Stupidity: Its Uses and Abuses
by Robert Levin
It’s time to take punitive action against an insidious and rapidly proliferating menace to our emotional well being. I’m speaking, of course, of "service industry" people who are embracing the dumbing down craze too enthusiastically and who, doubtless incapable of even masturbating by themselves any more, regularly perpetrate nerve-rattling, mood-curdling, faculty-numbing and spirit-withering indignities against us.
Let me hasten to say that I value stupidity as much as the next man. I do. Stupidity is, after all, the best solution we’ve come up with to the mother of all problems itself, the problem of being mortal. Enabling us to recast the grimmest of existential givens—making it possible to believe not only that we’ve seen the image of John the Baptist on two separate taco chips but that our sightings are proof-positive of a Second Coming and the prospect of salvation and eternal life—stupidity is the most effective means available to reduce terror and panic (the human default condition) to a relatively tolerable disquietude. So I respect stupidity. Okay? I think, in fact, that stupidity has been, since the origin of consciousness, a marvel of human resourcefulness. Indeed, as a response to the human condition, I think that stupidity is rivaled in its genius only by schizophrenia!
But while my regard for stupidity is equal to anyone’s, I also think
it’s important to remember that (if for no other reason than simple decency)
the ancient Greek admonition, "anything in moderation," has application
Now to illustrate my point I could discuss the conduct of innumerable emotional shitheels who, in just this past month, used stupidity irresponsibly and, to grievous effect, tracked their slovenly handling of the problem of living into my life.
I’m thinking of clerks, counterpeople and company representatives—AND NONE OF THEM FOREIGN BORN—who reduced my own circuits to flakes of carbon when they obliged me to restrict my vocabulary to the dozen or so English words they were able to comprehend.
And remaining vivid in my memory are two cashiers, one of whom insisted that $42 for a quart of orange juice HAD to be correct because it was "right there on the register," and the other who demonstrated an appalling literalness.
In the case of the latter individual: After I placed some half-dozen items in front of him and was reaching for my wallet, he asked me (rhetorically, I assumed) if I was taking them. When I joked that no, I wasn’t, that I liked to go into stores and move the stock around, he became irate, bellowed that I must be "some kind of weirdo" to do such a thing and demanded that I leave.
The orange juice jerkoff caused some nasty chemicals to spill in my brain that still haven’t stopped flushing through me. The second bastard triggered a twenty-four-hour period in which I experienced a profound reluctance to leave my apartment, answer the phone or take any kind of nourishment.
No, I didn’t make those people up.
But of all the recklessly moronic lowlifes I encountered in this brief time frame, the one that best personified the scourge I’m addressing was the aforementioned teller, who, when I asked her to make smaller denominations of a large bill SHE’D just slid toward ME, took a long look at it, said, "Wait a minute, something’s very wrong here." Then said, "No, it’s okay." Then said, "This CAN’T be right—I don’t think he’s even on the air anymore." And then announced that the bill was counterfeit and that she’d have to confiscate it—without compensating me. (Apparently, having touched it, I’d technically been in possession of the bill—and no, I SWEAR, I didn’t make this bitch up either.)
Since I’m focusing here on the behavior of a specific person, I’ll let pass the fact that no one at this venerable bank—THE SOLE FUNCTION OF WHICH IS TO HANDLE MONEY!—was able to prevent blatantly bogus currency from infiltrating its stock. As disappointed as I was by this circumstance, I’ll keep to my teller, who (her immediate triggering of a hideous psychosomatic rash on my chin, notwithstanding) had still not committed the most egregious and damaging of her offenses.
Hardly. When I protested her action and was, for a solid hour, left to watch her engage in round upon round of whispered phone conversations and huddled meetings, she had the temerity to come back and tell me: "[The bank] has ELECTED [emphasis mine] to reimburse you."
Now I‘ll concede that, in the matter of punitive measures, the antics I’ve described prior to this point may not justify penalties more severe than a modest fine and several weekends of community service. But, in my judgment, when you add condescension to rampant imbecility—AND CONCOCT, IN THE PROCESS, AN ESPECIALLY PERNICIOUS MIX THAT CAN MAKE A PERSON’S PENIS COMPLETELY DISAPPEAR FOR ALMOST A WEEK!—you invite the most terrible of consequences. Working for a great financial institution, spending her days not just behind a bullet-proof shield but in a hallowed realm of miracles like compound interest, this teller’s come to feel invulnerable—she actually believes that she’s in all ways protected from harm. To be sure, so neat a self-deception is worthy of admiration. But given her failure to curb the arrogance her delusion has engendered (let alone her excess of witlessness) I think she should be disabused of said delusion forthwith. In fact, I don’t think it would be in the least draconian to lie in wait for her after work, rip off her face and shove her smug countenance up her ass.
I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to suggest that we resort to violence and open ourselves to a potential penitentiary situation. But if I had a lapse there, it was due to the cumulative toxicity of the experiences I’ve reported and it only makes my argument. Exposure to undisciplined mindlessness can compromise the most splendid of nervous systems in a trice, and people dealing with the public who abuse stupidity must be discouraged from persisting. Collected now, ready to take a sensible approach, I’d say that legislation making gross stupidity in a public context a quality of life violation (and gross stupidity aggravated by a superior attitude a Class A Misdemeanor) ought to serve the purposes of deterrence and remedy quite sufficiently.
Of course, should Bill of Rights fetishists thwart the writing of such statutes, there’s a step I’ve been pondering that we could take on our own. Though it might require us to keep a bottle of Spirit of Ipecac handy (and would obviously be most effective when we’re sitting across a desk from phlegm-flecks like that teller), we could, just suddenly, throw up.
I’m not talking about pinpoint, or "smart," vomiting that’s directed at a specific, limited target, but vomiting which, fashioned after the carpet bombing techniques developed in Vietnam, permeates everything in your immediate vicinity. It may not fix the problem, but delivering the remnants of the Chili Surprise you had for lunch to the clothing and workspace of a creep who’s making your life a roiling sea of excrement, would at least return the favor somewhat in kind and figures to be immensely gratifying.
Plus, you’re not as likely to provoke the interest of a criminal justice person as you’d be if you abruptly introduced an Uzi into the proceedings. Quite the opposite: you could be reasonably confident that law enforcement officers would keep their distance.
Robert Levin is a former contributor to The Village Voice and Rolling Stone and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the '60s: Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music.
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