How to Make a Stupid Party Out of Not-Stupid People

If intended literally, references to the GOP as “the stupid party” are just nasty snark. I doubt that Republican office-holders or voters have, on average, lower IQs than their Democratic counterparts. Ted Cruz, for example, would seem to be roughly on a par, in sheer brainpower, with Barack Obama.

But there’s a deeper kind of stupidity that involves not only willful blindness to inconvenient facts – a tendency never far from human nature – but active celebration of that blindness. It is possible to make yourself stupider in practice than would be predicted by your score on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. When that sort of rejoicing in folly becomes an accepted social practice within a group, it is fair to say that the group has a culture of stupidity.

Which brings us back to Sen. Cruz (J.D.  Harvard, magna cum laude). Using a warship as a political prop, Sen. Cruz went aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown for a national-security speech, which included the following remarkable sentence.

The last thing any commander should need to worry about is the grades he is getting from some plush-bottomed Pentagon bureaucrat for political correctness or social experiments — or providing gluten-free MREs.

The political point of the exercise, of course, was to make fun of “political correctness” and “social experiments.”

Now “political correctness” is an interesting phrase. Like “permissiveness” and “elitism,” it is designed to make a virtue (respectively, common courtesy and decency, liberty, and excellence) appear to be a vice. “Social experiments,” as used now, means integrating women and LGBT people into military service, as it once meant integrating African-Americans. In each case, the idea was to present an obvious act of justice as a risky venture.

It’s not hard to understand why some speechwriter – or perhaps Cruz himself – thought “gluten-free MREs” was a good punchline. “Gluten-free” has indeed become a rather silly food-label fad; no doubt many people are paying extra for “gluten-free” food who have no actual gluten sensitivity at all, and no doubt the marketers of such products are delighted to take advantage of their vague impression that gluten, like cholesterol, is something vaguely bad and to be avoided. And of course any food preference or aversion can be made to seem funny to those who do not share it: no doubt most South Carolinians think that eating kimchee and not eating grits reflect equally risible tastes, while most South Koreans think the same about eating grits and not eating kimchee.

However, as I was able to learn in less than five minutes of Googling, about 1% of the U.S. white population – and no doubt a similar share of servicemembers – suffers from celiac disease, and an unknown but probably larger share of the population suffers from other gluten-sensitivity conditions.

If you have the misfortune to suffer from one of these disorders, a gluten-free diet isn’t a joke, it’s a necessity. And it appears that most people who do so suffer aren’t aware of the source of their distress. Under those circumstances, and given that the military buys MREs by the carload and can easily get them made to any set of specifications, it seems obvious that, where logistically possible, gluten-sensitive servicemembers should be given food that is healthy for them to eat.

Again, Sen. Cruz is plenty smart enough, in the IQ sense, to be able to figure that out. If he’d taken a minute to think about it, he could have substituted “GMO-free” or “BST-free” for “gluten-free,” making the same point and getting the same laugh without making fun of people in uniform with genetically-determined digestive problems. But he couldn’t be bothered, and within the current culture of the Republican Party he will likely pay no political price for his blunder.

And that, my friends, is stupid.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.