A review of A Short History of Stupid by Bernard Keane and Helen Razer

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Short History of Stupid:
The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream.
By Bernard Keane and Helen Razor
Allen & Unwin. $29.99.

Contrary to what you might think, A Short History of Stupid is unlikely to make you feel smarter. Despite the introduction, in which Razer and Keane make it clear that they aren’t experts and don’t have any consistent truths to offer the reader—A Short History of Stupid isn’t a self-help book after all—their rather smart arguments bust a few sacred cows, shine a light on publically accepted stupidities, and make our extensive foibles all too obvious. You may well, like me, recognise yourself in some of their examples and cringe silently, hoping no one noticed your past stupidities. Others will cause you to laugh knowingly, for having called a stupid spade a stupid spade right from the start. Some examples will make you angry, and others will make you shudder. At the end of it though, you’ll likely be more critical even if you aren’t specifically less stupid, and you’ll probably be amused at times at least, not just because a lot of what Razer and Keane write is funny, but because they manage to get a rather sharp finger right into the heart of the matter in a way that is often strikingly apt.

I’m speaking in generalities here I know, and that’s a little stupid, so let me be more specific. The book is written in alternate chapters between the two authors and tackles such topical subjects as the rise of Liberal Individualism (and with it the ‘talking head’ of opinions), the cult of Denialism, the disturbing trend for uplifting moral stories, the danger of safe spaces, Paternalism, the War on Terror, conspiracy theories, on the medicalising of psychology, on the systematic misuse of statistics, the collapse of meaning into real life postmodern relativism, on faked authenticity and faked compassion. All of these are pretty familiar and proliferating forms of stupidity and Keane and Razer do a good job of calling them out.  At its worst, the writing can be a bit rambling, straying from the point into all sorts of pop references, from 1980s television series to personal confessions (mostly in Razer’s chapters).  There were times when I forgot what the thesis was because the ‘aside’ had become so prominent. Razer makes an art of the ramble, but she’s so funny and so often on point, that I think you could forgive her anything:

Actually, in researching this chapter—surely a ‘rational’ act—I have shown symptoms consistent with BED. I ate an imperial pound of Cadbury Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations Jelly Popping Candy Beanies when I was trying to understand Foucault’s account of madness and I ate a whole barbecued chicken while I was reading just one chapter of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. When Freud compared my conscious mind to a garrison in the city of the id, I thought I felt bad because I knew that most of humanity represses most of itself most of the time. Now I know it was because I ate an entire bird while I was alone in my underpants. (173)

Keane stays a bit more on-track and as Razer is the first to admit, his scholarship is more extensive, but he’s not nearly as funny (possibly as a result). Together though they make a well-balanced pair, and some chapters, such as Keane’s on the “War on Terror” are so frighteningly accurate that once you read it, there’s no hope of ever getting the rosy tint back into your spectacles:

And while we have incorporated the low-level stupid of the War on Terror into our daily lives—enduring the security theatre of the airport scan, assuming our governments are spying on us, tolerating the waste of billions of dollars on pointless conflicts—we’re oblivious to the greater absurdity: that the fixation with natural security comes with a body count, not merely of foreign lives lost in distant wars, but in the consequences of infrastructure not built, health services not provided, prevention programs not funded, social services cut back, all in the name of strategies that in fact make us less safe. (143)

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the book is left-leaning, and if you come to any book written by the likes of Razer and Keane with expectations of primness, conservatism, and sweetness, you’re stupider than most people (and now that I’ve read A Short History of Stupid I know that’s saying something). This is a book that is delightfully vulgar, bravely contrary, openly critical of media, government (especially the current one), the news, television in general, new age clap trap, and pretty much everything else. If the authors err on the side of being just a little too confident that they’re smarter than the average bear, it’s probably because they are. A Short History of Stupid is a panacea to all the soft serve we’re fed on a regular basis. It might not make you feel smarter, but it will open your eyes a bit and if it makes you more critical, more discerning, and less gullible, it will have been worth the time spent. If not, it’s a lot of fun, and still worth it. You’re worth it.