The World is Turning Catastrophically Stupid. Here’s How Not to Join It.
I’d bet, these days, shortly after reading the headlines, you’ve thought, shaking your head and muttering, something like: “Jesus. We live in an age of impossibly catastrophic stupid.”
You’re not wrong. About a decade or so ago, hot on the heels of the financial crisis, something happened — an old story began to be rewritten, as the world found itself poorer once again. There was an explosion, somewhere deep in the human heart, and a tsunami rippled across the globe — one boiling and bubbling with every imaginable variety of stupid: human folly, gleeful ignorance, self-destructive greed, reckless spite, dim-witted cruelty parading itself as enlightenment.
And so now a tsunami of imbecility is rolling like a slow-motion thermonuclear bomb across the globe. Lightning bolts of foolishness shiver down it. Smoke clouds of idiocy billow from it. Here are the five kinds of stupid wrecking the globe — because your first job, these days, as a human being, is to make sure you’re not being turned into an imbecile by this wave of stupid, too.
Economic stupid is nationalism, populism, or austerity, three words that craftily mean the same thing. It’s the idea that “we don’t have the money to pay for it!!”, whether “it” is school lunches, healthcare, education, parks, libraries, media, or trains. Sure we have the money. What do you think an era of zero interest rates mean? It means that there is so much money sloshing around in the treasure chests of the global economy, so much loot piled up by Jeff Bezoses and Bill Gateses, that there is nowhere left to put it. Not a single place: all the yachts, super mansions, and trophy castles have been bought. Nada left to buy equals zilch interest to lend at. Zero interest doesn’t just means “societies can borrow for better than free and give everyone healthcare, education, an income, and savings” — it means that if they don’t, the economy will go right on cruising into oblivion, because that money will go on piling at the top, instead of doing anything remotely useful, beneficial, or necessary.
Now, who’s the prime exemplar of austerity? America, of course. There, thanks to four decades of people imbecilically destroying their very own government, those very people live in rank indignity — they have no healthcare, retirement, pensions, safety nets, and therefore, they have no mobility, opportunity, stability, security, and therefore, quite reasonably, they have no hope or optimism left, which is why they’re turning to harder and harder drugs to numb the pain of it all. But see the point: the nationalist says: “us first!!!”, but ironically, he only means “them last!!” He is too stupid to invest in his very own society. He wants, instead, to kick out the scapegoats, exclude the minority, scorn the weak. But he doesn’t see that “us first” and “them last” are not opposites — they quite often go hand in hand in a race to the bottom of the abyss. Ah, only a true imbecile would confuse up for down.
So my next form of stupid is social stupid. Social stupid is the idea that a society can function without a social contract. That Uber can replace ambulances and hyperloops can replace buses and what next? Vending machines can replace hospitals and schools, I guess.
“Wait, Umair!”, you cry. “Who’d be stupid enough to believe that? LOL!” Alas, as it turns out, plenty. All those extremist parties arising around the globe? They look to America as an example — not as a warning. That’s what they want to become. Hence, the bombastic demagogues that run them stand for cutting public services, deconstructing governance, shredding the social contract, and replacing it with various forms of authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and feudalism, which don’t really have social contracts as much as pledges of fealty. It took human beings millennia to develop these things called social contracts — and yet here we are, timewarping backwards centuries by the month.
But it’s not just demagogues and extremists who want fealty these days, is it? I read an article in the Guardian where Elon Musk said that to survive the next World War, we have to colonize Mars. Ahahaha LOL. Elon. My dude, my dude. Maybe we could try to…prevent the next world war? You know, save millions of lives, instead of running away while they turn into radioactive dust?
That’s my third form of stupid. It’s technological. Let’s call this one techno-determinism — the idea that we can engineer solutions to our problems, like, say going to Mars. Elon hasn’t quite considered the fact that if humans who make world wars go to a different planet, all that’s likely to happen is world wars on Mars, Venus, and Pluto. We can’t solve human problems with technology. That’s why Twitter turned into the world’s largest emotional toiletbowl, why Facebook chose profits over democracy, and why YouTube is a place kids go to get educated on subjects like murder, bullying, and torture, not, say Renaissance literature and watercolours. Now, this form of stupid, techno-determinism, goes deeper than we think. But let me try to boil it down. Do you think that we can even really see human problems without ever reading books, watching plays, studying ourselves, and learning history? If you do, congratulations, you’re a techno-determinist, you just don’t know it.
But techno-determinism is hardly alone in it’s raging quest for easy, comfortable solutions, that require no thought, consideration, reflection, or growth. This brings me to my fourth form of stupid. It’s cultural. Let me call it salvationism. The rise of extremist religion, whether Islamic, Christian, or otherwise? Salvation — in the next world, so who needs this one? The rise of demagogues and strong men? Salvation — safety in daddy’s muscular arms. The rise of bizarre forms of magical thought — on both the left and right, the right-wing version being “race science” and genetic determinism, just like in the good old Nazi days, and the left version being the idea that shouting at Donald Trump on Twitter is going actually resolve problems of poverty, abuse, and violence? Salvation, my old friend. Everwhere we look, people want a way out of this age. It’s no surprise that they look for the easiest, least painful one. You might laugh at opioid addicts — but I’d bet if you look at yourself a little more carefully, well…
And that brings me to my fifth and final form of stupid. It’s the biggest one of all, and it’s psychological. Denial. We are in deep, profound denial about…everything, more or less. Take America again. Just a few weeks ago, kids were massacred with a machine gun. The nation went hysterical — and now it’s back to mostly caring about TV shows. Denial. Nobody can pretend they don’t know kids massacring each other is terrible — they can only be in denial, no? But I could extend that example endlessly — because my first four forms of stupid are really also forms of denial. Nationalism, extremism, demagoguery, the rebirth of literal Nazism, salvationism, determinism — all the manifold, maddening forms of stupidity that define this age of globally catastrophic stupid — these are all strategies of denial. Denying someone else rights, dignity, a chance, a future, belonging, a self.
Denial. Self-chosen ignorance. Socially constructed mass delusions. Overweening folly. About the world, humanity, life, and each other. Things will be OK, go back to normal. We stick our fingers and cry “LA LA LA LA!!” at the merest mention of even the tiniest inconvenient truth — quick, change the channel, unlike that person, unfollow. So here are a few of those truths, now that I’ve got you in a position where you can’t squirm away so easily.
The climate is changing. Inequality is spiking. Young people’s lives are declining. The global economy is broken. Democracy is slowly fading, if not dying. We are in deep, deep shit as a world, as a species, as human beings. I could go on. The point isn’t to depress you. Sorry, you’re not that important. The point is that it isn’t about you. What isn’t? This. All of it. The planet. Society. Democracy. Life. Even your life. Denial is a way to retain one’s egoism, really, to cling to the delusion that one is all-powerful. “If I ignore it long enough, it’ll go away!!” Sorry. You just don’t matter that much. The great truth of this age begins right there.
The world is telling us something pretty important these days, if we listen. It is that we don’t matter at all. Not this way. We have lived all wrong for the last century or so. Materialism, rationalism, individualism. What have they produced? Greed, brutality, cunning, competition. What have those produced? At a human level — beneath the festooned gadgets and the glittering spires? Loneliness, bitterness, rage, anger, fear, envy. Inequality and stagnation and immobility and decline. Despair and cruelty and misery at the meaningless of it all.
But it is we ourselves who chose all this. This meaninglessness. This futility, emptiness, hollowness. We chose it by saying nothing mattered at all, except winning, conquest, cruelty, possession. Nothing mattered except having the power to make nothing matter.
That, my friends, is the definition of imbecility. This is the age of the imbecile.
The point is to make it all matter again. Society. Democracy. Prosperity. Life. The planet. Each other. Then we will matter again, too. But if we do not make those things matter, then we will not either. We will vanish, unremembered, like the dust on the wind that we are. Tiny blind creatures who thought they were something more than that — how funny. Swept away by the oceans in the blink of an eye. And not a star in the universe wept a tear.
That is the message of this age. But we are not quite ready to hear it yet, I fear. What does it really mean, this word, “stupid”? It means something like: “what I thought would matter didn’t, and what I thought wouldn’t did. I got it all backwards. Doh! I was so stupid.” Doesn’t that describe where we are today? We made everything meaningless, a game, a contest, a reality show, including ourselves, keep right on doing it, and then wonder — “wait!! why is my life going nowhere?! Why don’t I matter?!” Ah. Well. That’s because nothing matters to you, including and beginning with you — not the planet, democracy, society, prosperity, your grandkids, nor your mind, heart, body, or soul.
Such a person is an imbecile, who cannot assign meaning to the world, only subtract meaning from it. And that’s because they swallow lies most children wouldn’t believe. Cruelty is kindness. Put your neighbour last. Scorn the weak. Despise the stranger. Such lies make fools of us — because when we believe them, soon enough, nothing means anything, except our immediate desires, but in that way, nothing much matters at all, and in the end, we are left baffled by the lack of meaning in our worlds, selves, lives.
That — assigning, giving, and deriving meaning — is the signal test of intelligence. Human beings are failing spectacularly it today. The world is engulfed in stupid, which is a way to say: nothing means anything, precisely because the only kind of power we desire anymore is the power to take meaning away from things, not give meaning to them.
A world of self-interested pleasure-maximizing robots in human flesh will happily watch everything burn for another hit of greed, envy, power, and hate. And that level of stupid, that absolute and total lack of meaning, which is what totalitarianism really is, is what must begin with changing if we are to come back to our senses again.