Monday, February 18, 2008

American intellectual - oxymoron?

Susan Jacoby had a piece in the Washington Post that I wanted to comment on, but then I wanted to comment on Howard Gardner's piece, too, and pretty soon I needed to write a long post of my own:

I don't know a time in my lifetime when America has been hospitable to intellectuals. I've known a few places, usually in selective educational institutions.

The public schools, for all their real and important virtues, don't qualify. In elementary school in the 1960s, a friend told me that I'd be more popular if I would let my grades slide. I could see the truth of what he told me, but that wasn't who I was. Thank goodness I could play Little League and thus avoid complete nerdiness.

This of course was a time when Spiro Agnew and his ilk were attacking "pointy-headed professors" and "nattering nabobs of negativism". If the facts and the law don't help your case, pound the table.

Are Americans dumber today? I'm not sure. We read less, no doubt. But as a nation, we are much more serious about education than we were in my day. In suburban Boston, the public schools provide great opportunities to get a better education than I got. Granted, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, not exactly the city on the hill, where my mom used to say about the famed local private school, "Why pay for an inferior education when you can get one free?" But what I see offered in affluent communities and what I see achieved on standardized tests by those communities is exceptional.

Our national conversation is indeed broken, perhaps beyond repair. There is no price to pay for being wrong on the facts, only for being wrong in pandering. The conservatives proudly nominate dunces whose stated role is to channel the nation's gut. This usually winds up - predictably - following prejudgements rather than information. Hence Duhbya's happy embrace of his own stupidity and indifference to learning.

In this way, the arrogance of ignorance is hurting us.

Where once, in a less hype-driven and demagogic age, Walter Cronkite and his intimate circle of competitors might have called bullshit (naturally in much more polite terms), nowadays there is only a ceaseless repetition of rhetorical formulas that permit sheeple to continue to believe the ignorant, ill-informed biases that they had before tuning to Fox News. The Bushist/PNAC marketing campaign for war in Iraq is of course the perfect example.

Still, I don't think the problem is video. New communication techniques surely could deliver thought-provoking content. The printed word is not the right medium for all content. A blend of print, graphics, still photos, video, and audio has the promise to be able to deliver much better knowledge than print alone.

Why, then, were so many Americans so willingly taken in by the thin bullshit of Duhbya's shifting and insufficient rationales for war? Why do 30% of Americans still support a man who makes Nixon look good? Hell, he makes even Agnew look good.

There are two groups of the ignorant - those who would rather know and the ignoramuses. American society used to identify the ignoramuses and isolate them. It no longer does. Sheesh, Ann Coulter is still on TV.

Ignoramuses have one great virtue - they are easily parted from their money or their consent if you flatter them. If you tell them they're smart, they'll know you're trying to pull something, but tell them they're the salt of the earth and the true Americans, and they'll lap it up like a barn dog around horseshit. Give them cover to rationalize their own ignorance, and they'll elect you President. Twice. Duhbya's father's problem was not that he was too goofy; pork rinds and other bullshit image-making notwithstanding, he was too up East effete smarty-pants intellectual. New world order? No, thanks!

One of the great, ahem, assets that the Republican Party won when it pried the white part of the old Confederacy out of the Democratic coalition was tobacco country. Yes, it's a failing and killing industry, but it owned the crown jewels of persistent, proudly ignorant denial. In short, the tobacco executives and advertising men knew how to appeal to ignoramuses - by stroking their anti-vanity vanities. Since Democrats were stupidly and coincidentally giving up their own working class bona fides at the same time, conservatives were able to yank the country hard to the right.

Many of the same people who despise education and the educated take great pride in their ability to spot a phony. Their record for the past 40 years, however, is an almost unblemished record of the inability to spot a phony. I can think of few people I'd rather not have a beer with than Duhbya. That smirking, self-entitled jerk has no common touch; instead, he is constantly engaged in pumping himself up and putting down his "lessers". Yet the very people he most patronizes like him.

Who's to blame? I'm not sure that's an important question. I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around. But a few observations:

  • My father called bullshit on practically every commercial on TV. When I saw the supermarket tabloid headlines, I could see through their weasel words.
  • The schools deliver content but not critical thinking. Critical thinking is dangerous, particularly in the Bible Belt. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Powell, generously gave me permission to believe evolution, but offered, "It's just not nice."
  • The repetition of lies triumphs over simple facts. Just ask the Swiftboaters and Fox.
Solutions? That's hard. There may not be any. It hardly seems that blogging and viral video are strong enough counters to cable TV. Not enough on-message repetition.

I heard John Walsh, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, speak recently. Messages are getting harder to deliver in any way that doesn't turn off their intended recipients. Walsh's prescription is grassroots contact and persistently exhibiting the values we stand for, presumably intelligent values.

Maybe the most important thing we need to do is take on the role of the boy who pointed out that the emperor was streaking.

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