Most of the divisions that characterise our fractured modern society — racial, gender-based, political leanings, tolerance for Ed Sheeran or putting chicken in a carbonara — can be summed up as smart versus dumb.
As we live in an age of unprecedented access to information, all of our positions are backed up by whatever globules of knowledge we have ladled out of the great info-vat. Most of what is in there is rubbish, of course, generated by Russian bots or the Twitter accounts of Love Island contestants and Gillette Soccer Saturday panellists. Which is why the line between smart and dumb is rarely that clear.
Take the coronavirus. Photos of happy racegoers attending the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival began to circulate online around lunchtime on Tuesday. By that time, in the face of increasing numbers of confirmed cases, last week’s default position of blasé amusement — it’s just a flu, innit? — had come to seem rather, well, last week.
So, the punters at Cheltenham suddenly went from looking very smart (drinking and betting during work hours) to very dumb (floating in a giant, steaming, disease-breeding stew).
In defence of those in the Prestbury Park petri-dish, finding the signal from the noise in the coronavirus information storm is difficult. Until as late as Monday, when most would have already been on the move towards the equine Olympics, the Irish government had held out on cancelling the major St. Patrick’s Day parades.
At the time of writing, the UK government has still not banned large scale events and was, in fact, arguing the science against doing so.
“The virus will not survive very long outside,” said Dr Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer. “Many outdoor events, particularly, are relatively safe.”
Giddy-up and away we go, even as other European countries were cancelling sports events or putting them behind closed doors.
For the rest of us, there is the difficult task of trying to separate the smart from the dumb.
We know we should simply follow the advice from public health authorities and ignore long Twitter threads that start with “I’m not an expert, but…”
The trouble is sober, once-daily briefings from Department of Health jazz trio Dr Tony Holohan (lead sax), Dr Ronan Glynn (double bass) and Dr John Cuddihy (funky drummer) tend to get lost in the avalanche of half-baked opinion and flimsily-sourced information.
So, my brain gives equal weight to the measured pronouncements of Dr Tony as it does to a meme from the official Twitter account of Sultans of Ping FC, which suggests washing your hands to the tune of Where’s Me Jumper?
Which is fine, except dancing at the disco, bumper to bumper, is not a great example of social distancing.
Thank goodness, then, for the Champions League on Tuesday night and the great sorting out of smart and dumb it provided.
Tottenham’s exit from the tournament is the culmination of a lot of dumb decisions, with a bit of bad luck thrown in.
Jose Mourinho is right to bemoan the injuries to Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Steven Bergwijn, and Moussa Sissoko that have left his team with all the effectiveness of a Mike Pence prayer session in the face of a pandemic.
But Tuesday’s defeat was a nadir of dumbness that began at a point when Tottenham were actually one of the smartest kids in the class.
Back in 2016 Tottenham were two years into Mauricio Pochettino’s reign as manager and had just enjoyed the first of four consecutive Premier League top-four finishes. Stealing Poch from Southampton in 2014 was a really smart move, as was giving him the power to build the team and a new training ground as he saw fit.
Another smart decision was to tempt Southampton’s head of recruitment Paul Mitchell to come with Pochettino. In those early seasons Spurs signed Dele Alli, Ben Davies, Eric Dier, Heung-Min Son, Toby Aldeweireld, Victor Wanyama, and Kieran Trippier, all young players who would help Spurs repeatedly punch above their wage-paying weight in the Premier League.
But in 2016 Mitchell handed in his notice, the Daily Telegraph revealing that ‘his dream job had turned into a nightmare’ due to the difficulty of working with chairman Daniel Levy, by then squeezing the transfer budget to help pay for their new stadium.
Mitchell was never properly replaced and Tottenham’s recruitment stopped being smart. In fact, Tottenham’s recruitment stopped altogether for two whole transfer windows. When they did sign players, the likes of Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier, and Tanguy Ndombele were a marked downgrade on what had come before. Meanwhile, previous stalwarts ran down their contracts and grew stale.
The scale of this dumbness cost Spurs their best manager of the modern era, when Pochettino and his weary squad ran out of steam. This great festival of dumb reached its apogee with the appointment of Mourinho.
In the same way that the American electorate followed the cerebral Obama with the boggle-eyed lunacy of Trump, Spurs had trashed everything they had previously stood for in a great, self-destructive headrush of dumb.
On the flipside you have RB Leipzig, a despised marketing project among German football fans but a very smart one. The Red Bull football operation, which includes Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, and New York Red Bulls, are renowned for the detail and planning that goes into their scouting and recruitment, the care and development they put into the players once in their system.
Their squad is the youngest in the Bundesliga yet they are a title contender and Champions League quarter-finalists. The name of the current technical director of Red Bull’s Global Soccer Division? Paul Mitchell, a job he started in September having spent the previous two years after leaving Spurs as RB Leipzig Head of Recruitment.
You really couldn’t make this stuff up. Unlike most of the coronavirus advice you’ll be hearing.