and Horkheimer write. “But there is also an intellect which is against humanity: it is distinguished by well-informed superiority.” And in the face of fascist power, that intellect is always going to end up betraying itself — a cleverness that “is becoming stupidity.”

But if cleverness is becoming stupidity, then perhaps stupidity is becoming cleverness also. This, at any rate, is the genius of Orr — who outsmarts everyone around him precisely by coming across as the most perfect moron. And this strategy is something that Orr very much shares with his most obvious literary antecedent, The Good Soldier Švejk — hero of Jaroslav Hašek’s sprawling satire of the same name.

Round-cheeked, earthily ugly, affable and good-natured, at the outset of the novel Švejk is a former career soldier happily running a business selling counterfeit pedigree dogs after “having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile.” But then, with the outset of World War I, Švejk — a Czech living under the rule of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire — finds his life once again threatened by the military authorities. And so, with no other options available to him, he effects a stance of passive resistance: declaring at all times his willingness to be sent to the front to die in the service of Emperor Franz Josef, while constantly blundering his way out of ever reaching it.

Nowadays, the cunning power of stupidity is certainly not something that gets wielded to any particular anti-establishment purpose.

Thus when Švejk is sent to join his regiment in the town of České Budějovice to prepare to go to the front, he asks the guard on his train various pointless questions about the emergency brake in order to manufacture a situation where they both have their hands on it at the same time, allowing him to pull it while (plausibly) being able to claim that he has done no such thing. When forced to leave the train at the next station, Švejk idles away all his money drinking in the bar there, which means — much to his professed surprise — that he can’t afford a new ticket.

When he’s told his only option is to walk to meet his regiment instead, he heads off west instead of south, maintaining — with all apparent sincerity and conviction — that this doesn’t matter, since just as it is said all roads led to Rome, by the same principle all roads must lead to České Budějovice. If ever confronted with suspicions about his true intentions, Švejk simply yammers rambling anecdotes only dimly related to the matter at hand, all the while wearing on his face “such a blissful and contented expression as could only grace a month-old baby which had drunk and sucked its fill and was now enjoying its bye-byes.”

In both cases, the cunning stupidity of these characters works via a certain thwarting of recognition. Neither Orr nor Švejk accepts the system’s rule over them as legitimate — and so they do not feel compelled to provide it with anything like an honest account of themselves. In presenting publicly as simple-minded innocents, they are able to escape the full brunt of the system’s scrutiny, idle off their duties and ultimately (perhaps) seize their chance to escape it completely.

These examples, of course, are from fiction — so it’s hard to say if this sort of cunning stupidity was ever really anything like the radical force which Orr and Švejk, natural anarchists, make it seem (although it is worth noting that the word “Švejk” has become a byword for his behavior in Czech). But nowadays, the cunning power of stupidity is certainly not something that gets wielded to any particular anti-establishment purpose. Its leading practitioners are, rather, precisely the political and media establishment.

There is a certain sort of political commentator, whose only purpose seems to be to obfuscate. Just look at these British reporters, point-blank refusing to countenance that the Home Secretary had just given a speech that included an anti-Semitic slur (in Britain, “North London” is a dogwhistle for “Jewish”). Or these Westminster lobby journalists, pausing in the middle of a political crisis to spend five minutes asking the Prime Minister various questions about the dog he’d just adopted as a publicity stunt. Or the Washington Post’s bizarre “factchecking” of Bernie Sanders’s claim that 500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills. These are just a handful of examples — they’re probably not even the worst cases. The willful stupidity of the press is the sort of thing that becomes harder to spot by happening constantly and being everywhere.

Actual politicians, too, are very much in on the act. Trump is the master of securing his political goals even while it becomes increasingly obvious his brain is melting; Boris Johnson has effectively spent his whole political life deploying a sort of British upper-class version of the same trick. Johnson’s style of politics now seems to have spread to the whole of the rest of his party: the other week for instance, the international trade secretary Liz Truss uttered a disingenuous half-apology after “accidentally” approving the illegal sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia; meanwhile Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has recently decided to spend his time obfuscating between whether the government will be funding the building of 40 new hospitals, or simply refurbishing six.

These people seem at times to be completely innocent of any understanding as to how the material reality they are supposed to report on actually functions — and yet this stupidity, whether real or feigned, invariably plays to their advantage. Apparently beyond all reason, accountability is endlessly deferred: they can spin the same shit every news cycle, and get away with it.

So what can we do in the face of this? Perhaps we ought to take a closer look at the nature of “stupidity.”

For Adorno and Horkheimer, stupidity is not the sort of thing you would be able to tell from someone’s performance on an IQ test — it is not a matter of not being very good at math, or not being very well-read. And it is certainly not something that it makes sense to think is innate in anyone from birth. Rather, stupidity is a moral category: it involves a certain learned insensitivity to reality. “The emblem of intelligence,” they tell us in another DofE aphorism, “In the Genesis of Stupidity,” “is the feeler of the snail.”

“Meeting an obstacle, the feeler is immediately withdrawn into the protection of the body, it becomes one with the whole until it timidly ventures forth as an autonomous agent. If the danger is still present, it disappears once more, and the intervals between the attempts grow longer. Mental life in its earliest stages is infinitely delicate. The snail’s sense is dependent on a muscle, and muscles grow slack if their scope for movement is impaired. The body is crippled by physical injury, the mind by fear. In their origin both effects are inseparable.”

“Stupidity,” therefore, “is a scar.” One is stupid “in the direction” from which one’s curiosity has been “definitely scared off... Every partial stupidity in a human being marks a spot where the awakening play of muscles has been inhibited instead of fostered.” A child might be disciplined, for instance, for asking too many questions — this is the sort of situation where stupidity gets formed.

“Such scars lead to deformations. They can produce ’characters’, hard and capable; they can produce stupidity, in the form of deficiency symptoms, blindness, or impotence, if they merely stagnate, or in the form of malice, spite, and fanaticism, if they turn cancerous within. Goodwill is turned to ill will by the violence it suffers.”

It thus becomes clear why, for Adorno and Horkheimer, “cleverness” was able to become “stupidity” and vice versa. Far from contrasting — as the two words are usually thought to in ordinary language — there really is absolutely nothing to stop the two from being present alongside one another. The stupid cleverness of the snobbish expert arises from their insensitivity to the material forces which make their opinion seem “well-informed”; the clever stupidity of the right-wing politician or political commentator allows them to get ahead by simply ignoring the needs of anyone in any way weaker or worse-off than they are.

So how, then, might this sort of insensitivity be remedied? Perhaps through what Adorno and Horkheimer call “intelligence” — curiosity, emotional openness, sincerity. We can see this in the literary examples too. The fun of The Good Soldier Švejk is, yes, largely derived from its hero’s farcical nonsense — but it’s also, on another level, a book about a group of young men being transported across an empire that is clearly on the brink of collapse while being forced to steal everything they can from any civilians they happen to encounter in order to avoid starving to death. Yossarian might have drawn hope from Orr’s practical example, but the book’s most powerful moment is really in the chapter just preceding it, when we finally learn the full story of how Yossarian witnessed the wounded bomber Snowden “spill his secret,” freezing to death in a sunbeam as his guts “slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.”

“Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage.”

That humanity is forged in our shared suffering, in short.

This suffering is what intelligence — as sincerity — must hold true to. When one suffers, or experiences the suffering of another, one must find a way of holding tight to it — to how reality in fact strikes one. To find a way of forcing, against a system fronted by press and politicians apparently determined to remain blind to it, its recognition.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.