How stupid are we?

Dumb

“The bite on which I gagged the most,” writes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “is not the knowledge that life itself requires hostility and death and torture-crosses—but once I asked, and I was almost choked by my question: What? does life require even the rabble? Are poisoned wells required, and stinking fires and soiled dreams and maggots in the bread of life?”

Beaumarchais’s Figaro, in The Marriage of Figaro, observes: “Whoever fails to degrade the mind avenges himself by insulting it.”

St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that “men are so blind that they even take pride in their blindness.”

“The common run of people,” Aristotle wrote in his Nichomachean Ethics, “betray their utter slavishness in their preference for a life suitable to cattle.”

In the great unfinished novel Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol wrote: “…it became abundantly clear what sort of creature man is: wise, clever, and sensible in all things that concerns others but not himself.”

“By lack of understanding,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the proles remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.”

And in The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw noted that “Godhead, face to face with Stupidity, must compromise.”

If you prefer pop culture to philosophy and literature, consider the words of Agent Kay from Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

I quote the foregoing to illustrate that the idea that the great mass of mankind is a superfluous blob of animal stupidity has a long and venerable pedigree.

The above is merely a small sampling of the epigrams on that theme that I’ve stumbled over in my own reading. They’re all from dead white European males, so identitarians can surely wave them off—but so should the rest of us, for very different reasons.

Chief among those is how quickly they crumble when probed for internal consistency.

If you’re going to take great swings at mankind, it’s important to remember that you yourself are a member of the targeted body.

In other words, if you’re going to declare that people are stupid and thoughtless, how can we accept the validity of your indictment when its own logic informs us that you yourself are likely stupid and thoughtless, and that your judgment is therefore unreliable?

To be fair, most of those citations are intended to apply only to most people. Every one of the authors I quoted would surely exempt themselves, and many of their readers, from their sweeping indictments.

But just think: we’re a species that over the span of just a few thousand years have progressed from wandering around barefoot and wrapped in animal skins to flying helicopters over a neighboring planet and strolling on our own moon.

Not because none of us are stupid, but because en masse we’re actually pretty damn clever and the cream always rises to the top.

Most of the time.

Okay, a lot of the time.

Frequently.

Often enough, in any case.

In every great trial humanity has faced, our genius has risen to meet it. We don’t always win right away, but we find our way to victory eventually. Obviously: otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

On the other hand, many of the great trials we’ve faced have been of our own making. As Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1936:

There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Exactly. We’re almost magnificently stupid right up to the point of extinction, at which point genius is called forth and saves our bacon. True of the individual, true of the species.

The horror scenario is a blackout in the big cities:
Now the police are making secret plans for the winter of horrors
Solveig Gram Jensen, Berlingske.dk, Sept 18

“The question is not whether it will be bad,” Jensen writes, “but how bad it will get.”

She’s talking about the forthcoming winter: specifically, a winter with limited and possibly inadequate energy for northern Europe.

It’s a very interesting question and one that can no longer be avoided. It’s a topic of conversation everywhere you go: a question discussed around the coffee machines and water coolers at the office, at dinner and cocktail parties at private homes, among neighbors meeting in the street: what’s going to happen this winter?

Jensen’s article is pegged to a secret plan the Berlin police are developing to cope with a wide range of scenarios.

It still only exists as a draft, but the Bild newspaper has already gained insight into it. It appears from the plan that the police are preparing for various scenarios for a lack of energy. There are three in total.

The Germans are already experiencing the first. This presupposes that the price of gas rises and that, for that reason, unrest arises in the population.

The only “unrest” she describes is the presence of right-wing German protestors disrupting the speeches of their left-wing chancellor Olf Scholz with chants of “Traitor! Traitor!”

Not exactly crisis-level stuff.

The next scenario plays out the consequences if it comes to the point that electricity and gas are rationed. And this will mean that Berliners can only turn on the heat, cook and take hot showers at certain times.

This will probably mean, predicts the police’s secret plan, that people will start to warm themselves by simply lighting a fire, for example on the balcony. This will massively increase the fire hazard.

In this phase, the police must be on standby around the clock and, not least, be ready with emergency generators, satellite phones and fuel in portable tanks.

Probably good to be prepared for something like that, but it hardly seems like a horror scenario.

In the last and absolute worst scenario, the police in the city of millions are preparing for a partial failure of the energy supply.

Here it is expected that unrest may arise in the streets, that people will loot shops and that critical infrastructure will come under attack. It will not be possible to withdraw money, the trains will be stopped in the middle of the tracks, the mobile phones will not work.

Image: internet meme.

Jensen notes drily: “Bild does not say anything about exactly how the police should act in this particular situation.”

She then surveys preparations being made elsewhere:

Switzerland

In Switzerland, too, the police are deeply concerned about public safety in the event of a power failure.

In reality, the government in the Alpine country hadn’t been focused on anything other than getting enough energy. But then the chief police director, Fredy Fässler, complained. And now the police sit at the table in the top committees, Fässler explains to the newspaper Blick.

Top committees are on it.

Top. Committees.

United Kingdom

In the UK, authorities and intelligence services have been told to have carbon paper ready.

The paper was previously used to make copies while writing—by hand or on a typewriter. Then came the fax and then email, making carbon paper completely redundant.

But with the prospect of running out of power, the old-fashioned method has a unique advantage: It works without power. That is why officials in the intelligence service are now being advised to have carbon paper lying clearly in the drawer, reports the Financial Times:

“This is about how you can continue to communicate in the government in the event of a crisis,” an official told the newspaper.

Carbon papers are just one part of an exercise that was held in some of the ministries’ departments recently.

Whew! For a minute I thought that was the totality of their preparedness: carbon paper in desk drawers.

What the government calls a “reasonable” worst-case scenario assumes cold weather and reduced imports of energy from Norway.

This would mean that the UK could be short of around a sixth of the energy it needs during peak periods.

Should this happen in a situation where the British have not saved up energy—at a moment when the gas stocks are not quite full—there will be whole days of blackouts in the middle of winter, officials say.

That carbon paper’s going to be a real life-saver when the British grid goes down. Well done, UK! Jolly good!

France

I don’t think of France as having anything to do with northern Europe. France is southern. And yet:

…the outlook is not much better. The country’s nuclear power plants were for many years to be a guarantor of the energy supply. But today many of them are being repaired and maintained, and therefore the French also run the risk of lacking energy when they need it most.

According to Le Figaro, in the event of a gas shortage and very low temperatures, it may be necessary to save up to 15 percent of the consumption of electricity. If this is not successful, the gas can simply be closed for a certain period of time. It will primarily affect parts of the industrial sector.

“This makes it clear,” Jensen concludes, “that the only real certainty this winter is that it will be uncertain. No one knows how we will avoid the worst blackouts and riots. At the moment we are mainly trying to imagine them.”

Stupidity certainly got us here, but it’s not going to get us out. This is one case where we definitely don’t want to “dance with the date that brung us.”

Avoiding the worst blackouts is a technical problem that we have to hope can be addressed by technical people. (From the Department of Teachable Moments: anyone give damn what color those people are? What sex? Who they choose to sleep with?)

Avoiding riots (and worse) is a social problem that is probably best addressed by solving the technical problem: no blackouts, no shortages, no riots. Bada bing.

If the technical problem isn’t solved then the social problems will be multivariate and therefore difficult to prepare for. How cold a winter will it be? How extensive will energy problems be? Will the pre-existing difficulties with our supply lines compound our problems with other shortages? (For example, over 100,000 Danish households are heated with biomass fuels that are no longer merely expensive: supply has simply run out.)

We can probably get through a mild winter with minimal disruptions to the energy supply without experiencing any substantial social problems.

But the colder it gets the greater the likelihood of. . . unpleasant consequences.

One silver lining is that weather bad enough to throw us into chaos would necessarily also be bad enough to limit the number of people willing to take to the streets to express their discontent in any kind of kinetic fashion.

(Jordan Peterson claims that when he tired of protestors disrupting all his college campus appearances, he simply began scheduling them for 8:00 in the morning. He assumed the type of students typically protesting his presence wouldn’t be willing to get out of bed that early. He claims not to have experienced any protests since having made that change.)

That’s not much of a silver lining (“don’t worry, guys, people will be too cold and miserable to protest!”), but it’s more reassuring than any talk of top committees and carbon paper.

Another silver lining is implicit in the description of the Swiss planning: the government “hadn’t been focused on anything other than getting enough energy.” It shouldn’t require the possibility of civil unrest to get governments properly focused, but here we are.

Personally, I take a more sanguine view of the likely civic response to energy disruptions this winter for reasons hinted at earlier: people can certainly be panicky, troublesome, and deeply stupid, but in times of crisis the better angels of our nature shine through—always.

Should the worst-case scenario manifest itself—should the grid go down in the middle of a brutal winter—I think it’s less likely that “critical infrastructure” will be attacked, or that there’ll be widespread riots and looting, than that well-prepared citizens will open their homes to those facing the worst adversity. People will look out for and take care of one another as they always do in crises. I’ve seen it first-hand in earthquakes, blizzards, and hurricanes—and on 9/11 in New York.

Which isn’t to say that, come spring, political heads won’t roll—metaphorically or even literally. (Certainly there are plenty that deserve to, metaphorically.)

Only that in the moment of crisis itself, we’re going to be fine because we’re really not such a bad lot—even if we do think a little too highly of carbon paper.

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