Not so long ago, we used to speak of the Age of the Idiot. Remember those days? Today, I fear a Rubicon’s been crossed. Now, we’re in the Age of Stupid. Brain-melting, heartstopping, face-numbing stupid. What do I mean by that?
I used to say “Age of the Idiot” in a precise sense. For the Greeks, who invented the word idiot, it came with a precise meaning. An idiot was someone who was obsessed, singularly, with private gain, advantage, life. To the exclusion of all else. Our modern variant of this ancient idea, “narcissist,” doesn’t quite do it justice, because to the Greeks, virtue was the foundation of civilization, and virtue was public. That is, it was allocentric, other-focused, and so the idiot, fixated on private gain, was the antithesis of civilization.
It’s a complex and beautiful theory, which we’d do well to remember.
Stupid, though, is different. It’s what happens when idiocy hardens, ossifies, turns to stone, becomes immovable, and bellows, fumes, and crackles with the sheer fiery rage of molten lava.
Welcome to the Age of Stupid. Let me now be more precise. What do you see when you look around the world today? What theme strikes you? We’re not just making foolish mistakes—that’s the purview of mere idiocy. No, now we’re repeating them.
Take a hard look at America. It’s poised to re-elect Trump. Level One Stupid. But this is like a Russian doll of stupid—it contains almost endless multitudes within it. Level Two? America's poised to re-elect Trump because people trust him more on the economy. Level Three: they’re willing to “elect” a figure who wants to openly end democracy.
Whew. You see how painful the stupid is when I begin to point it out? Ah, but we’ve barely begun. Let me put it even sharper ways, to really prick home the point.
Americans are about to elect a figure who’s currently on trial for fraud multiple times over as a businessman because they trust him more on…the economy. Go ahead and howl with the mind-melting irony therein. They’re about to use the Great Lever of democracy to…take a swan dive into the abyss. Go right and join me staggered disbelief. They’re about to…
Make the same mistake all over again. Only this time’s going to be not just “worse,” but terminal. Final. Irrevocable. There’s a 900 page plan to literally shred democracy and replace it with autocracy, and Trump plans to use it from day one. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine someone you should trust less with the economy than a businessman indicted for fraud several times over. It’s a little bit like asking a serial killer to be your plastic surgeon. And yet here we are.
The same mistakes. All over again. There’s no clearer example of it in the world today than Trump winning the election if it were held today, which begs all the questions sane people around the world have in surreal horror. Didn’t Americans learn anything the first time around?
And there’s the rub. In this age? We’re not just not learning. We’re trapped in a weird, nightmarish cycle of repeating the same mistakes. And when you do that enough, you race from mere folly past calamity to self-destruction at light speed.
Let me give you another example. The Netherlands just put its own Trump in power, a far right demagogue. And yet it’s different. Could there be a part of the world which should remember the warnings more than a mature European social democracy? Should there be a nation that forgets what such figures did to it last time? After all, it was the far right that invaded, conquered, and laid waste. And yet here such a nation is, repeating history’s greatest mistake.
Now, that’s not to say that this particular demagogue “is Hitler.” Don’t be absurd, and let’s talk like grown-ups. The lessons of history are what they are. And for Europe, the crucial and most powerful one, by a very long way, concerns fanaticism, hate, rage, and where such roads lead. Straight to self-destruction. And so it’s haunting to see nations in Europe embracing the very same kinds of movements that not so long ago destroyed Europe right down to ashes. I’m sure there are those who’ll object to me saying that, but they shouldn’t, unless history never existed.
So. There are American about to return power to Trump. There’s Europe, embracing the far right. See the pattern? Repeating mistakes. History’s greatest. Most critical. The ones that should never be repeated. This is the great…trend…in the world right now.
Let’s take a smaller example, a funnier one. Elon Musk bought Twitter, and a stampede of advertisers larger than the great herds which once used roam the American West fled in terror. You’d think he would’ve learned that, hey, maybe hate isn’t What People Really Want. But no. After his latest hateful comment, the NYT just reported that Twitter’s stampede of fleeing advertisers has turned into something more like a Great Exodus, and it’s about to lose $75 million. Making the same mistakes. Over and over again. This example’s funny, of course, because it’s so painfully obtuse, and yet the theme’s clear here, too.
The difference between idiocy and stupid. Way back in the Age of the Idiot, which was, oh, last decade, nations began to make mistakes. America elected Trump, various European nations like Britain went into bizarre, delusional, nationalistic far-right manias. It happens. But what’s happening now is different. Re-electing Trump? Embracing your own demagogues when it’s crystal clear what happened to those who did less than a decade ago? That’s…the sort of vainglorious, self-deceitful, deliberately wishful stupid history’s going to shudder at. You can also think about all this in the context of climate change, inequality, wealth extraction, and much more.
You see, one of the fundamental tasks of a civilization is to learn. We don’t think of it that way often, but we should. If I say to you that people must learn to mature and grow, you’ll accept it. Even if I say companies learn, organizations learn, teams learn, you get what I mean, and there’s no objection. But civilization, too, must learn. It’s one of their vital and basic functions. And if it goes haywire, then…
Learning for civilizations, though, is no easy task. A person can learn from textbooks. Can a civilization? An organization can learn from rivals. But what about a civilization, at least one like ours, that doesn’t have any?
A civilization like ours can only really learn in one painful, clumsy and difficult way. From its own mistakes. Nations must learn from the mistakes of others. Social groups must learn from the mistakes of similar ones, in other places. People must learn, too, from mistakes others have made. There’s no textbook, no class, no lecture hall in which a civilization can learn—rather, it’s learning can only be mimetic, step-wise, and through this process of trial and error.
And yet if that much can be gotten right, then of course, learning can happen. It is possible for nations to look at others, and say to themselves, “look at how it turned for them—we’d better not repeat that mistake.” It’s possible, too, for nations to look at themselves, and vow not to make the same mistakes, at least recent ones. And it’s possible for social groups and people to witness how others like them are led, and carefully reflect on whether they’ve ended up anywhere worth going.
But none of that’s happening right now. What is happening is this.
Our learning function appears to be breaking down at a civilizational level. And so we see this surreal pattern of events. The Dutch would be baffled that Americans are about to re-elect Trump…while having just chosen their own. Americans, meanwhile, are baffled at Europe’s turning, while unable to forge a future of their own. On and on it goes.
Nowhere do we see the process of civilizational learning now working. Nations repeat each others’ mistakes. Nations repeat their own mistakes. Social groups and people ignore how foolish choices have turned out for others. Around the world, demagoguery rises, despite history’s warnings of it deepening stagnation, division, despair, leading nowhere constructive, positive, transformative. Worse, they choose the same demagogues all over again, like America and Trump.
You can see the breakdown in civilizational learning in other ways, too—I don’t want to say “smaller,” so let’s say, at another level. Witness the way that people don’t “believe in science” anymore, as if it’s some kind of…personal choice…like what brand you “like” on Facebook. See the way that people flock to lunatics who offer them conspiracy theories to soothe their by now manic paranoia about their worlds crumbling around them. What do demagogues do, anyways? They point the finger at innocent scapegoats, and there’s no learning at all yet, that that’s all a lie, and solves less than nothing for the poor average fool who desperately wants to believe it’s really all true.
The human mind is being broken in this day and age. You know that, and you feel it everywhere around you. You can see visibly how people have stopped thinking rationally, in even the most basic senses of the word. We say they make “self-defeating choices,” sometimes, but I think it’s more accurate to say: they’re repeating the same mistakes, over and over again.
Rationality’s a big, difficult thing to ask of people. People are almost never rational, and expecting them to be is precisely why American-style liberalism failed. People want more, need more, ask for more, from life, from leaders, from society, than mere cold, anodyne rationality. They want to feel as if their lives have meaning. As if they have a purpose. That there’s safety and security and stability in something. That something nobler and truer is the point of this strange, bewildering thing called life.
Who offers them any of that anymore? There’s the center and left, begging for them to be “rational.” Meanwhile, demagogues and fanatics have learned to prey on these higher order needs for meaning, transcendence, worth, purpose—and only ask that the price is…
Ignorance? Self-deceit? What’s a more polite, polished way to put “stupidity,” anyways? Shall we call it “ignoring the stuff you should be learning?” Shall we say “it’s about deceiving yourself?” Is it a kind of willful blindness? Is there an element of mania that sucks the thinking from the mind, and replaces it with the turgid sentimentality of the way that Trumpists look at Trump, their eyes glistening with pharaonic awe? There’s probably all that in it, and more, too. Stupid is hard to put limits on precisely because what we’re learning right about now is that it can be limitless.
So maybe our journey back to civilizational learning begins there. By remembering how powerful stupid can be. Even the devil himself might have been tempted, because after all, in stupidity, what there really is is a kind of forgetting. A narcotic bliss of it. And in that forgetting is a kind of hubris, just the like the Devil, too had. That hubris—the laws don’t apply to me, I’m above the rest, it can’t happen here—is what the Greeks called hamartia, the fatal flaw. The one that led to the downfall.
This is where we are, too, my friends. We face the hamartia of a civilization. Remember, older civilizations had rivals to learn from. We don’t, and we’re the first one who doesn’t. Our hegemony is also becoming our undoing. With nobody to learn from, we’re going in circles now, wandering further and further into the desert, trembling right on the edge of the abyss. Who do you learn from, if you’re alone, lost, staring up at the stars? Ah, my friends. That’s the question, isn’t it? You can curse fate, and pound the sand—or you kiss the soil, and take a step, and then another one, and find your way home.
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