Barstool Wisdom

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

I always thought a subtle brilliance attaches to the line “stupid is a stupid does” from the movie Forrest Gump. The titular character is mentally challenged, and his mother supplies that line as a comeback to bullies, presumably to be followed by “oh yeah? well if you’re so smart, you tell me what it means.” The brilliance of it is that no bully wants to admit he doesn’t know its meaning, yet it means precisely nothing. These sorts of meaningless phrases appear in political speeches all the time, and this thinking underpins all sorts of individual and aggregate behaviors that promise to be our undoing as history grinds on. And yet we all nod approvingly and go on about pretending what a nice suit of clothes the emperor is wearing.

Just how deeply that unchallenged idiocy runs is among the subjects of Curtis White’s new book, The Barbaric Heart. White’s thesis, as well as two other parts of the book, appeared as articles in Orion Magazine some time ago. They’re all quite engaging and convincing, though White appears to be working at cross purposes, namely, presenting ideas subtle and circumspect enough to be out of reach of most readers while simultaneously saying we’re a bit too smart and have outwitted ourselves. For example, White cites Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, saying,

The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself.

So if intelligence enables the artfulness and artifice that got the financial sector (and the entirety of Iceland) into so much trouble a couple years ago, stupidity presumably protects us from such overreaching. A slightly more accurate statement is that intelligence has at its disposal too many tricks and tools for denying reality, whereas stupidity has fewer (but its own nonetheless). So less subtle thinkers lack the cleverness to outwit themselves with rationalization or intricacy and instead give us what amounts to barstool wisdom. The truths revealed when freed from inhibitions and illusions may not be proud moments, such as a willingness to cozy up to each other when donning beer goggles, but they’re at least honest and clear.

  1. What would happen if one were intelligent but honest, or is that impossible?

  2. Brutus says:

    I’ve been accused of being both, which usually means I’m either ignored or an elitist.

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