Playing Dumb

Surveying public discourse from colonial times until today in America, it is possible to detect a strong presence of anti-intellectualism. Pretending to be less than intelligent is a behavioral characteristic of the false self and is closely related to pandering or pimping, which by the way, is a felony in all of the states except certain parts of Nevada. Why would anyone want to appear stupid in speech or behavior? Let us enter the bizarre Wonderland of Paradigm-B to find out what this bizarre type of “criminal behavior” looks like and why it is admired.

Thanks to Donald Trump we have a recent example of rhetorical pandering, and politicians have long exemplified what it sounds like to be a “sycophant.” “It may feel like a new phenomenon in contemporary American politics, but Trump’s ‘I just want to tell it like it is’ maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric.”[i]

Remember Mark Antony being a “suck-up” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? “I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you all know me, a plain, blunt man.”[ii]  In other words, let’s project our anger on the Other, those conniving politicians who have caused all of our suffering and failures all these years—yes those who have the power that we do not have. Antony is “licking the boots,” as it were, of the plebians by eschewing the language (rhetoric) of the Roman elite. Even though I am rich and powerful, I am one of you.

Fast forward to modern Italy, Silvio Berlusconi echoes the same popular “toady” language. “If there’s one thing I can’t abide its rhetoric. All I’m interested in is what needs to get done.”[iii]  Yeah, right! What other traits do the public “speechifying” “brown nosers” use? Short sentences, like Trump’s “We have to build a wall folks!” is a perfect example, especially for today’s sound bite media, headlines and the short attention span of Twitter users. Politicians use labels and name-calling when they take their campaigns “negative.” True communication stops when the name-calling begins.

How can a self-proclaimed billionaire like Donald Trump use rhetoric to play the “stooge” convincing the American plebians that he is one of them? He uses “I” and “you” to convince his audience that he feels their pain; that they have a relationship in a story or worldview they share, a common identity, wherein it’s “us” vs. “them”  (the Other) who have ruined our economy, destroyed our security and threatened the traditional American family. He is demonstrating for them that it is OK to be politically incorrect in their anti-elite conversations.

It is in our best interest to examine more deeply why the intellect “can’t get no respect” in America. As we have already said, it has always been thus. “Except for a brief period during the last century, from the 1930s through the 1960s or so, when an active intelligentsia (even the word sounds dated) loosely known as the New York Intellectuals formed around a clutch of publications including Partisan Review, The Nation and Commentary, and critics like Lionel Trilling, Dwight MacDonald and Mary McCarthy had a say on matters literary and political, we tend to give short shrift to intellection for its own sake, regarding it as something best corralled off in the academy.”[iv]

It’s not that intellectuals or those less gifted with “intellection” are right or wrong but rather that they are irrelevant. Since both the intellectually elite and the so-called “red-necks” are unaware of the difference between reality and illusion, it matters little who wins the elections in America or who gets into Harvard and Yale. Listening to the rhetoric of whomever has the podium, it is obvious that our pundits and plebians have no clue what the problems facing humanity are let alone what the solutions might be. We might just as well sit back and enjoy the rhetorical fireworks. They won’t be edifying but they are guaranteed to be entertaining.

Playing Dumb

[i]     Thompson, Mark. “The Dark History of Straight Talk.” The New York Times. August 28, 2016, page 2.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid.

[iv]    Merkin, Daphne. “Antidotes to Punditry.” The New York Times. August 28, 2016, page 11.


Find more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *