Dreaded Purple Master

People Are Stupid

Am I an intellectual elitist?

I’ve worried about that for much of my life, starting from elementary school. There, the accusation takes the form “You must think you’re so smart.”

Well, no, I don’t think I’m all that smart. I strike myself as depressingly normal. I say and do stupid things; I make mistakes. I sit mindlessly and watch TV just like anybody else and never wonder why Mayberry even has a jail, considering how seldom it’s used for its intended purpose.

Despite the fact that people whose opinion I value highly have told me I’m intelligent (and my long-ago SAT scores tend to back that up, although I haven’t attempted the MENSA exam), I don’t seem smart to me. If I have that reputation, I suspect it is because I do not feel an obligation to share every thought that crosses my head.

But as I get older, my best guess stems from comparing myself to what I perceive as the averages and extremes of the crowd around me. I think, for example, that I am neither Republican nor Democrat largely because Pat Buchanan and Jesse Jackson seem equally unfit for public office, and more alike than differing. Neither Art Bell nor G Gordon Liddy has yet said anything that interests me in the slightest.

That is, I still don’t seem smarter than average to myself, but can the average person on the street possibly be as stupid as they appear?

Are people that stupid?

Recent news suggests that they are. David Howard, the public advocate for the city of Washington D.C., just lost his job for using the word “niggardly” correctly in a sentence. The compounding facts: The person he used it to didn’t know the word; That person, Marshall Brown, a mayor’s aide, is black; Mr Howard is white. Mr Brown made an assumption about what Mr Howard had intended to say, and acted on that assumption, storming out of the room. Mr Howard, for reasons that elude me, offered to resign: The mayor accepted that resignation.

He lost his job...why? How exactly do you describe this on a résumé?

Is “niggardly” guilty by association?

Does a word have a “right to life”?

Would it kill Mr Brown to admit he was wrong?


The Economist magazine ran a witty editorial on the matter in their Feb 6th (1999) issue, in which they appeared to agree with the reasons for Mr Howard’s departure, but packed the essay with words similar to “niggardly”: words that contain syllables that sound like offensive words. I rolled on the floor, but The Economist’s letter columns reveal that some of its readers got the joke, and some did not.

The Economist’s readers are educated people who do not challenge their vocabulary by watching "Wheel of Fortune". It is not written for a fifth-grade audience (as my local newspaper is). These readers are not stupid.

At least, not all the time.

Legal Truth and Stupidity in High Places

And, of course, these days when the word “stupid” comes up, Bill and Monica have to rate high on the list.

Pat (my friend, the attorney) has occasionally said she would not care to see me as opposing counsel in court. This has nothing do to with arguing a case against one’s friends; attorneys do that all the time. She means it as a compliment, and I take it as such, and what she means is this: I actually listen to what people say. I don’t draw conclusions just because the person talking wishes me to. When attorneys lie, they do so by implication and omission, never directly. Pat knows that a good lawyer can mislead a jury with a properly-told truth – but it won’t work on me, not that easily. I’m flattered.

If a lawyer never says, “My client didn’t do it”, in so many words, then her client probably did it. If the attorney says “My client is innocent”, innocence is a legal condition defined as “the jury has not [or not yet] returned a verdict of guilty”. It has nothing to do with whether the client has actually broken any law. The lawyer’s definition of “innocent” is different from yours, and that’s what allows her to answer the question “truthfully”. It’s not her fault if you don’t ask.

That is, the “what does any word really mean” defense is integral to the legal system. What’s surprising is that Bill would actually say it out loud, as most lawyers would rather you didn’t know how heavily they rely upon it.

Since Bill is an attorney, this standard must be applied to everything he says. Due to her close association with attorneys (and the advice of her own), the same standard can be applied to every statement Monica makes.

When you listen to the Bill and Monica story in this light, it becomes obvious: They know that most people do not know what I’ve just told you. They use words very deliberately. It’s all about how many lawyers view “truth” while they’re on the clock.

It’s obvious to me that the only thing either one of them is sorry about is getting caught.

I don’t know where either one of them got the idea that there is such a thing as “privacy” in the White House. But then, Bill has lived most of his adult life in public housing – er, I mean, the Official Residence of an Elected Official – and has little idea how the real world works.

It’s another form of “stupid”, isn’t it?

Daniel Taylor: Monday, March 15, 1999