For the last 20,000 years, give or take a few, philosophers
and politicians have been dreaming up solutions to problems
with the idiots next door or with those moving in.
You may be more familiar with those problems in the last
thousand years. Remember the Crusades? If you scan the
history between 1000 and 1500 AD, the news sounds eerily
familiar. So does the geography.
It might lead you to think there is no hope for peace in the
human psyche. There seems to be a built in resistance to
The French sociologist, Jean Braudrillard pointed out in
1981 that New York's twin towers were the epitome of
everything the West stands for. In 2001 he argued that the
West would never defeat Islamic fundamentalism because it is
the consequence of American superiority and a lack of
alternatives to the new world order. The more successful the
war on terrorism is, he wrote, the more terrorists would be
produced. (The Australian, March 9, 2007)
Some called him the idiot next country.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, if not in the human
brain. Brain research in the last ten years shows that our
thoughts at any given moment are more like a drunken chorus
line than a military parade passing in revue.
David Brooks of The New York Times writes, "The mind is not
a centralized thing. There are dozens of thoughts, processes
and emotions swirling about and competing for attention at
any one time." (New York Times, July 24, 2007)
The attempt to be rational can be an exercise in futility.
Accepting this fact is a first step in accepting the idiot next
Brooks points out that most political and social disputes
grow out of different theories about the self. He contends
that there is no concept of self that exists before society; that
each of us is profoundly shaped by our own little society.
The beliefs of our homes and neighborhoods are buried in
our subconscious minds by an early age. Brooks writes,
"When people communicate, they send out little flares into
each other's brains. Friends and lovers create feedback
loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world."
You've heard of peer pressure. It's real.
"The research documenting the spread of the obesity epidemic
from friend to friend," writes Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe,
"leapt from the sober annals of the New England Journal of
Medicine to the front pages of newspapers everywhere."
(Boston Globe, August 2, 2007) This got the researchers,
Christakis and Fowler, in hot water. How could a friend
influence another friend to get fat? Actually, they simply
reported after years of research that close friends of the
same sex fundamentally affect each other's points of view and
behavior. All together, they create a norm. You remember high
school, don't you?
Guru entrepreneurs lecture to their audiences: "If you want to
be successful, change your friends. Hang out with successful
It doesn't change, either, after you die. Your habits, values
and ideas stay alive in the minds of your living friends and
relatives. Recently I overheard a woman in her eighties
say, "My father always said ..."
Because we are the sum of our particular little society and
because we are not wholly rational, we often fight the idiots
next door. Worse, we attempt to do good (by reforming them)
but often fail. We assume the idiots next country share our
perceptions and values.
Consider programmed attempts to eradicate poverty. As
Brooks says, "The habits that are common in the underclass
areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and
undermine long-range thinking and social trust." The programs
that do work recognize such habits and distrust and address
Programs that rehabilitate felons address self-concept head on.
Consider attempts to create democracy in the world and thereby
provide freedom. Who is defining freedom?
In 1980 a student from communist China came to America.
When in an ice cream store he complained about the
number of choices in flavors. "Too much work," he said. "Too
many decisions everywhere. Americans work too hard."
We may say we want something in the abstract, but when we
get right down to it, what we really want is embedded and defined
in our subconscious. That's why we think our neighbor with a
different set of perceptions is an idiot.
A new way to think about him is to think about what was drummed
into his head before age seven as well as what was drummed into
yours. Repetition sells.
My father used to say, "All the world's a little queer,
Martha, except thee and me, and sometimes even thee."