Every August, as regularly as the geese fly south for winter, there are complaints in the British press about the ever-increasing number of candidates who are getting As and Bs on the main secondary school leaving and university entrance exam for 18-year-olds, called A-levels. Nothing seems to be able to stop this inexorable decline in standards, however much people continue to complain about it. But of course the people who complain about it are the same people who, through their elected representatives, created the expansion of higher education in Britain that has brought it about. If there is a demand for more people with As and Bs at A-level— and therefore the theoretically necessary qualifications for university entrance—then the exam system must increase the supply.
The problem, if there is one, arises only because people had become used to thinking of the exams as what the educationists call “norm-referenced,” and now the norm has been deformed. The bell of the bell curve has been pushed rightward, so that it now looks more like a whale than a camel.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud, that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks, it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Just like the exam results, that is, the cloud can be whatever we want. And, increasingly, what we want when it comes to exam results is that everybody should be above average. This phenomenon is yet another product of our post-honor society, where distinction no longer resides in virtue or character but in intelligence. Certainly, intelligence is now honorific as virtue was formerly, and, as a bonus, it is also unisex, which virtue wasn’t. This means that any imputation of its deficiency, whether in gentleman or lady, is indicative not just of misfortune but of disgrace. It’s still possible to suffer other kinds of disgrace.
Only this morning I noticed that the press in his home country, weary of the complaints about A-level results, is loudly proclaiming its discovery of the “£2 million Hampshire bolthole” of “shamed rock star Gary Glitter” after that worthy’s return from prison in Vietnam on child-molestation charges. But it is hard to think of many other circumstances in which the media would use the word shame unironically, particularly about a rock star—than whom there can be few classes of men more unshamable.
When it comes to describing people as stupid, however, the shame belongs to the describer. The foundation of our educational system is “self-esteem,” and under the régime of that egalitarian substitute for honor the worst thing you can call someone is stupid. To call a man a coward or a liar or a woman a slut or a whore used to be considered what the law calls “fighting words”—the kind of insult that was likely to be replied to with violence. Insofar as there is still such a socially recognized category as fighting words today, stupid and its synonyms, along with racial epithets, must surely be included, and it is that feeling, as much as inflation of the currency of euphemism, that lies behind the outcry over the use of the word “retard” in the Ben Stiller film, Tropic Thunder, a late-summer blockbuster comedy in spite of the calls of Timothy Shriver and others for a boycott.
Mr. Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is chairman of the Special Olympics, in whose founding 40 years ago his mother was instrumental. Protesting on the op-ed page of the Washington Post against Mr. Stiller’s picture, he wrote: “I know: I could be too sensitive. But I was taught that mean isn’t funny.” Mean isn’t funny? Au contraire! There’s not much that’s really funny unless it’s mean. The question is to whom you’re allowed to be mean. Once this category included people of other races or religions, not to mention liars, cowards, and sluts. Also the handicapped and those, like drunks, lechers, and others, who would now be classed as being victims of some addiction. Today the pickings are a lot slimmer.
We still have non-ethnic white males, of course, particularly if they are bogus heroes, like the principal characters of Tropic Thunder, or fathers, once the heroes of the hearthstone. Nowadays, fathers are ex-officio bogus heroes—no longer the execrated Ozzie Nelson but the celebrated Homer Simpson. But Homer, like the heroes of Tropic Thunder, is also stupid, so hitting the trifecta of comedy. Without this stupidity, the hilarity that any of these characters is able to excite would be much diminished, and it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, without the shame of stupidity to exploit, our comedians and comic writers and satirists would suffer the fate of the fairies after the Reformation in England.
But now, alas, they all are dead, Or gone beyond the seas Or farther for religion fled, Or else they take their ease. The religion of political correctness would banish from our shores not just the Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) but also David Zucker, whose An American Carol, opening this month, promises to be that once-oxymoronic phenomenon, a Hollywood comedy (by the author of the Naked Gun movies and Airplane!) of the conservative persuasion. On the other hand, I share Mr. Shriver’s belief that it is, well, rather cowardly to attack the stupid. Presumably they were born that way and can’t help it any more than can the handicapped—who, apart from the developmentally challenged in the (inevitably) “edgy” Tropic Thunder, are off-limits. Moreover, ridicule directed at the stupid is a not-so-subtle way of trumpeting one’s own putative intelligence. Boastfulness, from the point of view of the now-discredited honor culture, is almost as unlovely a quality as cruelty.
Political satire sounds more manly, less sneaky and mean, but doesn’t most political satire boil down to an attack on those whom its authors consider to be stupid? Anyway, that was the problem with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 four years ago. The comedy, based on Mr. Moore’s belief that President Bush was stupid, kept getting in the way of the more serious charge that he was also wicked and corrupt—almost an evil genius in fact. It just didn’t seem plausible that he could be both. But, having helped to set the tone for our political dialogue ever since, Michael Moore—the principal target of Mr. Zucker’s film—must look with a certain amount of satisfaction at the campaign of Barack Obama, which amounts to little more than a promise to be smarter than the axiomatically thick-o incumbent.
Actually, without the sympathetic media, this would be a rather brave way to campaign. Every leader makes mistakes, and every mistake can be made to look, with the benefit of hindsight, like stupidity. Senator Obama would be setting himself up for a fall of spectacular proportions if he couldn’t count on the media’s being much more forgiving toward his mistakes than they have been towards those of President Bush. But of course he can. So that’s all right then. He can also rely on the fact that he is appealing to a whole class of the aspirational cognitive élite. Just as John Kerry did four years ago, he is inviting the people who care most about looking smart to look smart by voting for the champion of smarts—a man who, indeed, has almost nothing to recommend him as the chief magistrate in the land but the twin genetic endowments of his race and his brains.
As Senator Kerry showed, being the leader of the smart party can be almost enough in itself to get you elected president these days. The popularity this year of movies like Tropic Thunder or the mega-blockbusting Dark Knight, which flatter their audiences’ intellectual pretensions, suggests that the culture’s over-valuation of intelligence has now reached the point where the smart people’s party will sweep all before it. Nor is it a coincidence that the evil doers in both these films are much more glamorous, as well as smarter than, the ostensible heroes. For it is another of the hallmarks of intelligence in the popular mythology that it is skeptical about ideas of good and evil. It famously sees the world in gray, not black and white. Now, to me, that’s the best reason for sticking with the stupid party.
"Good old rock! Nothing beats that,” as Homer says when playing rock-paper-scissors. But at least to Homer the Americans are automatically the good guys. That doesn’t play well in the media or on university campuses, but it’s a quality a lot more likely to keep a grip on America’s position of world leadership than merely being smart.
James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and the new book Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.