Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Cogito, ergo sum

I'm looking up the word "egghead" in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The first term of definition is "intellectual." This is followed by an example of usage, from some old Newsweek article. In the example somebody is described as "something of an egghead himself. He boned up for covering the Korean war by reading Thucydides." [Here's my own example: "he's kind of an egghead - actually has a copy of Webster's Third New International at home."]

I'm going to ask my readers, the few and, I hope, the faithful, to take their time with this post, visiting each of the links provided, at great leisure. Go brew a cup of tea ... or shake up a cocktail ... or roll yourself a big spiff. Whatever helps you settle in all comfy cozy.

The Lie about Taking Risks

The election is, to borrow a phrase from the film 28 Days, "extremely fucking nigh," and I'm thinking - as I'm wont to do - about the peusdo-manly, anti-intellectual quips the president seems to be tossing off more frequently in his speeches as the day becomes more nigh. "The senator from Massachusttes," he says for example, "is real good at taking positions - he just can't take a stand."

I think it was during the second debate - the one in which he refused to acknoweldge having ever erred in office outside of nominating a few judicial candidates who turned out to have lesser character than he originally thought - that Mr. Bush kept insisting: leaders must be willing to make unpopular decisions. They can't stick a wet finger in the air to guage the political wind. They must be guided by principle and do what is right. Bush would appear to be such a leader. He has, as Zell Miller decalred at the RNC: "a spine of tempered steel!" ... unlike Kerry, who will not stand up, Kerry the weathercock who squeaks and twists in the breeze. Going to war in Iraq was just this kind of decision: risky, unpopular, but right and neccesary.

This little essay, from Stewart Nusbaumer, in Intervention Magazine, suggests on the other hand that political absolutism is very, very popular, and may be growing more so:

Anti-intellectualism has a long tradition in America, a long tradition in every country, yet today in our country it seems stronger and more vicious--a relentless plague wiping out reason in whole sections of our country. Males especially, admiring our inarticulate, dimwitted president, have never been prouder of their own inarticulateness and wear shallow thinking as evidence of their swaggering “manhood.” John Kerry not only rubs them the wrong way, he outrages them.

Sometimes I think our advanced technology and great wealth is only a fig leaf for our pathetic primitiveness. Lately I have been thinking that a lot.

Although many of us still cling to the Jeffersonian promise that common citizens in public dialogue can craft thoughtful solutions, we can’t hide from the spreading darkness.

That Bush has harnessed the energies of this old tradition, this ancient popular will, shows a shrewdness and a sense of history that nobody I know would probably think to admit.

He is the latest in a long line of straight shootin' sons of guns - a line that includes Davy Crockett and Roscoe Conkling, that runs through Dwight Eisenhower, Dirty Harry Callahan and Ronald Reagan. He has expediently chosen the posture of reassuring inexpedience.

The Horror of Long-Haired Men and Short-Haired Women

In the old Dark Age natural encyclopedias and taxonomies existed to catalog God's creation. Everything in the Great Chain of Being was qualitatively defined and clearly classified. Apparent hybrids, which blurred the lines between species - baboons that resembled humans with doggish ears and grotesque arms, or just dark races of primitive humans lacking any civilized manner, copulating freely and without bash - were counted as monsters. This was when fantastic fables, bestiaries and morality tales featuring serpents with wolves heads, humans with serpents heads, dragons, centaurs and changelings really proliferated. Paintings and illuminations typically depicted the devils of hell as cloven or claw footed, scaly beasts on two legs - leering, half-formed with narrow chests and pregnant bellies, prodding, poking and eating the tormented sinners consigned to their evil domain - this in contrast to the unblemished, perfectly-formed, in all aspects human, except for their white wings, angels of heaven.

Earlier in this blog, I mentioned Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter describes several of the pillars of popular thought in the history of this country, one of which is the insistence upon certainty and clear delineation, simple truths and well-defined roles. In the late nineteenth century, for example, during the period of the big reform movements - abolition, women's suffrage, temperance - politics was held to be a man's business. It was messy, bare-knuckled and hard-swinging. Politics was for unsentimental realists. Reform, on the other hand, was for idealists and romantics. It was for people unsoiled by the dirty business of living. It was for women.

Reform ideas were lofty, they were worthy, but they were unobtainable. If they had only been left for women to tend, respectable women - wives and mothers - they would have been fine, as ideals. But whearas they were unworldly, they tended to attract confused and unworldly people who could not perceive their proper place in the scheme of things. Groups of agitators gathered around the movements, populated by bossy, short-haired women in pants and effete long-haired men with soft hands and overgrown fingernails. They were all freaks, monsters. Of men, for instance, Hofstadter wrote:

It was not enough to say that the reformers were hypocritical and impractical. Their cultivation and fastidious manners were taken as evidence that these "namby-pamby, goody-goody gentlemen" who "sip cold tea" were deficient in masculinity. They were on occasion denounced as political hermaphrodites. The waspish Senator Ingalls of Kansas, furious at their lack of party loyalty once denounced them as the "third sex" - "effeminate without being either masculine or feminine."

And the women:

they would become masculine, just as men became feminine if they espoused reform. Horace Bushnell suggested that if women got the vote and kept it for hundreds of years, "the very look and temperament of women will be altered." Their appearance would be sharp, their bodies wiry, their voices shrill, their actions angular and abrubt, and full of self-assertion, will, boldness and and eagerness for place and power."

It must be entirely intentional that today Mel Gibson would cast a woman in the role of Satan for his blockbuster film, The Passion of the Christ (Italian actress Rosalinda Celantano), making her up to seem a more than vaguely female male. Androgony is sinister. Ambiguity fearsome. The erasure of bondaries confusing and unnatural.

This is interesting: I have this book by Joyce Salisbury, a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, titled The Beast Within. Dr. Salisbury points out that while we may find squirrels and chipmunks appealing if we're outdoors watching them scamper about, we might recoil in some horror if they happen to cross our thresholds and take their act into our houses - dashing into our homes, darting underneath our sofas. This, I think, is a small but really extraordinary insight. I believe I just might want to react by fleeing from the house myself.

It's perfectly human to draw these lines. Even among the most unapologetically sensitive and tolerant of us, they have to be laid down somewhere, and anything crossing over them induces a sort of inexpressible anguish. The popularity of the president's position rests on his claim to the time-worn mantle of unapologetically protecting the least sensitive and tolerant among us - and a great mass I think it is - from same-sex marriages and snaggle-toothed terrorists.

The Medium is the Moral

But is Nusbaumer right? Is darkness spreading? Is anti-intellectualism in America actually getting worse? Well, four years ago, on the dawn following the last presidential election, Todd Gitlin said that it was, pointing especially at what seems to be the know-nothing imperative being reinforced constantly by the "psuedo-intellectual" punditocracy, repeating their maxims and phrases ad nauseum, stating the terms of any kind of debate as simply as possible and circumscribing everything. Gone are the likes of Walter Lippman. Cokie Roberts now stands in his stead:

A central force boosting anti-intellectualism since Hofstadter published his book has been the bulking up of popular culture and, in particular, the rise of a new form of faux cerebration: punditry. Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect -- the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions -- has the look of retardation.

Again, there is a continuity to the earlier nation. Long before Hollywood or MTV, Tocqueville observed that Americans were drawn to novelty, turnover, and sensation. How much more so in a world of cascading, all-pervasive images, where two-thirds of children grow up with 24/7 access to television in their bedrooms, where video and computer games flourish, where mobile phones guarantee access when and where one chooses, where the right to be instantly entertained and in-touch seems to preoccupy more of the citizenry than the right to vote and to have their votes properly counted.

The pace is relentless. Cable and network news, talk radio, public access programming, and weblogs, and the online publications I myself rely on and link right here - packs of wolves in sheep's clothing (speaking of boundary crossing). In the benign name of creating an informed populace, this style-over-substance noise just keeps hammering us all into shape. Clear shape. Simple forms - with simple truths. Who has time for Thucydides? Indeed, who is capable of him?


Post a Comment

<< Home