They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A course in Human Stupidity

A course in Human Stupidity

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Day after day Sara and I walk along the wrecked streets of our neighborhood in the city of Cordoba, Argentina. We put one foot in front of the other on the uneven pavement and feel a great sense of indignation while talking about the high taxes citizens must pay to survive in very bad conditions in a city that offends and upsets people, which looks horrible and works poorly. On the way we meet half a dozen carts pulled by a horse –similar to the famous and skinny Rocinante– carrying innumerable pieces of cardboard stacked in heaps: a colorful postcard of the so-called "underdevelopment". We go into the supermarket and face the shortage of food, the astronomical prices and the speculating plot to cheat consumers and enrich traders. We buy very few things, just the staples we need to keep on eating. Some food is not anymore in the aisle, some other is far from our pocket and the rest we can buy two or three at a time. On the way home we pass several buses that remind us the ones we had ever seen in films of the World War (the first one). Before reaching the entrance door of our block of flats we must avoid the garbage left in the street for two days and cross the stream of waste material flooding the sidewalks...

After coming in our apartment we turn on the radio and listen to the news, the different political discourses and the speeches made by the president. The very same words are repeated over and over again: "growth", "welfare", and "fair redistributive policies". The Argentinean National Institute of Statistics also keeps saying the same mischievous numbers and percentages that disguise the inflationary spiral of our economy and appeal the ears of the official party leaders. That way they can deliver empty and meaningless speeches about high speed trains –in a country with roads in deplorable conditions– and about new hospitals and schools intended to be built – in a country where the existing ones are falling to pieces for there is no money to maintain them.

It is not that difficult to listen to other voices publicly denouncing the government's handling of rural schools where children have to endure the same intense winter cold in their class –for neither there is gas or electricity nor the heating installation works properly– as they feel riding on horseback to the school for three of four hours every morning; of the impassable roads in the provinces, away from the capital, because of the bad conditions; of retirement pensions, on which the elder can hardly get by... And anyone can see, as we have done with our own eyes, how public hospitals and public transports work, which, incidentally, do it whenever they want and can – provided there are not on strike.

At this point, both Sara and I make ourselves the following questions: those who write official speeches, do they really think that we are stupid? Do they really think that we are not aware of the oppressive and stinking reality that we face day after day? Do they really think that we do not realize they are holding us hostages during this ongoing crisis they insist on worsening? Might not they be the stupid ones they believe we are? Might not the media suffer from the same stupidity they make public and widely spread? Might not future history and sociology books be so stupid as to collect ordinary people's life and our daily problems as myths and legends?

Almost half a century ago, the Hungarian writer Paul Tabori wrote a book that I consider splendid. The original title is "Natural History of Stupidity". Tabori not only tries to successfully explain the term "stupidity" through the first chapter of this work but he also does an impressive review –more or less academic– of a great deal of documents (manuscripts, archives, old editions, incunabula) and extracts from them a real mix of different examples representing the true human stupidity. This colorful collection covers subjects such as thirst of gold, court ceremony, fake genealogical trees, excessive (and ridiculous) bureaucracy, laws (many of them, even more absurd), doubts, myths and love. The book does not have a single bad part in it. I find each paragraph amazing. The reader moves from one stupidity to another –every new one more surprising than the former and all of them well documented– through human history. If you manage to find it, do not miss the opportunity to have a look at its pages.

In my opinion, Tabori forgot to include in his book a chapter about political speeches and communication media, for the things thought, said and done through them (at least in this country of ours) are excellent examples of proper stupidity. Stupidity which we can do nothing against, but dealing with it and –though it is too serious a matter– treating it as a joke (for crying is of very little help here, as in most of the cases).

Paul Tabori was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908. He studied in Hungary, Austria and Germany and earned his doctorate of Political and Economic Sciences at the University of Budapest. Between the First and the Second World War he lived in 17 different countries as a correspondent. In 1937 he established in London, where he went through a state of feverish activity as a journalist and a writer. Between 1943 and 1948 he wrote a number of scripts for London Films and continued doing so during the 50s in Hollywood. For the 70s Tabori had finished more than 30 film scripts and over a hundred written texts of TV series. He belonged to numerous international writers' associations and was co-founder of the International Writer's Fund. In his last days he taught at the Fairfield Dickinson University, the City Collage of NY and the University of Illinois.

"Natural History of Stupidity" starts with the following paragraph. Does this book need any better presentation than the one offered by the author himself?

(NB. The paragraph is roughly translated from the Spanish book, since we do not have the English original).

"This book deals with stupidity, foolishness, imbecility, inability, clumsiness, vacuity, short-sightedness, fatuousness, idiocy, madness, delirium. It studies idiots, fools, persons of low intelligence, dim-witted, mentally weak, silly, ridiculous, superficial, extremely stupid, rookies and gaga, simple, mentally unbalanced, crazy, irresponsible, dull. In it we intend to present a gallery of clowns, gullible people, morons, halfwits, wimps, blockheads, oafs, dummies, dopes, dullards, nuts and lunatics past and present alike. It will describe and analyze facts that are irrational, senseless, absurd, foolish, wrongly conceived, idiot... and so on so forth. Is there something more characteristic of our humanity than the fact that Roget's Thesaurus dedicates six columns to the synonyms, the verbs, the names and the adjectives regarding 'stupidity' while the word 'sense' just takes up one?"

Someday, someone will write "History of Political Stupidity". I am sure the author will find enough material in the Argentinean newspapers and annals. However, I can say in all sincerity that most newspapers, whether international, national or regional fail to show –at length and in depth– the present economic, political, social, etc. situation faced by most Argentineans day after day (a situation that may also be similar to what is happening in other countries at this moment). They only publish and spread the empty words and the meaningless speeches delivered by official and opposition leaders. Ordinary people, as usual, remain voiceless and with our hands tied. Maybe that future book should dedicate a chapter to communication media as well... What about adding an entry for other items such as "hypocrisy", "oppression" and "abuse"?

I send to you a big hug from the yesteryear beautiful city of Cordoba, Argentina.