You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

February 02, 2008

Four People Turned Stupid By Power

Power makes human beings stupid. By this I don't mean "stupid" in the standard sense – many people who've undergone the stupid-fying effects of power appear intelligent by conventional measures.

Instead, power skews a person's ability to perceive reality. If you're at the top of the social pyramid, you won't perceive things that are unbelievably obvious to those lower down. This is generally because human beings hate to learn anything that reflects badly on them. And the more power you have, the more others will not want to bring these things to your attention.

At the same time, power tends to make people believe they're perceiving the world more clearly than others. They think being at the top makes them able to see further.

These two things combine to make those with power often act in way that seem stunningly "stupid," when seen from the outside.

Of course, those lower down the pyramid have their own blinders. Often they see those at the top acting in crazy ways, and think: This must be some sort of Cunning Plan. They can't possibly be that stupid.


1. Saddam Hussein

This is from Web of Deceit by Barry Lando, describing Saddam's state of mind in the lead up to the first Gulf War:

In the first week in December 1990...Saddam was only slowly beginning to understand his hopes of fracturing the U.S.-led coalition were in vain. When a visiting PLO official showed the Iraqi dictator cover stories in both Time and Newsweek vividly describing the upcoming battles, Saddam asked his aides why no one had ever shown those stories to him. A devastating attack really was in the offing...

You really need to be a dictator to be this incredibly stupid. "You mean they're going to attack us? Why has no one told me before?" Uh, because when people have told you such things in the past, you've shot them in the head?

2. Bill Clinton

Here's Bill Clinton being interviewed by James Fallows in October, 2002:

I believe that he [Saddam Hussein] is very bad. We have a lot to answer for, and he is basically partly our creature...[Saddam] is the only guy to use chemical weapons on his own people. Yeah he did it, and the Reagan Administration was for him when he did it. Nobody raised a peep then, because he was against Iran. We now know that he got his anthrax strain from an American company while we looked the other way. We also know that, or at least a British journalist has alleged, that Casey [the head of the CIA under Reagan] tried to give him cluster bombs. I don't know if that's true or not 'cause I read it in the British press and you never can tell. I wouldn't give it the same credence I would if I read it there [points at The Atlantic].

As I noted recently, it was Clinton's own Justice Department that squelched news of the CIA-Iraq-cluster bomb connection. So at first glance it appears Clinton must have been deceptive in the 2002 interview, likely as part of a Cunning Plan.

After further consideration, however, I suspect he was being honestly "stupid," and had never heard of this before it was covered in the British press. How could he have missed this?

First, by sending strong (even if unconscious) signals to his minions that he didn't want to learn things that would be a pain in his ass and lead him into political fights he wanted to avoid. And second, by believing his other sources of information like the Atlantic would give him a clear view of reality. In fact, the Atlantic has its own problems, and, just like Clinton's minions, is not in the business of telling powerful people what they don't want to hear.

3. Thomas Jefferson

Here's Jefferson explaining the "physical and moral" differences between Europeans and Africans in Notes on the State of Virginia:

They seem to require less sleep...

Then, six sentences later:

In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep...

Jefferson was not a stupid man. Yet here he appears appallingly "stupid," earnestly explaining that Africans were weird because they (1) needed less sleep than Europeans and also (2) needed more sleep than Europeans.

The problem here was obvious: Jefferson had a deep need to claim he was different from his slaves. Otherwise, how could he reconcile his desire to think of himself as moral with his desire to own them? So it didn't matter if his "evidence" was contradictory and nonsensical. All that mattered was that he have it. And he was too powerful for anyone to force him to perceive this.

4. Me

I'm not nearly as powerful as Saddam, Clinton, or Jefferson. (YET.) But I'm a white American man with a fancy education and some connections, which does give me more power than many other humans on planet earth.

In the past, this power has made me incredibly "stupid." And I'm sure I still have a long way to go. Instances of my stunning ignorance are too numerous to list, but a representative example is the fact I only found out about the phenomenon of "sundown towns" from James Loewen's recent book. (If you want to learn more about sundown towns, a good place to start is this post by David Neiwert.)

Many places near where I grew up had been sundown towns, yet I had no idea. How could I have failed to perceive what was literally right in front of my face?

The answer is: power. Many little white children come from families powerful enough to shut out reality. Most little black children do not. Power makes you stupid.

ARCHIVED STUPIDITY: Jeffrey Goldberg, Joseph Lieberman, Kenneth Pollack, NY Times reporter.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 2, 2008 02:54 PM

Regarding 3), there's no contradiction at all! What Jefferson meant to say was that slaves wanted (were disposed) to sleep more, but that they didn't need (require) as much sleep as they wanted, for working on his plantation and having sex with him.

Thomas Jefferson? Brilliant!

Posted by: darrelplant at February 2, 2008 04:43 PM

I lived in Oklahoma in the mid-to-late '90s.
Pretty much everybody "knew" that the town of LaVerne, up near the neck of the Panhandle, was a "sundown town." But nobody talked much about it. I think they played football, for example, just like everybody else.
About living in Oklahoma: I spent 30 years there-- between 1994 and 2000.

Posted by: konopelli/wgg at February 2, 2008 05:59 PM

I grew up Livonia, Michigan. I thought everyone knew the color lines, not just the real estate agents who steered "coloreds" to the "right" neighborhoods. The "white flight" from Detroit was really just the VA/FHA fueled post-WWII suburban land rush in which blacks were not allowed to move anywhere but Inkster and Southfield, Michigan.
I'm glad James Loewen's recent book recent book tries to document this, but I doubt it will have any impact.

Posted by: the bunny at February 2, 2008 09:04 PM

People used a lot of words differently in the late 1700s than now. Incontinence, for example, back then, meant a lack of chastity in women.

Perhaps "disposition" meant, to Jefferson there, something like "their position on the subject of"?

Seems like you are ignoring the power-lacking position of slaves. Uneducated in Virginia? Virginia was famous for having most of its white population illiterate (compared to 100% literacy in Massachusetts) and they were proud of it. Raise anyone like that and it won't take some flight of fancy or a stretch of reason to see them as inferior, especially to one of the greater minds of the era. Lots of smart people today can't understand why dumb people act so dumb.

bunny, that is definitely still happening today. It was covered on C-SPAN in the last few weeks. Something like 80% of the realtors the ?Fair Housing Authority? (someone, anyway) checked into sent whites to white neighborhoods and non-whites to mixed neighborhoods, to make them less white.

The sub-prime mortgage thing is also quite racist. Something like 40-50% of all the people who were rich who got these lousy mortgages were non-white. You know darn well that most high income people in America are white (not to mention, where it was worse, in middle or low income brackets).

Part of me thinks that the realtors want to avoid problems for themselves, and make the sale, so try to avoid hinting that a person might be tolerant. Another part of me thinks it is a subconscious reflection of the racism which is still around us, if only as a legacy (remember the part above how someone might seem pretty lame if they were raised a slave?)

Posted by: JSN at February 2, 2008 11:26 PM

The effect you're talking about was named the "snafu principle" by Robert Anton Wilson, who analyzed it.

For instance:
"It's what I call the "snafu principle." Communication only occurs between equals--real communication, that is--because when you are dealing with people above you in a hierarchy, you learn not to tell them anything they don’t want to hear. If you tell them anything they don’t want to hear, the response is, "One more word Bumstead and I’ll fire you!" Or in the military, "One more word and you’re court-martialed." It’s throughout the whole system.
"So the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the more lies are being told to flatter those above them. So those at the top have no idea what is going on at all. Those at the bottom have to adjust to the rules made by those at the top who don’t know what’s going on. Those at the top can write rules about this, that and the other, while those at the bottom have got to adjust reality to fit the rules as much as they can."

Posted by: Neil in Chicago at February 3, 2008 12:18 AM

If knowledge if power, and power makes people stupid, doesn't knowledge make people stupid?

Posted by: En Ming Hee at February 3, 2008 12:21 AM

The answer is: power. Most little white children come from families powerful enough to shut out reality. Most little black children do not. Power makes you stupid.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Part of the reason why racial problems endure in the U.S. is that the biggest asset in the White Privilege knapsack is ignorance, deep and wide. Stupidity that would kill another organism on Earth is a virtue for whites here.

Power is a necessity and an inevitability, so we are forced to create rules to regulate it. It cannot be forbidden. But privilege is an unholy thing, unjustified power at the expense of another. All the problems of power, none of the benefits. Hell, all of the examples you gave in the original post are actually examples of power in privilege, not mere power. Being president or dictator or statesman gave the persons in the example a free pass, above and beyond what mere influence would grant.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at February 3, 2008 12:57 AM

From the jefferson you linked to:

"Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself;"


What the hell is a scarf skin?

Posted by: graeme at February 3, 2008 01:22 AM

scarfskin from

n. The outermost layer of skin, especially that which forms the cuticle.

Posted by: darrelplant at February 3, 2008 04:09 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is what really irritates me about the folks who argue that the disaster that is Iraq "was all part of the plan", and that "Bush wanted it to turn out this way."

When you believe that the people in power are literally incapable of error, because even their apparent blunders are really just the "success" of a secret plan, well, that's not a very good starting point if you're trying to organize the rest of us to oppose them.

Posted by: SteveB at February 3, 2008 09:57 AM

There's another element to the apparent defensiveness of people in power, that seems less of a personality defect and more of a systemic condition.

The more power you have, the more you are responsible for conditions as they are. This is the principle behind the rhetoric of attacks on Washington "business-as-usual."

We see this in action when the current democratic government of Turkey is asked to apologize for massacres committed by the Sultan's troops. We see it when people complain about taxes. We see it when people complain about anything.

Also, I'd bet the reason Jefferson thought blacks liked to stay up all night, get up early, and sleep all day is because that's what they did. That's what they were told to do. So when they were awake and working they were sleep-deprived, but when they got up at 4 AM to start the cooking fires they weren't exactly snug in bed. The powerful always blame the weak for their condition. Don't we all believe fast-food employees LIKE crappy jobs?

Posted by: baldie mceagle at February 3, 2008 10:13 AM

Holy shit--I've cavassed in most of PA's sundown towns.

Posted by: Sully at February 3, 2008 10:51 AM
If knowledge if power, and power makes people stupid, doesn't knowledge make people stupid?

Thank you En Ming Hee; I shall herewith consider you partly but tepidly, in my corner.

I'm thinking that with power, comes stupidity, and thus anyone seeking power -- our side or their side -- will eventually turn just stupid enough. So planning the big revolution (the organized big change) will eventually result in stupidity as surely as drinking alcohol results in drunken behavior.

Unless you're really, really fat (er, I mean muscular), and can tolerate a lot of alcohol that is. So, I'm wondering if there's some condition that allows a person to get enough power to influence grand change, but not so much as to turn into one of the four examples above.

(And yes, I'm aware that people can drink smaller amounts of alcohol for social reasons and not get drunk, but likewise, smaller amounts of power are only useful as a social lubricant.)

Posted by: Ted at February 3, 2008 03:03 PM

Ted: The solution, obviously, is for individuals to have power for very brief periods. That way, they accrue very little power. Of course, there's nothing to keep parties and families from acquiring power and handing it to their members, but that's merely a limitation, not proof that this approach won't work.

Posted by: baldie mceagle at February 3, 2008 05:49 PM

Revolutions never won
Just another form of guns
And YOU will do
What they have done.---The Moody Blues.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 3, 2008 08:16 PM

Ted and Baldie, I disagree with Baldie. I don't think any sort of term limit is a fix. You'll just end up with a coallition that monopolizes a set of seats, a.k.a. a political party. Term limits are a pathetic solution, though they can be slightly better than the disease in some cases (e.g., when the parties are small and weak). The best way to balance power is with broad, unambiguous responsibility. Responsibility, of course, requires an external agency to enforce violation of the same. The President could have vastly more power than Bush does, but if we had even a mildly strong external enforcement agency over him (and, no, that's not Congress or the Court) he would already have been executed for treason.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at February 3, 2008 11:09 PM

THAT'S WHY I like Voter Initiative on the BUDGET AND TAXES----IT AIN'T revoultionary and in fact IS in line with THE CONSTITUTION and therefore institutional, different, yes indeed, but none the less, directly institutional.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 4, 2008 12:00 PM

No One of Consequence: HAVE YOU given Nancy a call @1-202-225-0100? Unless Bush is IMPEACHED, then he won't have to suffer ANY consequences. The next administration will have it's hands too full to go for trial.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 4, 2008 12:09 PM

Well said.

Posted by: Batocchio at February 4, 2008 03:41 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Comments usually close after seven days, and comments from open proxies won't post. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you're having problems.