Friday, June 03, 2011

Bless the Fools

In a day and age where everyone wants to be known as exceedingly intelligent, it’s hard to appreciate fools. Everyone is trying so hard to be clever that even those who are not, are forced to be or at least appear to be so. One of the ladies in my life said it best – “I don’t mind you being poor but I expect you to be clever.”

With so much pressure to be clever, we are left underestimating the value of fools.
Being “Foolish” is considered a mortal sin that is as bad as say, picking your nose in public. This is a pity because being a fool or being silly is actually a valuable skill.

Let’s start with the obvious; being really stupid actually requires some sort of intelligence. Some of the world’s greatest clowns happened to be highly qualified. Look at Sacha Baron Cohen who brought us Bruno, Borat and Ali G or the Monty Python team who composed a range of movies and songs, which one can only describe as being totally silly. These men who made their name and living by silly, all came from that bastion of silliness’ – Cambridge University. The illustrious rival for silliness, “Oxford University,” (I don’t mean Oxford Brooks), gave us Rowan Atkinson, the man who gave us Mr Bean.

People who are brilliantly stupid can do wonders. Simpletons can be the most effective communicators who reduce things to their most basic. They can be understood in a way that clever and eloquent people cannot be.

Take one of the most interesting US Administrations in recent years – The Regan Administration. Ronald Regan was not known for intellect. The joke in Hollywood was that Bonzo the Chimp was much smarter than he was. Yet, despite all of that, the Regan Administration brought the Cold War to an end without firing a shot. The economy buzzed. How did this “idiot” do it? Well, he framed two key ideas simply – he called the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire” and he told stories about the “evil welfare queen who drove a Cadillac.” These two messages allowed the administration to slash spending on welfare and lower taxes while rising spending on defence to levels that the USSR could not match.

When Mr Regan got into trouble during the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, the clever people in the administration proceeded to take the blame for him. As one British commentator at the time pointed out, “His behaviour was beyond normal satire.” Despite the obvious corruption in the incident, the American people forgave Regan in ways that they did not forgive the cleverer Mr Nixon and to a lesser degree the very clever Mr Clinton.

Fools are not only effective communicators. They can produce gems of wisdom. I refer to the movie “Bean.” Mr Bean is sent to American by the National Portrait Gallery in Britain. His American host thinks Bean is a high powered art historian. He’s asked, “What have you written?” Bean replies, “I look at the pictures.” The host is impressed – “Wow, that’s profound; I wish other academics would just look at the pictures.”

This scene is a laugh in that Mr Bean really looks at the pictures –he’s a security guard and yet the Americans are setting up as something deep and profound. We laugh at Americans for their child like innocence. However, the fool has a point…I remember James Curan one of my lecturers at Goldsmith’s telling us the secret to sure first – answer the question. Most of us clever people think of exams are an opportunity to show off how clever we are. As such, we end up missing the question and we write a lot but never answer the question and so we don’t get the marks for it. The fool might actually answer the question and get the points.

Fools are also the only people who can tell the powers that be the truth. Medieval Europe survived as long as it did because of fools. The fool could satirize the kings mistakes without getting his head lopped off. It’s such a pity nobody has been able to check with Kings of that age on how many bad decisions they’ve reversed thanks to their fools.

Literature is also full of examples of how fools were used to get points across. The most famous example is in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The best critic of inheritance laws (which were blatantly in favour of men) was Mrs Bennet, Matriarch of the Bennet clan and the silliest character in the novel. Thanks to Mrs Bennet, Ms Austen could take a swipe at the law without being labelled a dangerous reactionary.

Fools have succeeded where cleverer men have failed in as much as they’ve never taken themselves so seriously that they lose touch with reality. For all her faults, Margaret Thatcher had enough of a sense of humour to appear on “Yes Prime Minister,” one of the best loved political satires of all times. I suspect that sense of humour allowed Mrs Thatcher to stay close enough to the ground to get her policies through. The end result, Mrs Thatcher was actually beneficial to Britain.

If you ask me, Western society gets by because politicians expect to have the piss taken out of them. I think of Spitting Image puppets and how they’ve succeeded in ensuring that the public will never treat a politician or celebrity so seriously that the said politician or celebrity develops a God complex.

I look closer to home. Up North, in Malaysia, politicians are constantly lampooned by cartoonist like Lat. Here in Singapore, you simply do not make fun of politicians. On a shallow level you might be able to understand that. My Malaysian friends will point out that Malaysia in many ways lags behind Singapore. It’s mired in corruption while Singapore is squeaky clean and hyper efficient.

However, let’s take things into perspective. Singapore is small red dot mainly populated by Chinese migrants who will happily let you rule with an iron fist as long as you ensure that they can do business and get rich. The place is small enough for you to quickly snuff out decent and yes, Singapore’s politicians do deserve a pat on the back for a job well done.

Malaysia by contrast is a huge place with a diverse population. The majority belong to a culture that does not chase the material. Getting Malaysia to move one step is more challenging than getting Singapore to leap.
So, when you look at things this way, the Malaysian politicians like Mahathir have actually done a pretty good job. Things could be better, especially when you compare it to Singapore but then again, when you take the challenges that Malaysia faces, you have to take your hat off to the Malaysian system for getting things done despite everything.

Malaysians laugh at their politicians and rightly so. For all that the Malaysians complain about how awful their politicians are, the ability to laugh at them has helped both sides. The politicians know that they’re not God. The people also realise that they got to depend on themselves rather than on super competent Gods in the civil service to get things done. As a result, Malaysians can travel and succeed outside Malaysia without the aid of the government.

Singaporeans by contrast do not make fun of their politicians. In fact they are expected to worship them, even when the politicians goof. Look at what happened during Mas Selamat’s escape. Limping terrorist walks out of a secure facility and the government rushed to defend the virtue and competence of the Minister, so much so that during the recently concluded election they got a shock when people used the issue to hit them.

Perhaps it’s time for Singapore’s politicians to take a leaf from their counterparts over the Causeway and learn to laugh at themselves a little. It would definitely help us connect better.

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