Accidental Activist

Hey, Stoopid!

Pummeled by an epidemic of stupidity, Ben laments the triumph of titillation and the bravado of the banal.

By Ben Bull
Published August 30, 2006

This recent business of the Acton Grandmother being locked in a car, in 35 degree weather ("Grandmother, 97, left in sweltering car" Toronto Star, July 17) got me thinking: What kind of people could do this?

My question was answered in the next day's Star, with a picture of the daughter and granddaughter, looking dolefully into the camera. "We want her back," they pleaded. "We just got distracted".

As I studied the gormless expressions of the 'Acton Two' and pondered the logic behind their decision to go shopping alone, I began to understand what had driven this seemingly heartless behaviour: Stupidity.

As the Hamilton Spectator's Jeff Mahoney put it succinctly, in one of his columns from last year, "People Are Stupid". Jeff's column contemplated our ignorant evolution from community minded citizens to couldn't-give-a-shit-consumers.

His lament was echoed by the UK's Daily Mirror the day after US President George W. Bush's second victory at the polls: "How Can 59,017,382 People Be So Dumb?" (Daily Mirror, Nov 4, 2004) they asked, in 32 point font.

Folly and foolhardiness are distinctly human traits. We need look no further than the annual Darwin Awards to see how low we can go. Last year's winner died while trying to weld a live hand grenade to a piece of metal.

A quick look at the history of the human race confirms another foolish fact: stupidity is cyclical. In his book A Short History of Progress, (Anansi Press; read RTH review), author Ronald Wright argued that humans have an unerring talent for repeating past mistakes.

Whether it's chopping down trees on Easter Island or bleeding our planet of oil, one lobe we consistently fail to engage is the one we call "foresight".

But despite our hair-brained history I'm convinced of one thing: today, we are stupider than ever. In 2006 it's officially cool to be a fool.

Now, why would I say that? If we've always been stupid what is there to suggest that we're getting any, er ... stupider? Well, look around! What do you see? That's right - imbeciles abound!

They're in the boardroom: Michael Moore's 2000 novel Stupid White Men (HarperCollins) expertly uncovered the cut-throat culture of self-interest and entitlement that defines powerful CEOs and politicians everywhere: Hollingers, Enron, WorldCom, FEMA - it seems that these days, our corporate leaders are all doing one heck of a job.

They're on our doorstep. Bush's re-election, won on the back of one of the worst four years in American economic and foreign policy history - and by the narrowest of margins (59 million to 57) - was a worrying indication that the stupidity scales had been tipped.

They're in our midst. Political tomfoolery is thriving in Canada, thanks to the Sponsorship scandal, Flag flap, and flurry of floor-crossing parliamentarians. They have combined to create an epidemic of voter apathy, which threatens to let our pea-brained politicians off the hook, and ultimately make fools of us all.

There is even a soundtrack to our stupidity! Green Day's "American Idiot," Pink's "Stupid Girl," and Neil Young's "Impeach the President" are a timely reminder that our art really does imitate our (simple) lives.

Our appetite for stupidity is positively ravenous. Our consumption is out of control. While Richard Hatch heads off to jail, the reality TV craze he started reigns supreme. Whether you're a wannabe rock star, dancer, motivational speaker, castaway, or plain old couch potato (what did we do to deserve Big Brother?), reality TV is just one more symptom of our stupidity.

Our scientific community is even getting into the act, with Chen Jin of China recently announcing that his revolutionary Hanxin IV digital signal processing chip was nothing more than a figment of his rather limited imagination.

Our athletes, of course, continue their air-headed antics with heir-apparent American cyclist Floyd Landis showing the world what it truly means to be a dope. And the recent world cup chaos was memorable, not so much for how well the players used their feet and their heads, but how easily they lost them.

Of course it's not all plain stupidity. Messrs Landis and Chen would probably argue it was the pressure of competition and the weight of the world that made their screws come loose. Good old greed is probably a factor, too. But in the end it doesn't matter, because the damage has been - and is being – done.

While the world's elite go from dumb to dumber the rest of us are left to simply shake our heads and get on with it.

But it ain't easy. It's hard to be smart in a stupid world. With our work harder, spend more, care less modern day mentalities, there is precious little time to look beyond the sound bites and into the heart of today's important issues.

Faced, as we are, with this "smart vacuum" we seek instead to escape our intelligent obligations and ignore the things we feel we can't control.

Nowhere is this more evident than our escalating political apathy which threatens to render the Mayoral races of Hamilton and Toronto more-or-less meaningless - as if we just can't be bothered to care.

But fear not! It's not all bad. There are those who say it doesn't matter how dumb we are, so long as we have clever people to lead us, like Religious leaders, political pundits, talk radio hosts. The world is full of clever people willing to dumb it all down, sell us a ticket, and lead us down the path to enlightenment.

Hmm ... well, if that doesn't make us all smarten up in a hurry, I don't know what will.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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