I think that the deterioration of public debate, and the absence of common sense and moderation in both media and politics, are pretty much givens now. But why? And where did this come from? These are the questions that this apparently light-hearted, yet fundamentally serious, book seeks to answer.
For these authors, stupid comes in many forms, and damages us in many ways. And yes, ‘stupid’ is a noun for these 329 pages. Many different types of stupid are identified, and an attempt is made to find their origins. Far too many ‘species’ of stupidly are identified to list them all here. But the rise of individualism over social responsibility, vaccination denialism, excessive partisanship in politics, the conflict between sentimentalism and reason, postmodernism, fallacious opinion polling and reality TV might be a representative sample. For me the most important forms of stupidity identified were three: the inability to understand numbers, the preference for emotion over facts, and the ignorance of historical contexts.
A real attempt is made to pin down the development of stupidity in its many forms. This takes us into a elementary, and often light-hearted, discussion of the development of some core ideas in western thought. The authors also make a determined effort to be in seen to be touch with popular culture, invoking as many memes from popular culture as can be squeezed in, from Dallas to the Bond movies. The authors are Australian commentators, and quite a lot of the stupidity is taken from Australian sources.
The historical development is necessarily simplified – this is not a scholar’ tome – and in some places is so condensed as to verge on parody. And although it appears lightly written, it is dense on facts, people, and concepts. More than once I was driven to look something or someone up for more information.
The authors pull absolutely no punches at any point, and write as if everything in the world is binary: right or wrong, black or white. This writing is not nuanced in any way, and no prisoners are taken. To keep the venting going and the book rooted in popular culture and the here-and-now requires the authors to be (as they would probably put it) ‘always on’.
In other words, it’s a rant. A broad-gauge rant, which is based on gently concealed erudition. But a rant nonetheless. And that becomes the book’s weakness. The writing is always turned up to eleven. In places the F-bomb becomes a carpet bomb. This continuous bombast makes reading more than a little tiring. But it’s a great source of one-liners.
Each author has, independently, chosen ten ‘friends of stupid’, and ten ‘enemies of stupid’. In this appendix they turn down the vitriol a little, so paradoxically I found the appendix the most interesting part of the book!
The chapters are fairly independent of each other, and resemble long newspaper columns. That might be the best way to read the book: as a series of independent columns. Digest one thoroughly before tackling the next to avoid fatigue and overload.
It would be great to make this compulsory reading for every journalist, blogger and aspiring politician, but I can’t imagine them persevering with it. It would ruin their life’s work.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
A Short History of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream
by Bernard Keane & Helen Razer
Published by Allen & Unwin