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Dumb and dumber


I GUESS MY father was always dumb. But in the decades when he was at his dumbest, the 1970s and 1980s, a high premium was not placed on random acts of stupidity. So whenever he behaved in a way that seemed somehow less than intelligent -- like the time he put a pile of forks in the microwave saying, "I just have to know" -- there were no critics there to call it art.

Like lots of dumb people, my dad was born too early. His stupidity was something done in private, something only the family could enjoy.

In the past few years, however, dumbness has come out from under the sheets and behind the picket fences, out into the public square to be admired by all. It's on display in movies like "The Brady Bunch" and "Dumb and Dumber," and TV shows like "Beavis and Butt-head." And the trend gives no sign of slacking, with the forthcoming release of "The Stupids," a John Landis picture based on the notion that if a stupid person is funny, then a whole stupid family is real funny.

But where does all this idiocy come from? Where did it all begin? Well, maybe it's where we've been heading all along, the last freedom, the right to take the pie in the face and enjoy the frosting: "Ahhh, chocolate."

Being dumb is very American, very egalitarian. That's why so many Americans delight in going to Europe and being dumb there. Dumb is modern in a way the French will never really understand.

What is the new craze for stupidity if not a twist on the old Yankee notion of simplicity, of straight lines and flat sentences, of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway?

People like Mike Judge, who created "Beavis and Butt-head," and Chris Elliott, who starred in "Cabin Boy," a high seas thriller that asks what if Ishmael were a fool, have really just taken innovations in art and architecture of a century ago and translated them into sight gags.

Movie after movie tells of the dream world that opens before the man or woman too slow to know disappointment, too dull to suffer. And all of our stupid heroes bring us to the same basic conclusion: The dumb always come out ahead because they never knew they were behind.

Dumbness is goodness, dumbness is innocence, dumbness is the courage to put a fork in the microwave. In a deeper sense, today's dumbness echoes the old American idea of grace, of predestination, of stumbling blindly into danger and emerging unscathed because danger is an idea too complicated to be taken seriously.

Forrest Gump can waltz through race riots and wars because he is just dumb enough to know that in the end, everything stays pretty much the way it was in the beginning.

There must be some kind of correlation between the onset of the dumb culture and the death of liberalism, but I have no idea what it is. As the great intellectual movements of this century, behemoths like Communism and the New Deal, have collapsed or been brushed aside, stupidity has sometimes rushed to fill the vacuum.

And so what if this idiocy has been accompanied by some loss of national purpose, a too ready acceptance of limits?

Besides, there is something vulgar about a smart person acting smart in public -- like a millionaire who comes to the slums and starts waving around his money clip.

It's just a matter of time before someone comes along to strip away that guy's cleverness, the puns and historical allusions, calls him college boy and shows the world that under all his schooling and word play, smart boy was dumb all along.

Rich Cohen, a free-lance writer, wrote this for the New York Times.


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