Beyond Stupid

Image by Jae Salavarrieta.

Stupid, . . . from French stupide (16c.) and directly from Latin stupidus “amazed, confounded; dull, foolish,” etymologically “struck senseless,” from stupere “be stunned, amazed, confounded . . .”


The first, and only, time, as an inexperienced father, I called my five-year-old son “stupid,” I could feel how it stung him. Never again, at least with children.

And yet when our gorge rises at the needless suffering of the powerless and the blindness of the powerful, sometimes only the word stupid suffices.

There are many aspects of international relations that make me feel stupid in the “stunned, amazed, confounded” sense—like the 1953 British-CIA coup that removed Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, engendering bad karma that continues to this day.

Or Vietnam, where smart strategists like Kissinger forgot that the Vietnamese and the Chinese had been rivals for a millennium, and so the “domino theory” didn’t apply.

Or the second Gulf War. Saudi Arabia has emerged as much more of a player in 9/11 than we thought. The leadership of the United States was sufficiently confounded by the destruction of the Twin Towers to engage in war with the wrong countries, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure.

And now Netanyahu, the hapless leader of a great nation, is unable to get out of the way of his own dead-end vengefulness.

Experts on nuclear proliferation and arms control give the world community credit for keeping the number of nuclear weapons states to nine. But when the expertise is devoid of any vision of how we might move beyond the nuclear age, our stupidity antennae should quiver. Silence about the beyond may indicate acceptance of the rotten status quo, selling short the potential for creating our future.

Both Oppenheimer and Einstein knew by the late 1940s that the sharpest kind of intelligence was needed to meet the unprecedented challenge of nuclear fission. They advanced various idealistic proposals (they look pretty sensible today) such as dropping the notion of sovereignty not for nations but for nuclear weapons only, and establishing an international body to manage them.

The sheer stupidity of what happened instead is breathtaking, a pointless competitiveness resulting in the grotesque presence at the height of the Cold War of 70,000 nuclear weapons.

As the Oppenheimer film showed, Truman was smugly certain that the U.S. could maintain a monopoly on the bomb, but it took very little time for Russian agents to break that monopoly, leading to the we-build/they-build that we now experience as an arms race with no end in sight.

What kind of intelligence is needed for us to emerge from the other end of the nuclear tunnel? The international arena is full of guile, jockeying for advantage. But guile without a comprehensive vision of planetary self-interest will end in catastrophe.

Trump and his fellow authoritarians worldwide are steeped in the guile of narrow self-interest. Trump is a master of guile-intelligence. That may be one source of his appeal to so many. He is a genius at appealing to our sleepy side, the side that wants no ambiguity.

In the context of the potential of only 100 nuclear detonations causing nuclear winter, the efforts of the Chinese to attain nuclear parity with the U.S. seem—stupid. Putin wanting to “possess” Ukraine and Xi wanting to “possess” Taiwan are both based in obsolete paradigms of national self-interest—and the American objective of “full spectrum dominance” militarily is not far behind. The extension of the arms race into space will quickly re-approach the stupidity of where we were in the late 1980s with 70,000 warheads.

A related type of intelligence is the don’t-rock-the-boat kind. Be cautious. Go along with groupthink lest you be revealed as disloyal or unsound. This makes for stupid experts. It creates pervasive agreement with assumptions so basic that no one in power dares question them. Example: nuclear deterrence will keep us safe forever.

But what if the emperor is naked?

This groupthink syndrome is revealed in the difference between what policymakers do and say in office and how it is often modified in retirement—one primary example (of many) being Robert McNamara’s remorse about the Vietnam War—or Secretary of Defense Perry suggesting after he stepped down that we could safely retire our entire land-based arsenal of ballistic missiles with a net gain in security.

What kind of intelligence is required by our two challenges, first, moving global security beyond the unworkable system of nuclear deterrence, and second, the global heat emergency?

It begins with seeing clearly the relationship between the two as a motivator for encouraging a wider understanding of self-interest. Maybe we cannot love our enemies as spiritual teachers recommend, but we can act intelligently around the fact that we are radically interdependent with adversaries ecologically, economically, and militarily.

The climate emergency renders national sovereignty a kind of abstraction. The strong personalities and the weapons make national interest as measured by strength seem real, even as the pollution of the ocean and air shared by all is a reality which demands the different strength of cooperation.

Find where we can cooperate on climate and push hard on that, because the science of conflict resolution tells us that working toward a shared goal diminishes enmity and alienation. That ought to be the basis for all our diplomatic initiatives, even toward the most disagreeable characters who occupy the world with us—not forgetting that we may look disagreeable to them.

Our hearts and minds are diminished by our semi-awareness that our security is based upon a holocaust-in-waiting that will kill millions of innocents. The real war is against climate disaster. Everyone in government service and we who vote for them should exercise the muscle of “We’re all in this together—as a planet.”

That kind of intelligence will be a big step beyond stupid.

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.