Sunday, April 17, 2011

Being an Idiot

Can I just ask, what is with everyone running around calling everyone else "stupid"?  Or an "idiot"?  Or whatever other derogatory term they can think of to apply to other people's alleged lack of intelligence?

Here's the thing.  I have a Ph.D.  from Brown.  I got it when I was 24.  I started teaching college classes when I was 21.  I'm tenured, I've published.  I make my living using my brain.

So by all standards out there, I think most people would agree that I meet the minimum standard for "smart."  (They might not think so if they saw me aerating my lawn and talking to myself or slashing my fingers open on pieces of vinyl fencing, but we'll let that pass for now.)

I don't run around calling other people "stupid" all the time.  Why?  Because they're NOT.

I also don't walk into a room and automatically assume that I must be the smartest person there, because typically, I'm NOT.

I've read portions of Charles P. Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became A Virtue in the Land of the Free, and it bothers me.  He traces "Idiot America" to the rise of a national "war on expertise."

Regular people not only don't want to listen to the smart people anymore, according to Pierce, they also have the audacity to think that they're smart too and they end up mucking up the intellectual machinery by putting forward ideas that every smart person knows are complete nonsense.

The smart people, of course, are Pierce and everyone who agrees with him.  He's advocating the kind of "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong" mentality that drives me positively nuts.

While I know what Pierce is saying and I recognize the trend that he's describing and deploring, I think he's constructing a band-wagon that it's all too easy to hop on.

Who's going to read his book and say, "Oh, hey, wow, wait--I think I'm actually an American idiot..."?  No one, I suspect.

So even if we are idiots, this book isn't going to fix that.

It's just going to make the alleged non-idiots feel self-righteous.  Which is kind of idiotic, actually.

I think Pierce is polarizing a situation that is already quite problematic.  The American intellectual has a bad rap, no question, and is often regarded with extreme skepticism (a trend that has existed since the nation's founding, actually).

So how is the attitude of this book going to change that?

We're supposed to read Pierce's book and bask in our collective intelligence because we know we're not one of "them"--the "idiots"--out there.  "They" think "stupidity" (whatever is obviously "stupid," that is) is a "virtue," but "we" know better.

I think of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot and of Sancho Panza in Cervantes' Don Quixote.  And of the fact that Shakespeare routinely gave the smartest and most insightful lines in his plays to the character of "the Fool."

In literature, the "idiot" or the "fool" always states the obvious and we as readers constantly marvel at the fact that those who are ostensibly wiser can't see the inherent wisdom and value of his words.

Even if what the fool and the idiot says isn't "right" or seems to be nothing but nonsense, there is something else that is being communicated behind, beneath and through his words that is, in fact, quite interesting and complicated and, in certain ways, highly accurate.

Great geniuses have always acknowledged the fact that insight comes in all shapes, sizes and packages and arrives from many different--and often unexpected--directions.  They have regularly questioned the propensity of those in positions of power and privilege to overlook what the know-nothings in fact know.

Pierce seems to me to assume that knowledge is a stable and static thing to be acquired in certain "right" ways by those who know best.  And yes, there are certain premises that we operate upon in order to make determinations about how the world functions and how we want to function within it, but historically, even those premises have changed over time.

By labeling certain elements of American culture as prima facie "stupid" or "idiotic," Pierce risks killing the very spirit of intellectual curiosity he endorses.

Pierce argues that, for "Idiot America," "the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida."

I find it interesting that Pierce characterizes the American "Idiot" as a person of faith and questionable physical attractiveness, living in the South.  This, in itself, is not an innocent, informed and neutral characterization.  It's a stereotype, and Pierce is using it for rhetorical purposes.

The fact that people are paying more attention to the "turkeyneck preacher" in Christ's Own Parking Structure" is not a new phenomenon in American culture, actually. 

Read Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (1926).  And then read It Can't Happen Here [1935], a novel that depicts how an American populist political leader named "Buzz Windrip" taps into a spirit of patriotic fervor to win election, create his own armed militia, and implement a totalitarian government.

Pierce laments the fact that people are simpletons today, but to make his case, he argues for a time when America was a land of untainted intellectual curiosity, peopled with gentle thinkers and quirky curmudgeons.

Who just happened to be white.  And male.  And generally well-off.  And living in the North.

I think Pierce has bypassed any consideration of the long history of fanatical movements, pseudoscience and rising snake-oil sales that have marked Europe and America for centuries. 

In the mid-19th century, the Italian scholar Cesare Lombroso argued that criminals could be identified by certain physical features, including a flattened, upturned or "hawk-like" nose, high cheekbones, shifty eyes and--my personal favorite--baldness or the inability to grow a full beard.

Like many of the leading intellectuals of the day, Lombroso was an advocate of phrenology, the notion that physical attributes of a person's skull provide an index to their predispositions and overall personality.

This wasn't some backwoods blather preached from the stables.  Phrenology was at one time accepted and endorsed by the intellectual establishment.  Some of the leading thinkers of the day had their skulls "read."

For my part, I think most people are reasonably intelligent and well informed about something, and if you find out what it is that they love to think or talk about, you can learn something. 

And if they didn't go to college and they don't live in the Northeast and they don't drive a nice car and live in the suburbs and they don't speak the king's English all day long and they don't think exactly the things that you do, maybe there's something to be learned from that too.

About them, and about yourself.

I don't worry so much about what that "turkeyneck" "idiot" in Florida is saying, per se, but I do think about what it means that he is saying what he is and why he is saying it in the way that he is.

And why others are listening.

To me, the issue isn't whether or not the preacher is "right," what is more interesting is the fact that he is saying what he is now, at this time and in this particular place, and that it possesses resonance for so many other people.

That doesn't necessarily make everyone involved "dumb."  It may mean they are collectively looking for something that they can't find elsewhere.

If we knew what that was, I think we'd be on the way to knowing something important, something that goes beyond identifying who's "dumb" and who's "dumber."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."