“A Short History of Stupid” [Review]

I’m still working on a longer post that has plagued me for two days, but until I get that ironed out, I figured I would review the book I just finished, A Short History of Stupid by Bernard Keane and Helen Razer. Both authors are from Australia and the book deals largely with Australian issues of what they call “stupid.” But both tackle cultural issues based in America and Oz, and they have some very, very interesting things to say.

But what exactly is stupid? The subtitle gives a clue, “The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream.” So stupid is literally stupidity, the kind that creates ideological trolls on websites and yelling at the evening news over TV dinners. But stupid is also a lot of other things. It is the denial of facts, it is ideology itself, it is post-modernism a la Derrida, and being a radical anything without examining the assumptions behind; it is the War on Terror and L’Oreal and having opinions simply because you have to have an opinion on something or you’re not really engaged in public debate, whether or not you care about that debate or even know what it is about. Essentially, “stupid” is exactly what you think it is. It’s stupid.

Both Keane and Razer are very smart people who do not exactly agree with everything the other person has to say. They are united in this book by a desire to have people think critically more. To accomplish this, they present the facts about things, along with a bit of explanation of their own critical background (Derrida, remember?) You will learn a lot reading their chapters, marked at the end by their initials so you know who wrote what.

Keane’s chapter on the War on Terror, “National stupidity: How the War on Terror is killing and impoverishing us,” is an absolutely spectacular expose of how the last 14 years of war have not made us safer, have cost us oodles of money and deprived us of many of our freedoms with our own consent. If you read nothing else from this book, read that chapter.

For her part, Razer has some very enjoyable chapters laced with profanity and humorous asides which cover some cultural trends that you may think are great, but actually have problems. She sets the belief in postmodern relativism straight with a look at Derrida, who created postmodernism, and why what he said is not what we think. She also wrote the final chapter, “Conspicuous compassion: On consuming Kony,” which is amazing and devastating.

Now. Here’s the “but” moment that you know is coming.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I have a problem with it. While the authors do not claim to have any real solutions to stupid and providing solutions was not their aim with the book, I can’t help but feel that instead of ameliorating the effects of stupid, they may have contributed to it.

In some ways, both Razer and Keane have provided their opinions on matters which no one asked their opinions on. They present this as an exploration of the facts, but a lot of their facts include their own interpretation of the facts. They have kind of trolled everyone in the form of a book. For the most part, that’s fine. The people they’re trolling won’t know they’re being trolled because they simply won’t read the book. They are preaching to the choir (like me, honestly).

So how much can they be combating stupid when they are actually contributing to it?

The other problem I have with it is a certain glibness with which the book treats its subject. Sure, the “stupid” is catchy and the swearing makes you feel kind of smart and sarcastic when you read it. “Look, I’m so enlightened that I can discuss smart stuff while swearing.” On the whole, the feel of the book is that of a high school student in his first college class as a freshman, realizing that they won’t get detention for swearing mildly and no one cares if they get up to go to the bathroom without a hall pass. Does the tone of the book actually contribute to the debate? Or is it just a different facet of the stupid the book talks about?

I do recommend this book. It’s informative, it’s funny and it’s enjoyable to read. But if you’re really going to apply the critical thinking both Keane and Razer want to see more of, the first place that has to be applied is to the book itself. When that happens, I think the book and its authors don’t look as smart as they are trying to be. But then, that’s just me and my own stupid opinion.

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