Two years ago, I went to a megachurch service at Liberty University. Its guest speaker was Ben Shapiro. I asked some conservative students in the crowd what they thought of him. ‘He’s stupid smart,’ one said, ‘way smarter than me.’ The words have stuck with me ever since.
‘Stupid-smart’, a progression from ‘super-smart’, is the kind of compound modifier we’ve needed for years. How better to describe the small army of commentators, authors, critics and activists who now comprise the majority of the pundit class? Thanks to the internet, intellectual debate has been made dim, and we’re living in in the age of stupid smartness.
Across the media landscape, professional megabrains pop up like big mushrooms. At college campuses across America, the stupid-smart figure will flex his (usually his) cerebral muscles in a bizarre bear-baiting ritual called ‘Debate Me You Coward’, where audience members line up for the chance to be ‘Destroyed’ or ‘Owned’ in a public space by a stupid-smart visiting speaker. That moment of humiliation is filmed, posted and then shared online perhaps a million times. It’s similar to pornography.
A classic of the genre is a Turning Point USA clip headlined ‘CHARLIE KIRK DESTROYS RADICAL LEFTIST RABBI’. Presumably they borrowed that caption from Pornhub, swapping in ‘CHARLIE KIRK’ for ‘HUNG STUD’ and ‘RADICAL LEFTIST RABBI’ for ‘ASIAN STEPSISTER’.
In this video, the rabbi declares that ‘every person in the United States should be educated regardless of their ability to pay’. Radical, indeed! ‘Do you think that a Jewish day school does a better job of educating an individual than a public school?’, replies Kirk, baiting the hook. ‘I don’t believe in orthodoxy,’ our radical rabbi replies, ‘they brainwash their kids, so I don’t like Jewish day schools’. ‘They’re brainwashing them with the Torah?’ asks Kirk, astonished. ‘Have you ever heard of Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism? We don’t take the Torah literally,’ RadRab explains. Kirk, who clearly hasn’t heard of either, retorts, ‘You absolutely do take the Torah literally, it’s literally the Torah!’ The video continues along those lines for another 60 seconds. If you actually pay attention, you’ll see that at no point is RadRab defeated, let alone destroyed. In porn, at least, there’s usually some kind of climax. Still, people seem to get off on this stuff. The video has been watched almost three million times on Facebook.
We’ve always had bogus public intellectuals, but never before have they been quite so bogus.
Fifty years ago, a TV intellectual fitted a common profile: a working knowledge of classics and literature; two or three foreign languages; the same number of college degrees; expertise in different disciplines, and the ability to speak engagingly and originally on serious topics. In the days of terrestrial television and limited national media, the insights of such polymaths had the space to resonate. Then along came cable television and the internet and ruined everything.
Media producers are so desperate to fill airtime that they’ll pull in any moderately attractive face that can emit parsable sentences for 180 seconds. Anything to run down the clock. The laws of physics apply here: more media airtime means less pressure to be concise — and pure gas always fills up the most space.
On TV, a couple of sharp sentences, spiced with a little moral indignation, can be enough to go viral. Several viral moments are usually enough to build a substantial Twitter following, particularly if you retweet yourself being stupid-smart. That can then be converted into Patreon subscribers, podcast listeners or a publishing deal.
If this sounds bitter, perhaps that’s because I am. I would never, and could never, claim to be an intellectual. I have, at best, two-thirds of one reputable degree from a middling British university. I’m not well-read. I’m about as well-known as one of the characters in Where’s Waldo that isn’t Waldo. I don’t think I’m altogether stupid, but ‘smart’ is not a label I’d ever apply to myself. I wouldn’t say it suits Candace Owens either.
A telltale sign of the stupid-smart pundit is his or her reliance on long words when short ones will do. They’re always ‘perspicacious’ and never ‘shrewd’ and would rather say something is ‘laborious’ than ‘hard’. Often actually the pundit will use the wrong word but with such self-assurance that it sounds right to most listeners who aren’t really paying attention. We need a new Orwell to write a 21st-century version of his great essay ‘Politics and the English language’ — though maybe he’d have to do it a YouTube piece-to-camera, complete with quick-cuts and jingles. In that famous essay, Orwell wrote that ‘A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’
That is exactly what is happening with political debate in the age of YouTube. The whole purpose of argument has been dumbed-down — turned into instant entertainment for clicks. It’s not just happening on the right with the elevation of people like Ben Shapiro or Charlie Kirk. It’s on the left, too. Look at Andrew Yang, who built his whole campaign around the fact that he could ‘do the math’. Then, like any good start-up bro, he diversified. In his new role as a CNN commentator, Yang has been offering searing political insights such as, ‘Well, I think Joe had a great point, but then he also missed Bernie’s point, so he had a great point where…it’s a capacity problem right now.’ Scintillating. Then there is the so-called ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ — a band of apparently radically heterodox thinkers who all seem to agree with each other. Some of these people are interesting. Some are just posturing against PC culture in the hope of getting famous.
‘Is Google making us stupid?’ asked an Atlantic cover way back in 2008, and things have only gotten worse. Perhaps the fact that our brains are slowly being replaced by search engines and social media explains the rise of these know-little intellectuals. They help us all feel clever when we know we are increasingly ignorant. Without our stupid smartphones, we might not have so many stupid-smart pundits.
This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition.