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Stupified

For the past year or so, cultural critics have been ranting about the rise of dumbness as the dominant motif of American JOE popular culture. What began  almost two decades ago as a series of amusing gags-Chevy Chase’s pratfalls on “Saturday Night Live,” David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks-has given way to something more overtly stupid: …

For the past year or so, cultural critics have been ranting about the rise of dumbness as the dominant motif of American JOE popular culture. What began  almost two decades ago as a series of amusing gags-Chevy Chase’s pratfalls on “Saturday Night Live,” David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks-has given way to something more overtly stupid: Beavis and Butthead, Howard Stern, rap music, the film “Dumb and Dumber.” Deliberately stupid movies now dominate Hollywood‘s agenda for 1995 and 1996, while one TV network-the Fox channel-is devoted almost entirely to idiotic programs. Critics who lament the rise of dumbness wring their hands, wondering whether the ascendancy of such chuckleheads as Jim Carrey, Terry Bradshaw, Ricki Lake, and Geraldo Rivera signals the final eclipse of American civilization.

However, snooty opinion-page columnists and other avatars of public taste fail to recognize the underlying reason dumbness has come to the fore in American pop culture. Movies and TV programs never anticipate the zeitgeist; rather, they reflect what already is happening in society. Movies in particular are the subliminal expression of the American public’s deepest fears. Thus, the amazing success of moronic fare such as “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” and even “Forrest Gump” is not so much a joyous celebration of dumbness, but a thinly veiled cry for help by a Republic at the crossroads. Today, the American people fear dumbness is taking over society.

Consider the evidence. Last December, U.S. mutual funds and pension funds lost billions of dollars, because their portfolios were heavily weighted with Mexican stocks, bonds, and short-term paper. These investments were dumb. At the same time, the people of Orange County, CA, lost $2 billion, because they entrusted the county’s money management to a man who now admits he didn’t know anything about the volatile derivatives he was investing in. Obviously, this man was dumb, but the people who gave him all that money to invest were dumber.

And what about dumbness in politics? Two years ago, President Bill Clinton was sit?

ting on top of the world, with a Democratic Congress and Democratic hegemony in most state governments. He achieved this position by promising the electorate a less intrusive government that would impose fewer taxes. Instead, he dreamed up a labyrinthine health-care system that would have imposed even more bureaucracy on society. As last fall’s election results made clear, this was unbelievably stupid.

But dumbness is a bipartisan affair in America. No sooner had Newt Gingrich swept into power and been anointed Speaker of the House of Representatives than he ravaged his credibility by accepting a $4.5 million book contract from Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox.

Rampant dumbness also has spread to the corporate world. Remember The Newton? Dumb. Remember Intel’s initial response to the Pentium Chip brouhaha? The company basically told its non-corporate customers to stop whining. Dumb. Remember John Sculley’s brief foray into the netherworld of the wireless technology sub-cosmos? The dapper, respected former CEO of Apple Computer took a job with a tiny, unprofitable Long Island firm, but then had to quit because of the firm’s immense regulatory problems. Dumb.

Further evidence of the rise of dumbness in American society: Bill Clinton’s $200 haircut; Hillary’s commodities markets exploits; Dan Quayle’s entire career, both as vice president and as a presidential candidate; a balanced budget amendment that does not go into effect until two years after the next millennium begins and does not even mention Social Security and Medicare; and a frenzied national debate about the $164 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, a sum that would not even buy the $185 million Philadelphia Eagles franchise. Definitely dumb.

As a journalist who derives about 30 percent of his income from writing books and magazine articles excoriating the entertainment industry for its ferocious stupidity, it makes me uncomfortable to defend anyone who works in movies, TV, radio, or rock ‘n’ roll. Yet the facts are indisputable. Jim Carrey, MTV, Beavis and Butthead, and Howard Stern are not ahead of the curve in celebrating stupidity. Their popularity merely confirms the overwhelming role dumbness now plays in our normal lives. Our schools are dumb. Our newspapers are dumb. Our leaders are dumb. Perhaps most terrifying of all, our brokers and mutual fund managers are dumb. We will not see the demise of the stupidocracy until people in this country shape up and stop rewarding dumb politicians, dumb rock stars, dumb talk show hosts, and dumb movie studios. When will that happen?

Don’t hold your breath.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.