CSotD: Flunking an Open-Book Final

Jeff Danziger is correct: Lousy policy and foolish choices are making things worse, and hence killing people, in the current crisis.


And Stuart Carlson correctly casts Donald Trump in the role of Lady Macbeth, unable to get the guilt off his hands, though he seems a bit premature in that Trump has not yet hit her level of awareness and likely never will.


Tom Toles has a more accurate picture of the current situation, in which blind self-interest makes the president utterly unaware of the facts around him.

Here is both the flaw in Danziger’s cartoon, and the key it offers to understanding the crisis: “Stupidity” is a better insult than it is a useful word.

“Ignorance” is more specific, and, while it’s often used as an insult, it’s actually a value-neutral word. Thomas Jefferson was an undisputed genius, but was ignorant of a great many things.

And if you stick with us today, you’ll find out how ignorant you are in one particular area, but, then again, if you do bother to stick with us, it’s a sign of curiosity, which can cure ignorance.

What is clear about the president is that he lacks curiosity, or, to put it another way, he does not comfortably reach beyond the limited circle of what he’s sure of.

Which goes back to that word “stupidity.”

Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, would eagerly admit their ignorance and were both well known for bringing in experts to explain the new and unknown.

They absorbed new information at a prodigious rate, in large part because they were confident in their ability to learn.

My armchair diagnosis is that Trump has some learning disabilities, which doesn’t make him “stupid.”

When he and I were in school, you were either clearly retarded — in which case you were pulled out of class and sent to be warehoused and to learn basketweaving — or you were “bad” and your failure to perform was punished, not treated.

Nelson Rockefeller, for example, was dyslexic, but he didn’t realize it until later in life. Like many other students of his era who were ADHD or had Aspergers or were otherwise “different,” he learned strategies to get around his difficulties and to absorb the lessons, despite the fact that they were not taught in ways he could process.

Trump, I would suggest, is clever enough that he learned to bullshit his way around his disabilities, in part by charm and bluster, probably with some actual cheating, as well, it appears, with parental assistance in the form of targeted donations to keep him from flunking out of school.

Finding ways to avoid failure is not the same, however, as teaching yourself alternative ways to learn.

Meanwhile, Ann Richards’ famous crack about W, that he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, was simply an insult. It is absolutely true about Trump.

As a narcissist, he shelters within a shell of believing what he needs to believe about himself, and his self-image is bound up in achieving material successes while avoiding challenges to his personal capabilities.

Such that a reporter who asks him what he was doing all through the month of February is seen as a personal threat, not a challenge: The challenger in a boxing match, not the opponent in a debate.

So Danziger is wrong to use the shortcut term “stupidity,” but he is quite correct to consider Trump’s belligerent, defensive ignorance a major threat to the nation.

So now what?

We cannot expect Trump to suddenly climb out of his shell and become curious, and so the answer — besides voting and speaking up and all that — is to be doubly curious ourselves, which brings us to this massive cartoon by Zach Weinersmith, whose work is normally seen at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Today, however, he has sent his fans away from his own site and over to 538, where his magnum opus is housed and explains how pandemic modeling is done, not concluding with a specific answer, but, rather, presenting the barriers and restrictions that make real numbers so hard to nail down:


The piece is an explainer about how models are created, and I will admit that (A) I’m not a big fan of what I call “graphic lectures” and (B) this is pretty geeky, which isn’t surprising because SMBC is often a bit too geeky for me.

However, Weinersmith is the right cartoonist for the job, because he has years of experience in making geeky facts into amusing comics, which takes the yawn out of this graphic lecture.


He manages to get a lot of factual explanation on the board and yet mix it with analogies that make it easier for laypeople to absorb.

I wouldn’t expect anyone who didn’t already have a pretty solid background in statistics to come away understanding it all, but a reasonably curious person will come away with a greater understanding of the complexities, and, what is more important, a greater ability to tell those who are making valid points from people who are bullshitting and from people who are mistakenly relying on undependable sources.

Read it. It matters.

But don’t be angry when Trump’s statements don’t reflect any of it.

I think Carter and Obama would understand it, while Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson would have to update their existing knowledge but would then get it.

Roosevelt (either one) and Nixon might not quite get it, but they’d understand that they had to find people who did, and would then defer to those experts’ recommendations.

It’s not necessary to get it. You just have to know enough to know that you don’t know it all.

And then you have to have the self-confidence and the strength of character to call in the right help, and defer to them.

Anything else would be stupid.


Mike Luckovich



12 thoughts on “CSotD: Flunking an Open-Book Final

  1. I found Weinersmith’s cartoon engaging and very clear ( I do have a math/science background, so it probably easier for me to understand). A great public service that should be read by anyone who wants to understand why social isolation is important ans why there are no simple answers to when thing will return to “normal”.

    You also articulated why Biden, despite his flaws, is a far better choice than DJT this fall- Biden is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and, like a good politician, will surround himself with competent people to help him make decisions.

  2. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” –A Christmas Carol

  3. Wow, Tara — I actually had that in there but removed it because the post was too long.

  4. The analysis of Trump is very much like the way I’ve seen him. “Stupidity” is more like 2+2=5 stuff, whereas “ignorance” often carries a darker time of being not smart. Trump is definitely ignorant, but he’s also an “evil genius” as Michael Moore says it. My take is Trump’s a genius at being evil. The man’s a brilliant con man and a gifted demagogue. But he doesn’t have a clue about some important things, especially a pandemic.

    Besides, “ignorance” works much better on a Horse of the Apocalypse in an editorial cartoon anyway.

  5. That scene almost never makes it into dramatizations of A Christmas Carol — likely because it’s self-contained,

  6. Your analysis of Trump is probably pretty accurate, but why do so many believe him, even when they know he is lying?

  7. Why do self-identified Christians follow a man who lives in open defiance of any Christian teaching?

    Why did Germans not figure out the smoke coming from those factories on the edge of town?

  8. The Weinersmith cartoon is almost verbatim from an article on Fivethirtyeight.com titled: “Why It’s So Freaking Hard To Make A Good COVID-19 Model,” dated March 31st.

  9. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the music items you include at the end. I had no idea there was a trippy video of ‘Lather’! And I loved ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ from a while ago.

  10. I don’t know; if you are ignorant, and choose to remain ignorant even while holding the most important job in the world, you are stupid.

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