The stupidest year in the history of the planet spins to a merciful conclusion in a few days. Too close to the photo of Kim Kardashian breaking the Internet to see the big picture amidst the little dots, we remain blissfully ignorant that we live in the golden age of dumb.
In January, Pew reported that a quarter of the American population hadn’t read a book in the previous year. Many among the remaining three-fourths confirm the suspicion that people lie to pollsters. The percentage of non-readers has tripled since 1978, a year that witnessed 900 Americans poison themselves in the jungle because a guy wearing sunglasses told them to and Clint Eastwood fill theaters by co-starring alongside a monkey.
Speaking of cinema, remakes, reboots, sequels, and films based on old toys and comic books, but nothing original, comprised the box office’s top-ten list for 2014. Most of the year’s bestselling brands, er, movies, such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (#8), a prequel to a remake, and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (#9), a sequel to a reboot based on an old comic book, fell into multiple such rehash categories. Old is the new new.
One sign of the intellectual apocalypse comes in the form of what masquerades as the intelligentsia recasting brain corrosion as progress. In an article on a new study, CBS.com earlier this year asked: “Could playing video games make you smarter?” Compared to huffing paint video games serve as the thinking parent’s alternative. But kids also play musical instruments, read, and interact with other flesh-and-blood, non-pixelated children, for which Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t leave a whole lot of time. As it turns out, the scientist-sophists compared ten kids (the Einsteins) who played action video games to ten kids (the Patrick Stars) who played non-action video games for several weeks. The sample size and the brevity of longitudinal (shortitudinal?) study suggest the degree to which yesterday’s science-class flunks publish today’s junk-science bunk.
In October, ABC.com reported on universities spending millions on climbing walls and luxury dorms in the midst of supposed budget cuts. Texas Tech’s “aquatic park”— dubbed “one of the premiere achievements of the Rec Sports Department”—boasts a lazy river, pool slide, and hot tub comfortably fitting two-dozen undergraduates. School administrator PeeWee Roberson rationalized, “The leisure pool is a great recruiting tool for the university.”
In November, the American Library Association held International Games Day, the largest video game tournament in the world, at formerly quiet repositories of books. Pac Man’s walka-walka-walka-walka drowns out the librarian’s comforting “shush!”—and the ability to think in peace.
Jonathan Gruber demonstrated in 2014 the stupidity of pointing out the stupidity of the American voter. Like a criminal too proud of his achievement not to rat himself out, the MIT professor gleefully boasted on videos that surfaced this summer of the trick of taxing insurance companies instead of policy holders, which gained traction because “the American people are too stupid to understand the difference.” In defense of American voters, they, though voting for the people who voted for Obamacare, never really fell for the idea that an Affordable Care Act necessarily meant more affordable care. We’re thankfully not that dumb yet.
Sports once served as a nice distraction to such Washington unpleasantness. But Americans now prefer distractions to their distractions. The unlit Olympic ring at Sochi foreshadowed the year in sports. Instead of the San Antonio Spurs compiling a workmanlike dynasty based on individual submission to team, the cretin Donald Sterling dominated hardwood attention; instead of Rory McIlroy becoming Tiger Woods before our eyes, allegations that Paulina Gretzky’s beau Dustin Johnson bedded other players’ wives and popped positive for cocaine grabbed our interest; and instead of Peyton Manning’s continuous rewriting of record books, the criminal records of a few NFL players among a couple thousand became the Associated Press’s sports story of the year. We miss the circus for the sideshow.
Despite the recalcitrance of colored ribbons to cure cancer, Americans dumped buckets of ice upon their heads and grew beards upon their faces to vanquish various maladies in 2014. In a triumph of symbolism over substance, thousands struck a “hands up, don’t shoot” pose to highlight the brutality done to a strongarm robber whose hands showing gun-powder residue and trail of blood toward his killer, let alone his bullying behavior inconveniently captured on a convenience store’s security camera, suggested anything but a compliant, retreating “gentle giant.”
Mindless fun holds its own virtues, and life shouldn’t be confused for a classroom. But mindlessness’s encroachment upon all else, and life—particularly the digital life pushing screens in the back of cabs, in the checkout line, atop the gas pump—excluding contemplation has consequences beyond grouchy columns oozing condescension. A History Channel full of reality television, a Barnes & Noble transformed into a gift shop, theaters showing movies we’ve watched before, loud libraries, and universities amusing as much as teaching all make it harder to escape stupidity.
This dying year, in eclipsing 2013 (which eclipsed 2012) in its benightedness, lived as the dumbest year in history. Pessimists have reason for optimism in their dogmatic faith in pessimism: 2015 remains but days away.