If I weren’t afraid that you’d think me a potential murderer, I’d say that I felt a twinge of sympathy for Kendel Ehrlich, the wife of the Governor of Maryland, who said that she thought Britney Spears ought to be shot. Of course she had to apologize. And then she had to apologize some more. This was because the public’s attitude to such remarks now is, I guess, that a stupid person — I mean a really, really stupid person — might take her at her word and squeeze off a few rounds at cute little Britney’s cute little belly-button the next time she appears in public.
And then, you see, it would be poor Mrs. Ehrlich’s fault because we have as a society already tacitly agreed that stupid people — and especially really, really stupid people — are not to be held accountable for anything, least of all their own stupidity, if there’s someone else they can blame. And of course there’s always someone else to blame. If they die of lung cancer, it’s the cigarette manufacturers’ fault; if they shoot people — or each other — it’s the gun-manufacturers’ fault and so forth. The tone of our national life and discourse is thus to be set only with reference to the stupidest among us — perhaps because we might otherwise be supposed to be discriminating against them.
But the reason for my sympathy was not just that I wouldn’t mind taking a potshot at the little hussy myself — sorry! sorry! — but that I once suggested that Peter Jennings, as a British subject by birth, should be beheaded by royal decree in the Tower of London. At the time I thought that I was covered by limiting my suggestion to a judicial, and judicious, execution, so that even the grossest stupidity could not have imagined that I was declaring open season on the Canadian news-model. But now I’m not so sure. What if some Uma Thurman wannabe with a samurai sword manages to sneak onto the set of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and then blames me for putting the idea of Peter’s decapitation into her head?
It just goes to show that, in tailoring our national discourse to the capacities of the stupidest among us, we don’t really know where it will end. As Diane Ravitch demonstrates in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Alfred A. Knopf, 255 pages, $24), there is already a whole segment of the American intellectual economy devoted to making sure that no one is ever offended by anything — even by his own stupidity in failing to understand what someone else is saying. “Stereotypes,” for instance, such as female home-makers and male breadwinners, are banned in officially-sanctioned children’s literature because it is feared that children are not only ignorant of the world but so stupid that the merest glimpse of a typical social arrangement will make them believe that that is the only possible social arrangement. Thus in the ideal world of children’s text-books, “women would be breadwinners; African Americans would be academics; Asian Americans would be athletes; and no one would be a wife or a mother.”
One of the great examples in recent years of public and political kow-towing to stupidity was when an official in the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C. was fired for using the word “niggardly” because a stupid person had supposed that it was a racial slur. And of course there is always the effort to ban Huckleberry Finn for “racism” because it includes the word “nigger.” I had always thought that it would take a really, really, really stupid person not to understand that Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the most compelling argument against racism in the English language, but it’s hard to believe that, as many as are the book banners, all of them can be as stupid as that. They must do it simply because they want to be in step with a country that, more and more, has to cater to the whims of the stupidest among us.
There are even people like Al Franken who aspire to join their ranks, as if being a really, really stupid person were one of the best things you could be. How else to take his eagerness in trying to make Arnold Schwarzenegger out to be a Nazi because he once praised Hitler’s powers of oratory? But Franken presumably knows that stupidity is power in America today, so he pretends to be stupid enough to believe this — just as Dick Gephardt pretends to be stupid enough to believe that Howard Dean wants to abolish Medicare, or Ted Kennedy pretends to be stupid enough to believe that President Bush went to war in Iraq over oil.
This is the way the political game is played today. Everybody pretends to be stupider than he is so as to be capable of shock, or pretended shock, that, say, Schwarzenegger was a sexual boor or that Rush Limbaugh is a bit paranoid about the media — and with good reason, judging by the media’s behavior in response to what was, at worst, a mistaken piece of social observation. But then the media have a vested interest in promoting the stupid view of the world, since without it they would never be able to sell to a gullible public as many of the scandals that have become their stock-in-trade.