It’s a challenge putting your mark on the map of cultural critique when the gist of your argument is that talk is cheap. It leaves you with that same dissonant feeling a first-year Communications student might sense when he or she gets revved up in Postmodernism 101 class then realises they’re living half the bullshit they’re critiquing. Or that same guilty sensation felt by a Formula One driver wearing a Marlboro-badged jacket – knowing quite simply that smoking is bad. Given the delicate (alright then, ironic) circumstances, Bernard Keane and Helen Razer have done a dandy good job at arguing the decline of reason in their nifty compendium A Short History of Stupid.
As its title might suggest, the book looks at cultural idiocy from Then until Now, referencing everything from psychological quackery to conspiracy-driven paranoia, political hyperbole to celebrity superficiality, irresponsible mass-media ownership to paltry citizen journalism.
Reading the book, one can’t help but marvel at the sheer stupidity of humankind (yep, this reader’s included): of the fact that right when we’re perfectly equipped with the tools to receive and disseminate information, our messages are criss-crossed to the point of not making sense, so that hype overtakes fact and exaggeration overrides genuine sentiment.
While Razer takes a more personable, qualitative approach to her arguments – still tough in her no-muckin’-about critique but delivering it as though she were sharing words and a drink with a friend, Keane is more universal and structured in his dissertation – often referring to statistics as fact that quantify or disqualify a certain part of this theory or that.
But even Keane has to admit to (only just) mincing his own words when he says, for example, on the subject of conspiracy theories – of which he greatly refutes – that “it becomes much harder to argue that governments are not conspiring against their own citizens when, in fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing”.
Still, the various weights of Razer and Keane’s arguments ultimately lend a kind of balance (oxymoron, anyone?) to a reader otherwise giddy from the mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world around him.
A Short History of Stupid reminds me of a book I read twice-over in a matter of days a few years ago, it was that good a read. That book was How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and, as its own title hints, it too looked at the ways in which bullshit and sensationalism take precedence over rationalisation in an information-overloaded world. Indeed it even owned the then-original subtitle of A Short History of Modern Delusions.
To be honest, I will be keeping my already well-thumbed copy of Keane and Razer’s book on that shelf marked Serious But Fun Lit. There’s bound to be a need for a second read somewhere down the line. If only because it’s very well-written stuff. Antonino Tati
‘A Short History of Stupid’ is published through Allen & Unwin and available from quality bookstores, physical and online.