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A good idiot is hard to find

By Brian C. Tiemann
web posted June 2, 2003

Something I learned while up in Hippietown over the weekend was that a very simple, basic tenet of group behavior has been obsoleted out of a great many people's thought processes. That tenet is the concept that the majority should be able to dictate the policies that govern all.

I'm no fan of totalitarianism. I don't like being tyrannized by roving gangs of people who think I'm a freak. It would truly suck to live in a country where if I didn't hew to the accepted party line that was broadcast on every TV channel and painted on giant billboards everywhere, I'd be subject to abduction, beatings, torture, and death. That doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me.

I'm also no stranger to the feeling of being in the minority. If being a Mac user for these past few years has taught me anything, it's that using a minority platform has its distinct disadvantages. I'm barred from using certain services. I'm forced to find geeky workarounds to many roadblocks that prevent me from doing things that everybody else in the world takes for granted as no-brainers. I even pay more for the privilege of denying myself partnership in the majority. I make a decision that the cameraderie of the fringe is more important to me than network-effect benefits, and it costs me a bundle in cash and in prestige. The world doesn't pander to me, and I'm conscious of this each and every day.

But what the hell ever became of the idea that the majority should get the last laugh in some given debate? I've found myself alarmed to notice that lots of people are treating minority positions on certain issues as thought they were received truth -- as though just because it's an unpopular opinion, it must be true.

While walking the streets of Arcata, the one overwhelming sentiment that I felt washing over me was not one of hatred, or ennui, or even cluelessness. There were all kinds of people there, of varying degrees of thoughtfulness. The town was humming along in its nice communal bliss, a fairly efficient machine, and each person was doing his or her part, each from a unique background of education and intelligence and financial status and age. There was plenty of diversity in evidence (though it should be noted that although there was what appeared to be a Racial Tolerance Store on the corner, selling one of those traditional African robes with matching round flat-topped cap to any comer with an aching desire to show his solidarity with the pre-slavery African nation and $250 in his pocket, there didn't seem to be a single black person in the town who might buy it). There was a lot of room for debate on lots of issues. People would talk (mostly) intelligently, and often realistically, about market economics, carpentry, science, computers, fishing, even Bush and the war. But the one proposition that never seemed in doubt -- the one sentiment that everybody in the whole entire town seemed in agreement on, accepting it without any further debate necessary -- was that most people are idiots.

Is America really a land filled with Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokels?
Is America really a land filled with Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokels?

Most of America. The American Public. The masses. The sheeple.

Someone would make some comment about how most people in the country understand that eating in a fast food restaurant will make them fat, and everyone will smile and chuckle -- but then someone will say, "But we all know that most people are idiots." And the smiles will turn to sage nods.

Sure. This is a tempting thought, isn't it? If everybody in the country thinks one thing, but I think another, and I'm sure of my conviction, then it must follow that everyone else is simply wrong, yes? And that they must all be stupid, or at best misinformed?

Well, let me see. I've known a lot of people in my 27 years; not nearly as many as a lot of people have known, for I have tended for most of my life to be the sort to keep to myself except for a close social circle. But I've run into people who sucked at computers. (This happens when you work in tech support.) I've run into people who were astonishingly bad drivers. (Well, not literally, as yet.) I've run into people who gamble, or who engage in physically self-destructive behaviors like drinking or smoking or drugs. I've run into people with all kinds of faults, up to and including collecting Mariah Carey albums. But you know... there's something I just can't seem to bring myself to do, and that's to assume that they're all idiots. I can't do it.

You know why? Because if someone sucks at computers, they might yet be a master accountant, or mechanic, or swordsmith, or farmer. They might be brilliant at what they do. If someone gambles a thousand dollars a week, and has been doing so for years and yet still makes his mortgage payments, how stupid can he be and yet stay above water? How is it that someone can earn law degrees from Harvard and Yale, make millions in the oil industry, win the Presidency, and yet be widely decried as an "idiot" because he spoonerizes words and speaks with a Southern accent?

Sure, I've known idiots. But -- and it's only fairly recently that I've come to this conclusion -- I will be the last person to suggest that the majority of people that I've met in the world are stupider than myself.

And yet I seem to be in the minority on that matter.

Conversation with people on the streets of Arcata showed me that whatever else people believed, they were sure that if left to their own devices, Americans -- if given popular control over their own destinies -- would stride confidently off a cliff into a volcano's caldera.

In other words, only the elite were really qualified to make the rules. And who are the elite? Why, the people with the correct ideas, of course. Well, how do we tell whose ideas are correct? C'mon, just look around. Most of the country is made up of proletarian idiots. They watch sports and reality TV, and drink Budweiser and eat McDonald's. They don't care about anything beyond their little day jobs and their doughy wives and screaming kids, and getting to the bar so they can drink themselves into a stupor and get through to the next morning and begin the grind all over again. Think they have any worthwhile ideas of their own?

Um... wait. Weren't you saying that it's the working classes who should wield governmental power? Oh, but that's different. Somehow. Oh yeah -- it's because the working classes won't come up with ideas that really matter; it's the elite who have the only worthwhile ideas: the minority ideas.

The Dixie Chicks debacle has brought this problem into stark light: lots and lots of very vocal people seem to have become completely oblivious of what free speech, as defined in the First Amendment, actually means. Namely, that it limits the government's ability to suppress people's speech and expression. It does not affect what private parties might do to smack someone down for being stupid in public. So when hundreds of people pile up their Dixie Chicks CDs and drive a backhoe over them, suddenly other people dredge up a term they might have heard once in Civics class -- free speech -- and take it to mean that any suppression of any ideas or views by anybody is illegal under US law. The fact that the backhoe driver could get away with this heinous act proves that the US has become a police state and withdrawn all the protections it had once extended to its most valuable people -- the ones holding the minority opinions. Because, after all, majority opinions are automatically wrong.

I don't know about you, but I learned the concept of majority rules long before I ever heard of free speech. We'd be in the second grade classroom, taking a vote by show of hands whether we wanted to have peanut butter and celery for snack, or cheese and crackers. And if I happened to raise my hand with the majority of the students, then that was great. But if I didn't -- well, I learned to suck it up. I learned to accept that the majority had decided what the whole of the group would do, and just because I personally might disagree with their decision, my throwing a tantrum would do no good, because it was simply not nice to put my desires above the clearly expressed desires of twenty other kids, even if I could yell louder than they could. And who knows: they might even have a point.

But that basic concept seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. Nobody's concerned with the rights of the incumbents anymore, of the greater society. All anybody cares about are the rights of the smaller groups of less seen people with more unusual opinions. Those must be protected at any cost -- including the will of the greater part of the people.

I'm reminded of a Dilbertian exchange (which may or may not have actually been in a Dilbert), in which the manager tells the engineers, "This project takes precedence over everything else, including projects that are more important." Wait. Come again?

Maybe it wasn't in Dilbert. Maybe it actually happened here at work. It wouldn't surprise me; that's the way things have been going.

Where has this fetishization of the minority opinion come from? Whence this discarding of any opinion that is held by more than half of the voting public? How did we reach the point where someone can say "But then, we're talking about a country where 70 per cent of the people supported the war in Iraq," with a sneer and a smirk, and the rest of the assembled group will nod assent at the collective malicious dimness of 200 million coherent pollable citizens?

I have to wonder if maybe it's because we've simply fetishized the very word minority lately. It's a word that's usually followed by rights, or opportunities, or aid, or report. Anything "minority" is seen as automatically righteous. Because a minority implies a majority, doesn't it? And all majorities are by definition oppressors, occupiers, usurpers, unschooled hordes running roughshod over pure traditions and time-honored balance, usually in the name of grubby progress or money or some dumbass thing like that. If anybody from the majority expresses an opinion, feel free to ignore it; after all, it's from the majority. How important can it be?

Now, let me point out again that uniformity of thought is a catastrophe; there must always be dissent and a discourse on the issues. But there must also be decisions made, and the will of the people must be followed. However, I don't agree that the minority must ever be allowed to tyrannize the majority. Aaron McGruder of Boondocks (who seems to have been undergoing something of a chemical breakdown lately -- perhaps in response to reading lots of withering critiques of his stupid comic strips in recent weeks, which seem to accuse him of not only making up facts, but of plagiarizing artwork, as evidenced by this strip in which I think he's playing the race card, but I can't be sure) makes a valid point here in a strip from a few days ago:

...Nevertheless, I find it extremely distressing, not to say insulting, to hear it suggested that just because I hold a majority position, I'm quite simply deluded -- that all I need is to have a "brushfire" set in my brain, and I'll come around and see the light. I obviously don't have any valid points of my own, says McGruder -- only a deep dark vacuous mental abyss which, if only I were to open myself to outside ideas, would instantly be filled with his inexorable Truth.

You see, only the minority ideas are worth anything. Majority ideas are, by definition, a dime a dozen, and therefore without merit and undeserving of protection or attention.

Let's see here: I'm a Mac user. I think my decisions which have led to my using a Mac are rational ones, and I think that the benefits I've bought myself by being a Mac user are very much worthwhile. I look at the poor deluded masses of blind sheeplike Windows users and I can't help but think that they must all be morons. And it's at the very brink that I catch myself, and force myself to think about each individual person's circumstances at work and home, the things they know, the lives they lead, the contributing factors which would all point down a superhighway to Windows-land, bypassing at 75 the little turnoff that says "Macs this way". I remind myself that while there are indeed some idiots in this world, there are also a vastly larger number of people who are rational, capable contributing human beings who make decisions based on their own personal lists of pros and cons and their own individual experiences. I shouldn't sneer at the fact that so many people use Windows; I should rather marvel that they are all using computers. The human brain is an amazing thing. We shouldn't be capable of things like driving cars -- modulating pedals and wheels and levers with a feather touch, sending our mental signals into an intricate collection of machinery and electronics which cause us to hurtle down the freeway at speeds that would turn us to paste if we made the slightest miscalculation, and then -- at the same time -- talking to others in the car, using only a fragment of our mental capacity and our attention to keep the car zooming and weaving and dancing from one end of the state to the other. The fact that there are so many auto accidents in California every year shouldn't amaze me anywhere near as much as the absolutely staggering number of people who drive with complete competence, never getting into an accident at all.

Intelligent people get into accidents. We've all known people who have done so. Not everyone who crashes his car is a moron, and not everyone who drives safely isn't. But the preponderance of evidence would suggest that there are more fully competent people in the world than otherwise. Think about ten acquaintances at random. How many of them would you consider to be idiots? And lest you imagine that your social circle tends to select for smart people, doesn't that suggest that there are whole suburbs full of herds of Pakleds, good-natured but completely incapable of feeding themselves, waiting for the daily dump truck full of slurry to disgorge itself into the troughs lining the streets, and that these guys are the ones who -- though you never see them -- do all the voting and buying and churchgoing that causes such desperate fury among the Enlightened?

The tendency to glorify the minority position is extremely hard to resist, however, and one place I notice it a lot is in "have-nots" tarring all "haves" with the brush of idiocy. Tax cuts for the rich! they sneer. As though they need any more money! The tacit assumption is that all rich people are idle plutocrats in mansions, or clueless inheritors who take their windfalls to Vegas -- and what could anyone possibly do with all that money, anyway? Obviously it's the poor who have a much bigger impact on the economy, and who should be given tax breaks so that they can live better. Absent from all this knee-jerk analysis is always the idea that the flip-side of 10% of the population controls 90% of the wealth is 10% of the population shoulders 90% of the tax burden, and that the rich invest and drive businesses and create wealth, while the poor don't. America still has something of a class structure, yes; but we're quite free of the Upper-Class Twit syndrome so keenly spoofable in Britain. Here, if someone's rich, he just might have done something to get that way, and therefore it's not exactly what I'd call intellectually rigorous to dismiss him as an irrelevant doof who needs to be cut down to size.

And at the extreme end of the stick is the rants I've seen here and there where people respond to the fact that a Republican is in the Oval Office by telling everybody in earshot not to vote -- because after all, voting is just a sham, a fruitless exercise in Control of the Masses whereby you get to close your eyes and stab blindly at a name on a sheet in the vain hope of picking the guy who'll screw you less hard than the other guy. Now, our voting system has its faults; but something tells me that they wouldn't be saying voting was so useless if their guy had won, would they?

Yes, perhaps it's all just sour grapes on the part of the minority. They've got their rationales too, and I'm no better than they are by ridiculing their reasons for arriving at what conclusions they do. From their perspective, they're right -- they deserve nothing less than to rule the world and to enlighten it with the Truth that they know.

But there's a difference in this moral-equivalence-esque balance: one side believes that the average human, the one with the by-definition 100 IQ, is capable of running his own life and making intelligent decisions that benefit himself and those around him; the other side does not. One side thinks humans are competent by nature, the other side thinks they're fundamentally incompetent.

It's oh-so-tempting to shift from one opinion on that question to the other depending solely on which way the winds of argument blow, which side I find myself on -- the majority or the minority. But there does come a time to pin it to the wall for good and ask yourself, does the fact that my opinion is outnumbered in this country three to one mean that they're all stupid -- or that I might be wrong?

Brian C. Tiemann operates the popular blog Peeve Farm, where this article first appeared, and can be fairly described as a Mac evangelist.

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