In the February 2009 issue of ‘Harpers’ Mark Slouka has some poignant thoughts in his ‘Notebook’ section article entitled “A Quibble”.
It prompts some thoughts.
He encounters a ‘teacher’ who is deeply concerned that by refusing to torture then “Osama – excuse me – Obama cares more about terrorists than he does about us”. Well, everybody is entitled to an opinion. But then Slouka asks him, acutely, if he, a teacher, had ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition. No, the teacher has never heard of the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps he’s a ‘science’ teacher, although you’d a thunk that somewhere along the line in a general and advanced education anybody would have been informed about the Spanish Inquisition – hell, even if only by watching Monty Python. But no.
The Spanish Inquisition is not some arcane bit of factoid-ery. The Founders had such institutions as that Inquisition and the Court of Star Chamber very much in mind when they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the task of wining independence from monarchical tyranny and setting up the Constitution.
Another neighbor – a plumber by trade – comes by with a book in which the neighbor and his wife had highlighted all the ‘curse’ words. It is Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, and the plumber and his wife want to get it tossed out of the high-school library. Slouka acutely but gently inquires if the gentleman had read the book. No, admits the plumber, “he really didn’t go in for reading himself”.
This is a high-school library he’s talking about. The students will, upon graduation in one to four years, be entitled to vote, and as voters they will be able to pass on their thoughts and desires to their elected representatives, as well as to vote for them. Is it wise to deprive them of a meaty book simply because the book has words in it that the kids have no doubt heard a thousand times in contemporary music or in films? We are in for a lot of trouble as a democracy if large numbers of new voters, being treated as ‘children’ right up until midnight of their 18th birthday, suddenly enter the voter rolls with nothing but a ‘child’s’ education. Nor, from what is known of the above-mentioned ‘teacher’, is it probable that they will be given a sufficient crash course in ‘college’, assuming that they go.
Slouka warns of the state of Our “ever-deepening ignorance” of just about everything. And, even worse, Our “complacency in the face of” that ignorance, indeed Our “growing fondness for it”. Impressively, Slouka does not take the conventional route of blaming Bush. Certainly Bush’s “gut” is a glaring example of an anti-intellectualism that has been traditionally been ascribed to ‘hicks’, ‘yokels, and ‘rednecks’ – and even to urban working class folk – by the various ‘elites’.
And the ‘valorization’ – as they say nowadays – of such ‘gut-ness’, for all practical purposes a repudiation of a knowledge base and capacity for thought that the underclasses are presumed not to have, has served well a manipulative right-wing and Fundamentalist agenda, both in domestic and foreign affairs.
But the ‘elites’ themselves have for decades conducted their own un-remarked war on ‘intellectualism’, on rationality and logic and reasoning and critical thinking. It was a dual-purposed objective of Second Wave Feminism to dethrone ‘masculine’ thinking in favor of a reputed female predilection for ‘feeling’ and ‘intuition’. And not as complementary to ‘male’ rationality, but as an antidote to such baaad habits.
This cannot end well for a society, a culture, or a polity.
Nor can it be accepted that such ‘dethroning’ was ‘only a phase’. The damage now done within the educational establishment and its teacher-products and its curriculum ‘guidelines’ as well as to decades’ worth of young minds is a consequence that will keep on ‘giving’ for another half-century or more. And that’s presuming that things could be fixed today. Which is not at all probable.
“We know what we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart like love”. Bingo. Although I’d say “luhhhhv” just to emphasize that the almost infinite and sempiternal nuances and layered definitions of ‘love’ are far beyond the very poor abilities of current Americans to analyze and incorporate into their life-plans and their daily operational standards of procedure. It’s like sending ‘Star Fleet’ cadets out without a clear understanding of ‘space’. “To infinity and beyond” indeed.
The concatenation of the Sixties and early Seventies has done great damage. There was the Hippy romanticism, that you just need to ‘be’ and if you let yourself go and ‘be free’ then your natural goodness and self will reveal itself, perfectly shaped, hiding under all the icky layers of ‘conformity’ and other bad stuff. And then there was the anti-rational ‘feeling’ and ‘feel-good’ sensitivity plumped by the Second Wave in its revolutionary objective to de-masculinize … everything.
How will The People survive when its fresh generations are not trained in ‘thinking’; are under the impression that all you need to know is what you don’t like and what is sleazily being done to ‘oppress’ you at any given moment; and look to their ‘elites’ and their government to do any mental lifting for them?
And if you don’t have a People, then do you really need a democracy? Will you even be able to keep one?
Nor can We ignore the fact that the effort to learn and think, called ‘elitist’ by the Second Wave elites, is also attacked in rapper-circles as ‘acting white’ – something that now not even suburban white kids want to be caught doing.
While the now-chastened Fundamentalist element continues to nurse its undying illuminations that God speaks through your emotions and that your mind is – more often than not – a tool of Satan.
Thought, like truth, and thinking, like truth-telling, are not going to find a home among Us.
Neither from the Left nor from the Right, neither from ‘liberal’ nor ‘conservative’ nor ‘progressive’, will independent thinking and speaking get any support. Just the opposite. Oy.
Slouka goes on to observe that persons who ‘think’ are suspect. There is an abiding suspicion of what such individuals might do next. This goes to the heart of a conundrum that popular democracy must always face: evolution, it seems, ensures that the majority of any cohort of the species on the planet at the same time are not equipped with too much ‘thinking’ capacity – so that there will be a certain amount of ‘stability’ and life will not burn itself out in a constant round of change.
But if this is true – if, I say – then what hope is there for a popular democracy? If all are created equal but not equally endowed … then what? They may rely on that smaller group endowed – or allowed to have – some large capacity to critically assess, to think-through, and to have useful ‘visions’. But then it won’t be long before the ‘elite’ become for all practical purposes an aristocracy … which is not the way We want to go.
Education can help bridge that gap, and help prepare citizens for a ‘thinking’ role as members of that great deliberative People. But that’s not at all where things are going today. Nor is a ‘liberal’ elite going to allow any more independent and critical thought than a ‘conservative’ elite; surely the past forty (Biblical) years of Political Correctness shows that genuine realization of the individual’s potential for deliberative thought is no more secure with the so-called ‘liberals’ or the ‘Left’ than it is with the jingo, macho, militaristic ’Right’.
As I’ve said before, the increasing centralization and complexity of post-Civil War America, and especially in light of industrialization and the World Wars and the Cold War and the past 20 shocking years, requires not less participation by The People but more. A more complex America requires a more complexly-competent People, not simply as ‘workers’, but as that People whose crucial and indispensable role in the Constitutional vision is to be the struts that ground the Branches; lest, as I’ve said, the great Ferris wheel rock and roll itself away, careening down the midway wrecking everything in its path until, unable to support its own weight and losing momentum, it collapses in a thousand pieces.
And others will come along, picking out pieces, and making something else, as the Dark Ages did while snuffling and rooting through the shards of once-bright Rome.
Is that what We want?
That is the fierce urgency of now.