Willful Stupidity

I’ve been thinking about cognitive dissonance, ISIS, abuse of language, the Greek historian Thucydides, self-deception, Justice Antonin Scalia, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and cookies.


Where to start?




In King v. Burwell, which the Supreme Court decided in June, at issue was a single drafting error in the 900-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, i.e., Obamacare. The statute has only the word “State” in a subsection that should also have listed “the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” In its 6-3 decision, the Court held that the tax credits mentioned there are indeed available to individuals who purchase health insurance on an exchange created by the federal government, and not just to those who purchase insurance on an exchange set up by one of states.


Justice Scalia dissented, stating that “[y]ou would think the answer would be obvious — so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it.” Why obvious, according to the Harvard-trained Scalia? Well, because that section of the law just says “State.” It does not mention “the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”


So there you go. Case closed.


Of course, you may know that Scalia is the same justice who once said about the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Citizens United (the case in which political spending was recognized as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment), “You can’t separate the speech from the money that facilitates the speech.”



Hmm. When I look at the Bill of Rights, I read, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” When I consult the American Heritage Dictionary, I see no mention of “money” in its definition of “speech.”


So, wouldn’t you think that the correct decision in Citizens United would be obvious — so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it?


Yes, yes, I know, I’m shooting fish in a barrel. Jon Stewart made a career out of this sort of thing.


But that’s the point, right? We know when someone is pulling a fast one. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. Naturally, the person conning us knows it, too, at some level. Take Scalia. He frequently says in interviews, “I sleep very well at night.” I can think of only one way to expand that statement: “Given the plentiful evidence of my hyper-partisan approach to deciding cases before the Supreme Court, I understand why some people might think otherwise, but the fact is, I sleep very well at night.”


Actually, I do realize that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because there is such a thing as self-deception. We human beings are capable of being, at one and the same time, the con man and the conned, the bamboozler and the dupe. Here’s how it works:


Let’s say I want to think of myself as a person of integrity. (I do!) It’s impossible, however, to live life without sometimes falling short of one’s ideals. What happens then? Well, in the typical case, I pull a Scalia. That is, I find a way to resolve the inconsistency, the dissonance of which makes me uneasy.


It’s not hard to do. Maybe it’s as simple as saying, “You know, I’ve reached the end of my rope.” Or, “she started it.” “He asked for it.” “She’s always disliked me anyway.” “They’re the bad guys, not me.” “He’s an idiot.”


Or maybe it’s more subtle. Already in classical antiquity, the historian Thucydides, in his still-influential account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, took note of the way that we manipulate language to make our own reality (Crawley, translator):

The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a weakling in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected.

Even “freedom” was made to stand for its opposite, viz., submission to an imperial power. Here are some emissaries from Athens speaking to the Melians, the inhabitants of a small island in the Aegean. The Melians wanted to remain neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, but Athens was having none of that (Warner, translator):

You will see that there is nothing disgraceful in giving way to the greatest city in Greece when she is offering you such reasonable terms — alliance on a tribute-paying basis and liberty to enjoy your own property

To which the Melians are supposed to have responded:

Our decision, Athenians, is just the same as it was at first. We are not prepared to give up in a short moment the liberty which our city has enjoyed from its foundation for 700 years.

Consider just how perverse this is. From the beginning to the present day, our biggest step and greatest achievement as human beings has been naming, that is, developing the capability through language to name, to classify, and so to exert some control over the world around us. From this naming ability has come all human culture. And yet we use this same tool not only to categorize but also to miscategorize, not only to clarify but also to obscure, not only to reveal but also to conceal.


Here’s another example.


In a recent report by The New York Times, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” we learn that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and girls. These women, members of a small religious minority in northern Iraq, are being held as sex slaves. ISIS justifies its evil actions by pointing to certain verses and stories in the Quran and other Islamic texts.


And with this horrible, horrible example, we arrive at the crux.


Because it seems to me that we’ve reached a strange and perilous moment in human history. Even as our technology becomes so sophisticated that it’s increasingly leaving us behind …



… we humans seem to be reaching new levels of sophistication in self-deception. We are both more and more cunning, on the one hand, and more and more gullible, on the other. Call it willful stupidity. So, rape is my religious duty. Torture is my patriotic duty. The Earth is 6000 years old. Climate change is a hoax. Crony capitalism is free enterprise. Oligarchy is democracy.


Why is this happening? How can it be, you ask, that theoretical physics and belief in Biblical inerrancy, which I once discussed at length with some polite but determined Jehovah’s Witnesses, are able to coexist?


Of course I don’t know for sure, but my suspicion is that the two are interrelated. For the vast majority of the world’s population, including me, today’s science and advanced technologies exist as a black box. For example, I click “publish” on my WordPress blog, and — presto! — this post shows up in your email inbox. It might as well be magic, as far as I am concerned. I couldn’t begin to explain how the process works. My click is the input, the output is your email, and in between lies a black box, in which (I may suppose) leprechauns or fairies are busy at work.


Moreover, once we’ve given up on being able to understand the complexity of our world, we’re ready to entertain the simplest possible explanations. Or some of us, at least. That’s how we get to this: “I believe that the meaning of this sacred text (Quran, Bible, Constitution, whatever) is plain on its face. It’s obvious. It’s literally true. It requires no thought.”


Do we know better? Justice Scalia, the ISIS fighter, those Jehovah’s Witnesses, whoever? Of course we do. And at the same, we don’t. A situation that you may find deeply unsettling, as I do.


Oh, and then there are cookies, also on my list at the top of this post. What do cookies have to do with all this? Nothing at all. It’s just that I’m rarely not thinking about cookies.


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