May 1 1995 by Joe Queenan
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
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,
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
Rampant dumbness also has spread to the corporate world. Remember The
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.