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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

20 thoughts on “How to make a stupid party out of not-stupid people”

  1. 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, …

    I, for one, am tired of hearing how smart Cruz is supposed to be. I don't care about his law school grades. I think he is not at all intelligent, and the reason is right there at the beginning of the second sentence. Cruz doesn't think about things. His policy positions are foolish and ill-informed. He seems to have not changed his mind about anything since he was in high school and to have no capacity for reflection or self-doubt, and to be utterly lacking in empathy – a trait you defined quite well when Obama mentioned it as desirable in a judge.

    These are not signs of intelligence.

    1. Burt and company did almost as much damage in identifying common intelligence with IQ as in claiming IQ variance was determined genetically. The capacities you can test cheaply boil down to the ability to solve simple puzzles quickly: "brightness". Cruz is a fine example of a very bright guy, surely with a very high IQ. But the ability to crack hard problems using complex acquired skills, build and maintain social relationships, and other features of broad intelligence seem to be lacking.

      Late in life, Darwin puzzled over the question; why me? He probably correctly assessed himself as not exceptionally bright. IIRC he put it down to luck (a private income, the Beagle opportunity, family connections) and very hard work over a long period of time, untroubled by the claims of a paid job. I would add that he was quite exceptionally curious.

      The gluten mistake is on a par with the GOP dismissal of the Pentagon's efforts to develop renewable energy. Solar panels in forward outposts in Afghanistan are not there for green correctness, but to save transporting fuel by trucks which are easily attacked. For a time the US Army was providing a large part of the Taliban's funding as its logistics contractors were paying protection money to warlords along the routes.

  2. Cruz's gluten-free remark reflects not only stupidity and lack of empathy; it reflects authoritarianism. The individual must submit to the government; the government should not accommodate the individual.

    1. Actually, it's quite sensible.

      Assume for the moment that gluten intolerance is a genuine, widespread problem, rather than a fad. Diabetes is a genuine problem. Does the military accomodate diabetics in combat positions? People with thyroid deficiencies? People with brittle bones? Lupus? No.

      Why should the military, which is having no problem finding recruits, and which exists to fight wars, not as a job program, complicate it's logistics by providing special rations for people who'd get sick on normal food? Heck, why should it reduce the requirements for being in a combat position, in order to accomodate women?

      A functioning military is an existential requirement for the country. It's not a chance to demonstrate how, yes, politically correct you are.

      Mark hasn't skewered Cruz' point. He's demonstrated it.

      1. "A functioning military is an existential requirement for the country" is a cliche that deserves to be examined. The only thing that the U.S. military has been used for since World War II is to attack and invade other nations. It is no coincidence that the War Department became the Defense Department in 1949, when the military was no longer needed for defense. The U.S. should emulate Costa Rica, which has no military, but spends its money on education and health care.

        I am being provocative; perhaps we should merely drastically cut the size of the military and not eliminate it. But let's not pretend that our existence depends upon it.

        P.S. Actually, the more common cliche is that the military is fighting for our freedoms, not for our existence. But that is equally b.s. How exactly would our freedoms disappear without a military?

      2. I know people with lupus, and I know a couple of folks with celiac disease. Although I haven't asked the lupus sufferers directly, I can predict with 99% certainty that if the effects of lupus could be mitigated by going gluten-free, they would leap at it, particularly since the disease has no treatment or cure at present. (I'm pretty sure they would gladly trade their lupus for celiac disease, if such a choice were possible – celiac disease is not nearly as debilitating as lupus.) if a simple change in diet would enable people with lupus to serve their country and defend our freedoms, to use the parlance of our times, I'm sure quite a few of them would appreciate having that option. Now, if it was extremely difficult and expensive for the military to provide gluten-free food, the calculus might shift, but there's no reason to think that it would be. Does the military refuse to accommodate vegetarian, kosher or halal diets? If so, maybe removing gluten is a bridge too far. If not, what's the problem?

        Also, diabetics with type-1 diabetes controlled by insulin are not categorically barred from service. It's difficult, but not impossible, to enlist. Diabetes activists (just another group claiming "victim" status, asking us to consider them as individuals, as awful as that sounds to lots of people) are trying to make it easier for diabetics to enlist, but progress is slow. See:….

  3. It's a disturbing thing to see someone with the bones of intelligence lacking the muscle of curiosity and the skin of empathy. Having people like that in positions of power extremely is dangerous.

  4. Whether Cruz is stupid here depends in significant part on whether Cruz is being honest. If he's simply willing to say anything in pursuit of his primary goal (winning the presidency and/or assuring his position as a darling of rich crazy people) then the line makes perfect sense, and may even have been tested against other similar lines to make sure that "gluten-free" was the term that best signaled "food for liberal wimps". Under that interpretation, Cruz would not only be smart for saying it, but get an extra frisson of feeling intelligent by knowing that he was putting one over on his audience. Or he might simply not care, which is one of the perquisites of a certain kind of power.

  5. Mark, thank you for paying attention to Cruz. I can't bear to, I have a probably irrational dislike of his eyebrow expressions, which make me want to slap him. Which is not nice. So I have no idea if he's really that smart or not. But I know what you're talking about, bc I feel that the US is a dumb country. Not because of IQ though, as you say. We are like Pres. Bush 43. He had easily enough IQ for the job… he just wasn't a serious person. We aren't a serious country. I don't know when or if that will change.

    1. NCG, I think you're onto something here when you say the US is a dumb country. Just consider how hopeless the average person is. Then consider that half the population is below average. Q.E.D.

  6. It's always seemed a little weird to me that the people most hostile to "the welfare" are also the ones who argue most strenuously in favor of barring people from certain occupations. "Get a job! But, not that job."

  7. OK let's try a no limits google-fu battle. You nailed Cruz in 5 minutes. I will challenge you and grant myself 10 (timestamp 10:53 PM Rome time).

    on " about 1% of the U.S. white population – and no doubt a similar share of servicemembers" I doubt it. I think that the incidence of Celiac disease increases with age. Service members are young on average (the privates and sailors are very young). I think a reasonable estimate is well below 1%. Certainly high enough to support your claim that Cruz suffers from acquired intelligence deficency syndrome, but well below 1%,

    "The incidence of celiac disease rose as study participants aged, which is in line with a 2008 study that showed the elderly are at greater risk for developing celiac disease."

    time stamp 10:57 (damn I should have bet on 5 minutes)

    Disclaimer — my dad is an expert on, among other things, Celiac disease and has an IND from the FDA for a candidate therapy (if you have celiac disease contact him at — well contact me at first cause I didn't tell him I would do this).

    1. The rate of celiac disease in the U.S. military is almost certainly less than in the general population, because the military will not accept recruits who have it. If you are already in the military and develop celiac disease, they don't kick you out, but that's the only military population that has it.

    2. Robert, I made a major acquisition to my vocabulary thanx to you today. Your acronym AIDS is perfect; I shall use it frequently.

  8. Waiting to hear Cruz make the same point about kosher meals, which the Pentagon will provide for anyone who requests it, since the population of those who keep kosher is much smaller than those who need to be gluen-free (though I'm sure he'd agree if we're talking about halal).

    1. Fine, a point about kosher meals: If you're eating kosher, and a logistics screw up forces you to eat regular food, you don't get sick.

      1. Brett, I assume you're not a serious Kosher-keeper. Let me fix it for you:

        "If a logistics screw up forces you to skip some meals, you don't get sick, just weaker."

  9. The voters in Maine may or may not be stupid, but they tolerate stupidity in their Republican governor and Tea Party favorite, who is warning today that refugees are bringing health hazards like the “Ziki fly” to his state. They re-elected him in 2014 even knowing that he was the kind of authoritarian who would restrict the freedom of movement of a health care worker who had returned from West Africa during the Ebola epidemic and was adhering to science-based guidelines for self-monitoring for evidence of infection; he did this just because she made him feel nervous, and this was reason enough to bring the powers of his office against her.

    Stupid politicians are abetted by an electorate stupid enough to tolerate them.

    1. Ed, your last sentence is a pretty severe understatement. Let me try it:

      "Stupid politicians are empowered by an electorate stupid enough to elect them."

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