Fixing Stupid

—  This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 11 November 2012, was last revised on 28 April 2014. © Govinthenews Vol. 3:11(1).


“Somewhere between the angels and the French lies the rest of humanity.” Mark Twain.


When Samuel Clemens penned the words quoted above he was not paying the French a compliment. The French were a favorite piñata for Twain’s spirited wit because of the jocular view that they lacked intellect. Of course we know — just as everyone knew in Samuel Clemens’ day — that the French are no dumber, or stupider, than the rest of mankind. All of us are regular victims of our own stupefying feats of brainlessness, and honest men and women admit it.

The problem is, too few of us are honest in our stupidity. It is that fact which brings us to the subject at hand.

Today’s common wisdom posits that “You can’t fix stupid.” That popular expression gets traction from two related truths. The first, known as the Darwin effect, is that some acts of stupidity are fatal. The second derives from the observation that some ingrained forms of stupidity are so resistant to remediation as to be, for all practical purposes, unfixable. It is fortunate for mankind that most stupid acts are not fatal, and few who engage in acts of stupidity are afflicted with such fundamental dullness that they cannot learn from their mistakes.

That, by the way, is the real work of one’s lifetime. I mean, of course, doing stupid things, then gaining wisdom from cleaning up the mess. It is what life is all about, not just for idiots, but for all of us. The more mistakes we make, the smarter we become. Rather than shunning such things we should welcome them.

That might be a new concept for you. If it is, fear not, for you are in the company of multitudes.

Contrary to the published research of Mortimer J. Adler and others on the value of making mistakes, most of humanity persists in the belief that mistakes are the bane, and not the boon, of its existence. In 1941, writing in the Journal of Educational Sociology, Adler — buoyed by his access to over two thousand years of accumulated wisdom — presented an excellent case for the supposition that making even egregious mistakes spurs the learning process onward in positive ways (though in his later years he became what can only be described as his own worst example of that truth: see the footnote at the end of this article). If Adler was correct in 1941 — and the evidence indicates he is — each mistake we make should be cause for joyous celebration. But no, instead we tuck our tails, bite our upper lips, and hang our heads in shame.

The making of mistakes is, incidentally, the meaning of the word “experience.” The word is crafted by stringing two Latin roots together: ex- (from, out of), -peri- (that which is around, about, or near us); then adding to them the suffix -ence (pertaining to). Out of the trials and errors of our lives are borne our most realistic, and thus our most useful, concepts of living.

Experience is the act of living through an event, of being a part of it, and — most importantly — of learning something of lasting value in the process.  This explains why living an active life of experience — specifically one filled to the brim with mistakes — and the evolution of wisdom within the mind of the mistake-maker, are inextricably linked. The Scottish diarist, James Boswell, in his 1791 “Life of Samuel Johnston,” wrote that men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience. Samuel Johnson had such a capacity, and because of his unabashed willingness to experience life, he became one of the most distinguished men of letters in English history.

The context here is not so much the fun, pleasant, happy times of our lives, but those sad, difficult, teeth-gritting ones — specifically those that come with loss and lack. Samuel Johnson knew of such, and that knowledge made him great. Today, however, our culture assiduously avoids pain, hardship, and poverty. That focus so mocks reality as to misrepresent it as something akin to a laughable myth. But reality is never mocked for long, and there is no humor in our failure to recognize that the more we suffer — the more difficult the path, and the harder we have to grit our teeth and spill our blood, sweat, and tears to reach our goals — the more we are apt to learn along the way.

We are inclined to gloss over that word poverty, thinking we have it figured out, but most of us do not. So reviled a word, it is. And so maligned. It strikes fear and loathing in the hearts of men and women, girls and boys, today. But it ought to bring smiles to our faces, and put a spring in our step.

Ah, but the word is used as an epithet in every circle, so we shun it. This despite the fact that there is no shame inherent to the state it labels, whether economic or intellectual. Impoverishment is, by definition, a statement of personal lack. Like a mistake that signals we’ve used poor judgment, poverty is a sign we can do better. It cannot impinge upon our consciousness unless we also see a right path and a better station before us. Recognition of poverty in our life is proof we discern the way forward, out of it. All that is left is for us to stand up, seize the day, and with courage and conviction take one step after another until we reach the prize.

Seen aright, poverty and mistakes are powerful springboards to a better life, at least to those who live where freedom’s bell sounds. But where, exactly, is that? An individual’s freedom has nothing to do with where they live, the color of their skin, the language they speak, or the religion they subscribe to, but depends mightily on the way they view themselves and their station in life. In other words, one’s freedom is a state of mind, just as is one’s bondage. Right here — in America — we have willing slaves in every city, practically in every neighborhood, because they believe lies told by those they live, work, and play with. Their friends and relatives are miserable in their poverty, and use ugly names for those who learn, yearn, and work for a better life.

Those who accept those malignant slurs as gospel become slaves to wrong ideas, but they do so by choice, not because they must. Heed this truth: each of us is our own failure or success story, in the making. The winners opt for success, and the lower on the scale they begin their journey upward, the higher their eventual ascent, provided they believe in themselves, are willing to work hard, and accept the sacrifices that the obstacles in their paths necessitate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his seminal essay on Self-Reliance, put it this way:

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Emerson had no reverence for entitlements. Do you envy another person’s riches? He brands that ignorance. Do you seek to imitate the prosperous men you see? Such is tantamount to suicide. You have yourself, for better or worse, and though surrounded by goodness, none of it inures to your benefit without effort on your part. He goes on:

“The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”

Achievement is not a product of cowardice, it is an act of courage, guts, and determination. But too many of us let our courage, our fortitude, and our inner willpower lie idle. And that leads to misery and frustration. Here’s what Emerson said about that:

“A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

The deliverance that does not deliver is that which is served up — that is, gifted without effort on our part — “on,” in earlier times we would have said, “a silver platter,” but today those malignant deliverances arrive in the form of welfare allotments, food stamps, and other kinds of government giveaways. That coward, known generally as a thief, who takes what is not his, receives such a deliverance. Strangely (to some), so does the heir of a great fortune, obtained through the death of a relative whose wealth was neither aided nor supported by he who now receives it. Today’s indulgent governments seek to deliver their voting masses from poverty by making everyone heirs to the grand fortunes of the wealthy, not realizing — or perhaps not caring — that the product of such folly is the unfounded, illogical belief that society owes its members a living. The process turns all who participate into thieves, with devastating consequences. All such deliverances are supremely ethereal. They are like tender grass that withers in the heat of the afternoon sun. The moment they wilt to nothingness it is as though they had never been. If not worse…

Such is nearly always the fate of riches too easily gotten.

Perhaps that is why learning is so much rarer now than before. We are immersed in a sea of gratuitous information, more than at any time in earth’s history. But information and knowledge are not the same, as Jim Horning points out in his dictum that Nothing is as simple as we hope it will be. Horning lists this as his first, second, and third Laws, expressing how important it is that we get it right. We come into a bit of information, and deduce immediately that we have received knowledge. But no, though they are distant relatives, they’re not on the same plane.

Information used wisely leads upward, hierarchically, to knowledge, but only provided that the recipient of that information expends the effort required to ascend each painstaking, arduous step along the way. Those freely given “information” without price or effort more often misuse than use it. They debase it as something to which they are entitled, and mistakenly extrapolate, from that, the obtuse notion that knowledge and wisdom are similar entitlements without perceiving the steep staircase between them.

The present state of every field within American Academia, not to mention the embarrassing antics of many — nay, most — members of the United States Congress, together provide abundant proof that information without knowledge or wisdom threatens the quest for truth, and the liberty of all. We’ve lost sight of the fact that though information sets the stage for knowledge and wisdom, it does not confer either. Knowledge comes only from experience. Valuable experience, and the wisdom that only it confers, comes only with great effort, i.e., pain.

As early as the 2nd century A.D., Rabbi Ben Hei wrote, in Pirkei Avot 5:26, that “According to the effort is the reward.” Benjamin Franklin used this pithy statement to write “‘Industry need not wish,’ as Poor Richard says, ‘and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains.’”

What more needs to be said than this? Little. Perhaps nothing. But since I am posting this here in response to recent events, I feel moved to comment on them briefly.

I am deeply troubled that more than half of the citizens of the United States of America chose, on 6 November 2012, to turn ever further from the principles on which this nation was founded. That’s not a new concern. I’ve been troubled by our slow movement away from our founding principles all my life, and I am now in my 70’s, a child of World War II, born during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And though FDR accelerated America’s drive away from our founding principles, he was not the first to set us on that road. The shift took place many years before, simply because it is the natural propensity of all ordinary democracies to ratchet in that direction. FDR merely toggled the decline downward into the abyss more steeply, while shifting the government’s engine into a higher gear.

The ultimate result of even the most innocent step in the wrong direction is both disastrous and inevitable, though it is difficult to see that at the beginning. That fraction of society that are the producers of capital lose interest in the game in proportion to the reduction in their reward. Consequently, capital production declines, slowly at first, then more steeply as government reaches deeper and deeper into the pockets of the producers. This spiral spreads government’s reach into the pockets of the not-so-rich as well, who cease saving as they lean more heavily on the government for retirement income. And so on, on and on, until, one fine day, the house of cards collapses.

Inevitable. History is my inerrant witness.

In the face of FDR’s maneuvers many of America’s great minds predicted the sequence of events just enumerated. Some pessimists thought the end of America would come quickly, but many — if not most — foresaw a slow but steady decline that would take decades before the ax fell. They were right. We’re closer to the blade now, but by how much? Nobody can say. We cannot say when the ax will fall, but those who understand history know it will fall; there is no question about that.

So I am troubled. But not discouraged, no…

It isn’t so much what happened on November 6 that troubles me most. It is more the reminder that we are still on the path that FDR found so beguiling, and that the path itself and what lies ahead have grown more visible. You can practically see full-blown repudiation of America’s founding principles off in the distance now, when before it was hidden by the forest of trees, and the meanderings of the trail, that once blocked the view.

It seems hardly worthwhile to lament Mitt Romney’s defeat at the polls. Mitt, a good man, would not have been able to reverse course and return our nation to its founding principles, simply because the nation was not ready to rally around such works as that. His administration would have been lucky to slap a mere band-aid on the gaping wound of festering decline, and would have ended up like the administration of George W. Bush, enabling today’s bastard form of government — halfway between the Republic our founders envisioned and its very opposite — as it continued its now-not-so-slow creep towards the latter.

What we need, and likely will get, is a radical make-over that grips the very soul of our nation. We have an advantage our founders never, in their wildest dreams, realized: the conundrums that clouded our founding from the start, namely the blot of institutional slavery and the denial of universal suffrage, are gone forever.

Yes, racism is dead in America. Don’t believe those who say otherwise.

But, though we’ve bested the hurdle of racism, we are not yet ready to come together in the spirit of community to do what needs to be done. Something dire must occur to bring us to that place. It will, sadly, be painfully dire from all indications. Fixing stupid is like catastrophe theory, which is illustrated by the fact that you can back a dog into a corner just so far before the hapless canine, with no more room to keep backing up, snaps. The instantaneous change in character transforms the animal from a coward to a ferocious, formidable, fighting machine. That is what must happen to us. We have to hit rock bottom before we snap, transforming ourselves from a nation of liars, cheats, connivers and perverts, into a nation of honest, hard-working, producers of capital and protectors of all that is good and worthy.

Accordingly, we will not come to our senses and recognize our mistakes until the engine of industry dies a natural death. When that happens, this nation will fall into the pit of near-universal poverty.

Plan for it, for that outcome is in our future. We can predict it with absolute certainty, because the past is prologue. Never in the history of mankind has any government based on punishing the producers and exalting the moochers lived up to the dreams of its champions. Every such government in the world has failed, or is — like us — somewhere on the path to inevitable failure. It is folly to believe our experiment in that direction will not fail us just as surely as it has failed all who have experimented with it in the past.

Hopefully, though, that failure will not come too soon. We need time to chart a course that returns us to the principles that made us the most productive nation on earth. Today’s champions of liberty and freedom don’t have the answer yet, or they would have sprung it on us by now.

Somewhere out there are souls with the insight, courage, and common sense that energized and motivated the likes of George Washington, Samuel Adams, and James Madison. One of these days those souls will step forward, don the mantle of responsible, honest, moral leadership and guide us in the right direction.

In the meantime, let us hope that America’s looming failure will not produce a calamitous, bloody civil war. That could happen, but — in my humble opinion — it seems unlikely. I am optimistic with regard both to the timing, and the nature of the final upheaval. We as a nation are composed of a diverse people, from all regions of the earth. We are a people of great intellect, capable of rising to great heights of compassion and understanding, able to envision the right path into the future, with the courage and industry needed to transport us there. We also have the horror of what took place in the great War Between the States to chasten all who might counsel a repeat of that experience. And we still have the 2nd Amendment, which has only grown stronger in the past decade, to chasten those in government who might counsel wholesale governmental suppression as a means of pushing their agenda to its inevitable conclusion.

So, the evidence before us suggests, at least to me, that we’ll survive all the way to the Great Make-Over, and that — when we get there — we’ll be in much better shape than we are now. But when we get there, what will we find?

I predict the creation of a true republic that objectively rewards the genius and industry of the worker and just as objectively punishes those who are dull or lazy; that abstemiously codifies the torts, misdemeanors, and felonies that estrange citizens from their fellows and their leaders, but falls silent on any of those sins its citizens knowingly commit upon themselves; that neither encourages nor discourages the exercise of personal religious forms, but that forbids the practice of religion that intrudes upon the lives of others; that seeks a pleasant and mutually beneficial relationship with its neighboring nations in the world, but that refuses to enter into treaties with them, recognizing that, inasmuch as such behavior between individuals is unhealthy, such behavior between nations is likewise in bad taste; and that taxes all its citizens equally.

Would that such a state should come into existence during my lifetime. But, being a realist, I am not holding my breath…


Regarding Mortimer J. Adler: Dr. Adler spent his adult lifetime in the hallowed halls of Academia. That, perhaps better than anything else, explains why he is his own worst example of the associative relationship between pain and learning. In 1941, at age 39, his memories of the toils and tribulations of the struggling student were still fresh in his mind. Later, though, as an academician ensconced in the ivory tower of higher learning, so-called, those memories were superseded by the charms of his adoring students. In that state, pain and learning became disassociated to the point that he lost touch with reality, as most entrenched professors do. His writings on democracy, socialism, liberty, and justice are prime examples of his inability to cope with the real world. It is unfortunate that his legacy, rather than one of making a positive influence on mankind, is to have led millions of students who hung on his every word astray. If the U.S.A. survives the first half of the new millennium as a democratic republic, and avoids falling into the abyss, it will be a miracle. If, however — as now seems more likely — this nation succumbs to the wiles and mechanizations of that latter, alluring but less-than-worthless theory of governance, we will have Mortimer J. Adler to blame, perhaps more than anyone else.




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