Deaf Con One
Carlo Cipolla, author of The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, one of my foundational documents, laments that “whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people — which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.”
I’ve finally found the silver lining in this cloud. If all human groups, no matter how defined, have the same percentage of stupid people, and that percentage is always higher than we think, it follows that there are always more stupid authoritarian rulers than we think.
I offer as Exhibit A Vladimir Putin. For years we’ve thought him the world’s foremost political chess player, but what’s become increasingly obvious over the last few days is that if he were smart, he would have invaded Ukraine when Trump was president.
Were Trump president when Putin attacked Ukraine, the US would not have taken the lead in sanctioning Russia, rallying Europe, and providing additional arms to the resistance. The US might even have supported Putin’s aggression. But Putin hesitated until Biden had a year to restore the democratic bloc’s confidence in American leadership. Putin will likely succeed in overthrowing Ukraine’s government and occupying its cities, but at a cost he would not have borne with his fan-boy in the White House; now, if the Russians get mired in Ukraine as they did in Afghanistan and their economy shrivels from prolonged sanctions, it could cause the collapse of Putin’s kleptocracy.
But there’s a dark cloud in this potential silver lining.
Part of what makes stupid people stupid is their lack of imagination. When threatened, they can’t conceive of a response other than lashing out. Putin has already put the Russian military on Defcon 2, the next-to-highest alert status for nuclear forces. Would he be stupid enough to launch the missiles?
If he’s as stupid as the evidence suggests, yes. (Sigh. And here I thought climate change was gonna get us.)
As a stupid person, Putin is immune to reason. And as a sociopath, he’s immune to compassion for anyone but himself. There’s not much we can do about that — except recognize the depth of Putin’s stupidity and figure out how to talk him down from his primitive rage. Although it’s important to be firm, when you threaten authoritarian rulers — or remind them that they’re stupid, which really sets them off — they double down, as Putin already has with the escalation to Defcon 2. So we need to offer him a face-saving way out of Ukraine.
During the Vietnam War, comedian Pat Paulsen suggested the US simply declare victory and leave (a line he apparently stole from Vermont senator George Aiken). Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is a comedian. Perhaps if he offers Putin a similar deal, with a promise not to contradict Putin’s victory boasts after the Russian army withdraws to its own borders, the stupid authoritarian will be smart enough to take it.
I doubt it. But we should try every psychological trick to discourage Putin from going to Defcon 1. Maybe we can soften him up by playing the beloved Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody in A Minor (1982), a hymn readily accessible to the Russian soul. Here’s a version conducted by the Lviv-born composer, who died in 2020 at age 81:
Probably it would have no effect on Putin, the deaf con of this post’s title. But during these sad times for Ukraine — and perhaps the world — it may console you, if only for a few minutes.