Gregg Williard's "Dim Bulbs" is an enquiry in words and drawings into the nature of "strategized" or "weaponized" stupidity. This is a creative exploration of right-wing social and political strategy and the Neo-Dark Age: NO scientific observations are being extended by the author. Physiognomy considered beyond the creative space is pseudoscience.
Explore the various drawings throughout!
In the winter of 2021, I spent many sleepless nights drawing eyes, mouths, chins, jaws that seemed set to the same clutch of epistemic stubbornness, the same will to dominate and hate. To fear, fear, fear. The faces belonged to u.s. right-wing political and media figures I called Dim Bulbs. Physiognomy is not character, but I couldn't help but think of Wilhelm Reich. From his Character Analysis (1933):
"When, for example, the armoring of the oral zone has been sufficiently loosened to release a suppressed impulse to cry, while the neck and chest armorings are still untouched, we observe how the lower musculature of the face takes on the expression of wanting to cry but not being able to. The expression of being on the verge of tears is transformed into a hateful grin of the mouth-chin zone. It is an expression of desperation, of extreme frustration. All this can be summarized in the following formula: AS SOON AS THE MOVEMENT EXPRESSING SURRENDER IS OBSTRUCTED BY AN ARMOR BLOCK, THE IMPULSE TO SURRENDER IS TRANSFORMED INTO DESTRUCTIVE RAGE."
In other writings, Reich made explicit connections between authoritarian personalities and facial dynamics, but his work remains controversial and scientifically contested, and far more persuasive as a kind of psycho-morphological fever dream than system. Faces often lie, and provide seductive and perfect projective screens for what we most want, or fear, to see. But when puzzling out what lies behind these faces, there is a different, equally vexing problem in trying for fastidious impartiality. Flash forward to 2017 and John Erenreich in Slate, "Why are Conservatives More Susceptible to Lies?"
"Psychologists have repeatedly reported that self-described conservatives tend to place a higher value than those to their left on deference to tradition and authority. They are more likely to value stability, conformity, and order, and have more difficulty tolerating novelty and ambiguity and uncertainty. They are more sensitive than liberals to information suggesting the possibility of danger than to information suggesting [alternative] benefits. And they are more moralistic and more likely to repress unconscious drives towards unconventional sexuality… [and] fairness and kindness place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives than for liberals. Conservatives show a stronger preference for higher status groups, are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathic (at least towards those outside their immediate family)... Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts put it succinctly. Campaigning for Sen. Rand Paul in Iowa in 2015 he observed, 'The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good...' Conservatives are also less introspective, less attentive to their inner feelings, and less likely to override their “gut” reactions and engage in further reflection to find a correct answer. As a result, they may be more likely to rely on error-prone cognitive shortcuts, less aware of their own unconscious biases, and less likely to respond to factual corrections to previously held beliefs."
A mere four years and one presidential term later, "less likely to respond to factual corrections" and "deference to tradition and authority" have metastasized to q-anon, denial of a presidential election, an entire party's capitulation to an authoritarian sociopath, a violent assault on the capitol, a steep rise in right-wing domestic terrorism, and profit-driven algorithms accelerating lies, sexism, racism and fascism in support of a former president they claim never left office, and never will. Erenreich's judicious checklist includes susceptibility to lies, but not the "elephant" in the living room: stupid lies. And there is susceptibility to stupid, and stupid as a choice. "Do they really believe that the election was stolen? Do they really believe in 'Replacement Theory'? Do they really believe Hungary is a model democracy? Do they really believe there is a secret pedophilic cabal of Deep State conspirators, and Donald Trump is secretly fighting them to protect us!?" We ask these questions now as hapless diagnosticians, endlessly refining the spectrum of subtle gradations, from vulnerable to gullible, from stupid to brain washed, from mentally ill to cynically nihilistic to out and out evil. Which condition prevails with which dim bulb, or whether meaningful distinctions can even exist anymore?
Here is Amanda Marcotte in Slate of 2021 on the strategized stupid of Tucker Carlson: "Carlson is the master at playing dumb…even Carlson's famous 'gosh darn it, this is so confusing' expression he wears throughout most of his show—which, no doubt to his delight, is routinely screenshot and mocked by liberals on social media—is part of the act. There is no way that he doesn't know how he looks. But looking dumb is part of the playing dumb act, and it's all an elaborate troll aimed at one end: dismantling the very concept of rational discourse by flooding the zone with extremely stupid arguments… Brooke Binkowski, a professional debunker at Truth or Fiction, has repeatedly hammered at this point: Disinformation is permission, not persuasion."
Steve Bannon, another self-styled champion of disinformation, espouses the grand strategy of "flooding the field with shit." Being deliberately stupid has been weaponized, and is being aimed, with more and more accuracy, right now, right between our eyes. It says, I give you permission to be a liar, a moron, a venal idiot. A violent loon. Go on. Go for it. It's fun. Own them, the libs, the other. You're free. Your fear is freedom. Your hate is freedom. Your ignorance is strength. The libs just can't stand it. Go for it. In 2021 Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of this permission in The Guardian: "In this system, facts, science, history are fetters to be shaken loose in pursuit of your very own favorite version of reality… the American right has been drunk on its freedom from two kinds of inhibition since Donald Trump appeared to guide them into the promised land of their unleashed ids. One is the inhibition from lies, the other from violence. Both are ways a civil society normally limit their own actions out of respect for the rights of others and the collective good. Those already strained limits have snapped…"
Through a bulb darkly, the faces drawn become both personal and archetypal, a masked procession of penitents to a plague of stupid. Abjuring any aspiration to value-free psychologizing, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's portraiture of the Dim Bulb has the starkness of an expressionist woodcut, or a death sentence:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1945):
"Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”
(Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in 1945).
There will be no reasoning with stupidity, or (despite Bonhoeffer's assertion), malice and evil. The dimness that afflicts can't be chased away with an LED of irrefutable facts, impartial justice or public shame. One combs the darkness, like the fierce voltaic arc light of bygone searchlights, for that other arc of Martin Luther King's (and before that, abolitionist Theodor Parker): the long arc of the moral universe, said to "bend toward justice." King's use of the phrase may introduce more certitude than Parker's original: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice." I think of the danger and volatility of old arc lights as well, generating over their short life span sparks and heat that could melt eyeballs and metal. With the stakes for our country and our world so high, the consequences meted out by the universe for our stupidity may be such a blasting voltaic arc, that cares little for proportional justice in its burn. Drawing and writing into the night will go on, for now. I do it to see something new, though my eye (and hand) "reaches but little ways." Now it is chiaroscuro attention to that benighted word stupid. This dark moment we can light up a little with erasers in the early morning light. What do I know? Come on, look into the dark yourself. We'll be eye witnesses to the crime. War correspondents of the soul. Bring a pencil. Show me in the sunrise.