My Problem With Stupidity

The problem with writing a book about stupidity is not that it’s hard, but that it’s too easy. There’s so much stupidity in the world that you honestly have to work hard to evaluate which items show stupidity of such a high degree that you should include it, and which are simply your garden variety of stupidity.

Examples, you say. Fine. In addition to a number of longer “think pieces” (heh) about examples of stupidity in action — the French deciding to use cavalry at Agincourt, say, or Gary Hart daring reporters to trail him — the book will also include a fair amount of crowd-pleasing short bits featuring contemporary examples of stupidity, based on current news bits (or “Ripped From The Headlines!” as the NBC announcer would say about any Law & Order episode). I’ll jazz them up, of course, which my own editorial comments so the book won’t be just another collection of dumb people doing dumb things, but even so. You need the stuff in the present to give the stuff in the past some resonance, as if to say, look, stupidity is with us yet.

But in just one day, you find too many candidates. Yesterday I read about:

* The purse snatcher who was arrested when she tried to pass a check to a cashier whose checks she had stolen — and then handed over the cashier’s driver’s license as ID;

* A town civic pride ad campaign inadvertently featuring positive quotes from a convicted child molester;

* A man who tried to avoid jury duty by cussing out the court’s answering machine and was sentenced to three days in jail by the judge;

* A robot toy promotion from Coca-Cola which features Nazi-type swastikas;

* Two Southwest Pilots fired for getting naked together in the (hah!) cockpit;

* President Bush may end up being a write-in candidate in Alabama because the Republican convention has been moved later than the state’s deadline to certify candidates;

* Police in Belgium clamping down on public urination arrest a man urinating on a police car;

* A South African motorist arrested after being pulled over, having no license and telling the cops his wife’s license also covered him;

* The Mexican man who is offering his kidney for about $60,000 in order to bail his brother out of jail for murder;

* Ikea having to recall advertisements in Germany after discovering the name of one of their products — a children’s bunk bed — is coincidentally the same as the German expression for “good fuck.”

I mean, where do you begin? Aside from the Bush thing, which is pretty amusing but I probably won’t use because I’m avoiding Dubya material so it won’t inadvertently politicize the book, they’re all just so good. But I can’t use them all. I’ll probably use two at most. But which should I choose? Which would you choose? (That’s a real question, by the way. Answer in the comments)

I have a vague inclination to shy away from the “stupid criminals” genre, since it’s been done to death, but some may just be too good to pass up. I mean, it does take a breathtaking brand of stupid to pass a check to the very same woman whose purse you’ve stolen. That deserves to be commemorated somewhere. But does it deserve to be commemorated more than Coke’s Nazi-branded robot toy? Or the urinating Belgian? Or the foul-mouthed jury shirker? You see my quandary.

So, really: Out of all the selections above, you get to choose two for inclusion in the book. What are your picks? Tell me, and then later in the day I’ll tell you which two I’m most likely to use. Meanwhile, off to do a little work, and to cull some more examples of stupidity in action.

30 Comments on “My Problem With Stupidity”

  1. Oops. Wrong button.
    Because I think they are two things that we could identify with doing ourselves. At least I could.

  2. I suggest the following two:

    * A South African motorist arrested after being pulled over, having no license and telling the cops his wife’s license also covered him;
    * Ikea having to recall advertisements in Germany after discovering the name of one of their products — a children’s bunk bed — is coincidentally the same as the German expression for “good fuck.”

    The first requiring a mental double take and the second being shudderingly horrifyingly funny.

    This one just seems down right miserable. This would suggest that this family literally has nothing else to offer. Of course Im making the mental adjustment that hes actually offering to sell his kidney for said $60k and not just have it removed and given to the courts form them to hold onto it. Perhaps Im giving him too much credit?

    * The Mexican man who is offering his kidney for about $60,000 in order to bail his brother out of jail for murder.

  3. Anything having to deal with produts is always amusing. Seeing large corporations screw up is great. So, my votes go to the Coke nazi robot and the ikea bunk bed.

  4. They all brought a smile to my face, but the two that threatened to crack me up (hey, I’m at the office :P) were the check thief and the Ikea bed.

    Honorary mention: Whooo, go Belgium! (regretably part belgian, so I gotta cheer :) )

  5. I’m for the purse snatcher and the Ikea bed. Stupid criminal stories never get old and the Ikea bed is a great example of a bad translation.

  6. I’d have to go with the purse snatcher and the urinating Belgian–others made me laugh as well, but these two first made me say, “Wow, what a moron”.

  7. I liked some blogger’s (maybe it was mr. Scalzi) definition of stupidity, which boiled down to, not ignorance, or lack of intelligence, but willful refusal to use the knowledge and intelligence one clearly possesses. Using that definition as a guide, I choose:

    The South African motorist.


    The swastikad Coke-robot, because if you don’t recognize the emotional power of the swastika, you are surely on the road to a Darwin award.

    I can see your problem, though. This was a hard choice. My alternates were the purse snatcher and Ikea, but they were more victims of accident or ignorance.

    An additional suggestion: what about the Black History Month plaque prepared to honor James Earl Jones that was (accidentally) inscribed with the name James Earl Ray?

  8. That’s a bad one, Alex (which means it’s a good one for me), but I probably won’t use it because the Uncle John’s people featured it in one of their most recent books, and we want to avoid duplication whenever possible.

  9. As I’m always a sucker for amusing stories with a prurient element, I vote for naked airline pilots and the Ikea bed. The bed, like everyone else has pointed out, is just a brilliant example of the language barrier. I seem to recall a similar story about an American automaker, maybe Ford, that tried to market a car in Mexico without realizing that the model name was very close to a Mexican slang term meaning, “Shitty.” As for the airline pilots, well… naked airline pilots are just a funny image…

  10. I vote for the civic pride and IKEA incidents, because in both cases, it wasn’t a matter of one individual being stupid; it was collective stupidity. Somehow the quote and the name got by several people who could have caught it and saved themselves the embarassment, but didn’t. (The swastika Coke robot is a close runner-up for the same reason.)

    Amusing anecdote time: a friend who works in advertising had something similar happen when his company overlooked a typo saying a nonprofit organization had cleared over a billion dollars in sales of paper towels. (The organization was a school for the blind, and not exactly geared toward paper towel-making or marketing.)

  11. I’d go with the purse-snatcher, because really, you just can’t deny that that is one stupid individual. The rest are a little more debatable, since for instance the southwest employees were just trying to get away with something – as it turns out they were mistaken on that front, but I don’t think that makes them stupid. Possibly just a bit lacking in the good judgement department. The public urinater is stupid, yes, but it is interesting enough to be worthy of inclusion? I think that the best other example you’ve got there is Bush’s crack team of event planners. Hah. Now that’s stupid. Discounting that one, I’d go with the Coke screw-up, because adding swastikas to a toy is certainly a fine exemple of someone ignoring that nagging little voice that suggests to them that perhaps this isn’t the best idea. What year was that from, btw? I found this [] Coke/Swastika tidbit, but it’s from the 1920’s.

  12. I’m all for Coke’s Nazi robots (that’s just astoundingly dumb!) and the Alabama Republicans.

    Jason: the car was the Nova, which can be read in Spanish as “no va” or “doesn’t go.”

  13. The Coke Nazi and the Ikea bed. I saw the Coke Nazi on TV and those swastikas are not even remotely subtle or something that you have to squint to identify, that robot has big fat swastikas for nipples and there is no way that nobody could have noticed.

  14. The Ikea bed and the child-molester quote. Now if only Ikea had been marketing the bed to adults, the Germans might have gone for it. The child-molester quote, just because in this day and age of sex-offender tracking, there really isn’t an excuse, and the image of a convicted pederast talking about the community he loves… Well, it just warms the cockles of my heart. Or something like that.

  15. I would say avoid the IKEA bed, unless you want to go into a whole history of badly translated product names, including the urban legends about badly translated product names that never actually happened. The Chevy Nova is one of the latter case – it’s a story that lots of people tell, but it’s totally untrue:

    Likewise, the criminal-using-the-cashier’s-ID story seems to be too much of a cliche to be used. It think that News of the Weird doesn’t even accept stupid criminal stories anymore because they just happen way too often (after all, if someone was clever, they’d probably have a better job than purse-snatcher).

  16. Thanks all for playing. The two I’m probably going to go with:

    * A town civic pride ad campaign inadvertently featuring positive quotes from a convicted child molester;

    * Two Southwest Pilots fired for getting naked together while flying.

    In both cases these are actions that a) could have been avoided, b) by people who were probably smart enough to avoid them. Although I have a soft spot for the guy trying to ditch jury duty and ending up in jail. There’s a civics lesson for you.

  17. I’m always too late for the party.

    Oh well. I would avoid the swastikas one because it’s not so much an example of Coke being stupid, but really of the people making a big deal out of it being stupid (actually uneducated on the issue). Which might be a case for your “stupid” book itself! :)

    If you read the whole article, it describes (as I suspected), that the swastikas aren’t Nazi swasticas, but Buddhist swastikas (and it’s called a Manji in Japanese…see below). The toy wouldn’t ever be available in the U.S., or other parts of the world that could potentially misunderstand the context of an Asian symbol like that (which if I’m to understand correctly it’s some sort of good luck totem or something). What happened is someone saw the toy and immediately forced their perspective and culture upon it, so they’re basically taking the toy out of context.

    In fact, I seem to recall Pokemon getting in the exact same trouble. The problem there was again someone had called attention to a cultural symbol (again, the Manji) that didn’t belong where they found it. I guess someone had imported the Japanese cards to the U.S. and sold a bunch here (which is illegal, btw), and people started getting really offended.

    Here’s a quote about it from

    “The red mark alongside the Pokmon characters Golbat and Ditto was a manji, a mirror image of the Nazi swastika [edit — again, this is a cultural mistake on the part of the writer. The swastika is actually the mirror image of the Manji, but by stating it in a way that makes it immediately identifiably familiar to the U.S. readers, they’ve associated it with evil]. In Japan, where the symbol predates the Nazis by centuries, it means good fortune and can also represent a Buddhist temple.”

    And the article I pulled the quote from:

    And a picture of the card (Note, this is from some sort of crazy swastika love shrine, so try and not to associate the author’s text with my argument here, because he’s *wacked*; this was the only full picture I could find of the card in a hurry):

  18. I don’t really see the big deal behind the Swastika robot. Being an Indian, my house is filled with Swastikas (which symbolizes good luck in Hinduism/Buddhism). Ofcourse many Americans who have visited my house ask me, apprehensively, if I believe in the Swastika when they actually want to know if I believe in the Fuhrer!! (Come to think of it, I am an Indo-Aryan after all :-) )

  19. Okay, so I’m too late, but I like the purse snatcher and Ikea best… However, the airline pilot one is also good — I assume your book will have the details — it isn’t clear if this was some inappropriate naturist impulse or part of a more carnal episode.

  20. I say the Purse Snatcher and the Shared License program. IKEA”s “Gutvik” isn’t that stupid, just happens.

  21. I’m late to the game, but I’m voting the check thief and the Ikea bed. Mostly because in both of those cases I pictured the person on the other side — the woman getting handed her own ID, and the young pregnant couple in a crowded IKEA, staring at the child’s bed title, staring back at each other.

    I’m all about the reaction shots.

  22. Too late, but what the hell. I’d go with the purse snatcher, for the same reason Pamie would. Skip the IKEA, because although it’s funny, I’m sick to death of “bad translation” stories. Next in line would be the Coke story (because who doesn’t love Big Corporations getting embarrassed?), but that’s a case of either ignorance (didn’t know about the Nazi swastika) or bad judgement (didn’t think it would matter) on the part of the creator. The naked pilots strike me as a case of bad judgement, rather than stupidity /per se/, and I just don’t find it funny for some reason. The Mexican man just strikes me as pathetic (er, in the non-perjorative way), although offering a kidney for /bail/ sounds a little disproportionate.

    I think second on the list would probably be the SA motorist who seemed to think his wife’s licence applied to him as well.

  23. Off topic, but the subject of product naming reminded me of one of my un-answered questions: Why are the ‘Where’s Waldo’ books (from the 80’s, where you need to find the figure of Waldo hidden in a large picture) called ‘Where’s Wally?’ in the UK? I noticed that while there on business, and I never did get a satisfactory answer.

  24. Tripp, it’s called “Where’s Wally?” in Australia, too, and I’d assume throughout the Commonwealth, perhaps the rest of the English-speaking world[0] and beyond.

    This, coupled with the essential Englishness of Wally’s appearance (I mean, /come on/!), leads me to believe that “Where’s Wally?” is in fact a British invention carried across the Atlantic and needlessly renamed for no apparent reason other than to satisfy the American ego (a la “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s[sic] Stone”).

    Ahem. We got your sicko anti-Americans right here…

    [0] Compare and contrast: “centre/center”, “realise/realize”, “dd-mm-yyyy/mm-dd-yyyy”

  25. I would omit the Bush campaign one. I don’t think it demonstrates stupidity as much as cynicism and political calculation.

    The Repub party moved its 2004 NYC convention to early September so they can transition directly to the 9-11 commemorative events. No doubt they expect some political benefit. As for the Alabama issue, I assume they’ve calculated one of the following.

    1. They don’t need to win Alabama

    2. They’ll win Alabama anyway

    3. Alabama has plenty of time to change its election laws to accommodate them

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