The Rise of Elevated Stupidity
America’s hot-take economy has created a kind of smart that is indistinguishable from stupid. These days we’re soaking in it.
_ Dave Holmes
Jun 11, 2021
Appropriately, the moment that defines America in 2021 took place on The Real World Homecoming: New York. In a reboot of their 1992 conversations about race, the reunited loftmates agree that everything Kevin Powell said back then about his lived experience, the words that got him labeled an Angry Black Man, is now the accepted truth of Black life in America.
Even Kevin’s old sparring partner Becky Blasband seems to admit systemic racism is real. But here’s where things stop being polite and start getting culturally significant: Becky quickly adds that she does not contribute to systemic racism because she was involved in an Afro- Brazilian dance class, wherein she “lost her skin color.”
In other words, Becky—who by now has spent full episodes talking about her NYU education, her brilliant psychotherapist father, and her decades studying under a Russian theoretical physicist and healer—declares herself exempt from racism because she really crushed Cardio Capoeira at the Soho Equinox.
She says this out loud, into a microphone, in front of cameras that are capturing footage. Yes, it is hilarious. But the incident is also revealing: A person can present their ideas with such eloquence and erudition that they fool themselves into thinking those ideas are not dumb. This is a kind of smart that is indistinguishable from stupid. It is Elevated Stupidity, and we’re soaking in it.
Stupidity is saying two plus two equals five. Elevated Stupidity is doing the same thing, except you invoke Pythagoras, decry cancel culture when someone corrects you, then get a seven-figure book deal and a speaking tour out of it.
Elevated Stupidity has permeated all facets of life—reality TV, social media, Congress, your group chat, and your softball team. Elevated Stupidity stems from the idea that being good at arguing is the same thing as being correct. That rhetorical skill—or at least a degree of big debate-club energy sufficient to wear out one’s opponent—is the equivalent of intelligence. If being a good arguer is the same as being smart or correct, then do you know who is the smartest, correct-est person in history? Every Scientologist.
Elevated Stupidity is as old as recorded history. The Old Testament book of Proverbs cautions, “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are,” and says, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk.”
Elevated Stupidity was easy to identify and, like a thorny branch compared with an assault rifle, much easier to dodge.
Today it’s unavoidable. Why? We live in the Hot-Take Economy, with three major news-yelling networks and a full bench of second-stringers. There are eight podcasts for every man, woman, and child on earth and too many web publications to count. The machine needs fuel, and the cheapest option is consistently the Idea Nobody’s Heard Yet. Express a fresh idea for the first time and it might juice up your YouTube subscriber numbers, get you on Joe Rogan, put your name in people’s mouths. But cheap fuel is dirty fuel. Sometimes the reason an idea has not been expressed publicly before is that it’s bad.
Ben Shapiro, Elevated Stupidity in human form.
Sometimes the idea is “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” like Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said on Tucker Carlson in the early days of Covid. You might be a serious person with a serious haircut, saying on live television what boils down to “Feed the Covid monster enough grandmas and he’ll go back to sleep.”
Elevated Stupidity is Zack Smith of the Heritage Foundation testifying against D. C. statehood by saying its residents already have outsize political influence due to government officials driving past their yard signs. It is Katharine Gorka, director of the Feulner Institute’s Center for Civil Society and the American Dialogue, worrying in The Federalist that liberals will cancel Ted Lasso because its characters practice the conservative virtues of “kindness” and “hard work.”
It is Ben Shapiro. All day long.
There are many voices of Elevated Stupidity but only one face, and fittingly, it is an emoji: the smug thinky guy. His round yellow face is contorted into a rictus of Deep Thought, resting on a disembodied thumb and forefinger.
Let me see if I have this right, that little asshole is thinking, right next to the dumbest thoughts you’ve ever read. “Let me play devil’s advocate here,” he says, failing to notice that Satan is pretty well defended these days. The thinky guy shows up in a high percentage of tweets from Charlie Kirk, a 27-year-old conservative activist and radio host, and I don’t know whom to feel worse for.
We fall prey to Elevated Stupidity because we’re tired. Our best selves tell us to challenge our existing biases, to read the works of people whose experiences do not match our own, to engage with fresh perspectives.
But you’ve met us, and you know we’re not going to do that. We’re overwhelmed and inundated with content, and as human beings, we’re desperate to do the minimum amount of research that allows us to keep on believing what already makes us feel good about ourselves.
So we subcontract the reading and the thought. We find a person with the weary mien and broad vocabulary of someone who must have gone to all the trouble of thinking independently, and when they reach the conclusion we started with, we say, “See?” Unfortunately, too often that means delegating your serious thought to an exhausted racist with a thesaurus.
Elevated Stupidity and self- righteousness are a volatile mixture. But, like, the kind that Flubber was.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a dick. Say you’re not happy with the results of the last election. You’re uneasy about demographic shifts in America. You’re not storm-the-Capitol angry, or at least you don’t have the right Carhartt jacket for it, but you’re not getting your way.
Something must be done. So you click on that National Review link to an essay titled “Why Not Fewer Voters?” You see that the writer employs the Latin phrase ceteris paribus in the first paragraph, you Google it to see which perfectly good English words he could have used, and you nod your head yes. Yes, we’ve got a live one here.
You read through the part where he drops the expression “unqualified voters” like it’s a thing people say and he wonders why we’re more comfortable with them than we would be with unlicensed doctors.
You think, Okay, that’s a stretch, but then he uses the word plebiscite instead of “public vote” a couple paragraphs later, so you’re lulled back into thinking he’s making a valid point. You get all the way through it, to the part where he says maybe we need fewer but more serious voters, and you agree, and you share it. Way to go! You’re an American patriot rooting against your own system of government.
When draped in our American need to self-mythologize and our Puritan ideal of sacrifice, Elevated Stupidity can become dangerous. Think about the anti-mask protests in the past year, all those people scribbling founding-father quotes onto Don’t Tread on Me signs in service of an idea that is essentially “Please come sneeze in my mouth.”
Think of the hours after the George Floyd verdict was announced, when all Nancy Pelosi had to do to hit the correct tone was nothing. Instead, she thanked Floyd for “sacrificing your life for justice,” as though he’d had a say in it. Then the Speaker of the House thanked him “for being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that,” like it was a particularly hard-hitting moment from Hometown Week on The Bachelor. Elevated Stupidity and self- righteousness are a volatile mixture. But, like, the kind that Flubber was.
Camille Paglia. Even the brilliant fall victim to Elevated Stupidity.
Even the undeniably smart have moments of Elevated Stupidity. In a single sentence, Camille Paglia can make me feel as if I’ve never read a book in my life. She is wise and canny; she also calls climate change “a sentimental myth” that can only be believed if we don’t “understand the grandeur and the power of nature.” So don’t sweat your emissions, Paglia seems to say; the world is very large. Just throw your lit cigarette butt anywhere; this hotel has a high atrium.
Grab a few big words off the top shelf and glibly reference Marxism and you can fool people into thinking you have something worthwhile to say.
Take any recent argument against the rights of trans people. Strip away the feints at empathy, dumb down the big words, and what you are left with, roughly 100 percent of the time, is “But what if a boy puts on a wig and joins the girls’ soccer team, and then they win state?”
These arguments are written in real publications and said into real news-network cameras and spoken at real lecterns for hefty appearance fees. They are expressed by people with degrees, and books, and titles like Director of Freedom Studies at the American Dignity Consortium and Eagle Preserve. They seep into our culture because they have taken on an air of seriousness, of sobriety. You can almost forget they’re also the plot of the 1992 Rodney Dangerfield/Jackée Harry family comedy Ladybugs.
Elevated Stupidity works. Grab a few big words off the top shelf and glibly reference Marxism and you can fool people into thinking you have something worthwhile to say. (See: Milo Yiannopoulos.)
You may not last long—put a mortarboard on a pig and it’s still a pig—but you can make the whole world a tiny bit dumber in the time you have. (See also: Milo Yiannopoulos.)
As we live our lives ever more publicly, we have come to prioritize arguing—the flashy, viral, gotcha kind—over learning. Elevated Stupidity is the natural result: the beautiful, eloquent defense of opinions left over, unchallenged, from when you were six.
It is pervasive among those who are supposed to be smarter than me—the people we’ve lifted to the role of public intellectual. Turns out, they’re exactly as smart as I am.
I’m still trying to imagine anything more terrifying.