Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I. Before E.

A few years ago, I remember taking a class on Shakespeare, specifically remembering the time we spent studying Henry IV, Part One. One of my more intelligent classmates (I will give him that compliment) opened a discussion on Falstaff, a boorish, comic relief providing character. The classmate mentioned how Falstaff reminded him of Ignatius J. Reilly, the anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. His next action after making this comparison is the sole reason I remember that day. Instead of explaining that Ignatius was also boorish and provided comic relief, he glanced around the classroom with a smug, satisfied smile. He started off with a great literary comparison that was relevant to the subject, and ended it with an atmosphere of "Yes, I'm extremely well-read. If you have not read A Confederacy of Dunces, I'm not going to explain myself. Shame on you."

This anecdote is a great representation of misplaced intelligence. Instead of using his knowledge for good, my classmate used it to elevate himself over other people, merely to look smart. Intelligence (and elitism, to an extent), have been on my mind a lot lately. A few weeks ago, The Daily Show ran a few clips of conservative pundits bashing Sen. Barack Obama for being a supposed elitist. I don't know Mr. Obama personally, but he's obviously educated, and I would imagine he's well-read (I would vote for a candidate based on this, instead of issues of whether or not he or she wears a flag pin). The image tossed about was that Obama is a "tofu-eating, latte-drinking elitist."

I find this shocking, since the message seems to convey that a Presidential candidate can be intelligent, but cannot use it to alienate voters. One would think that candidates (based on image alone) would or should be better off exuding intelligence. However, the pundits seem to think that conservative voters are threatened by that. (I will return to this, since the source of the elitist claims stems not from intelligence, but from comments made about certain groups of citizens). These thoughts alone made me go out and buy a book that I should have purchased long ago--Curtis White's The Middle Mind. This was my third reading of the book, and White does a stunning job of explaining the lack of serious thought and imagination prevalent in modern American culture.

"In this country, conservatives have no particular need for the Middle Mind since they have been quite content to have demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Mathews, and Bill Reilly do their nasty thinking for them for many years...the Middle Mind is in the business of producing 'content' while seeming to provide an authentic culture (White iv)."

This might seem like an easy jab at conservatives (but liberals are just as much to blame, if not more, according to White). That is part of this books' brilliance. Instead of hitting easy targets, White spreads the blame evenly. In short, conservatives don't think nearly enough, and liberals think too much, in the sense that what appears to be deep thought ends up being transparent or insulting to someone's intelligence. This is what I mean when I mention the former classmate. Instead of explaining himself, he gave an example that would mean nothing to someone who didn't understand his reference. In virtually all of my own readings and essays for Chicago Ex-Patriate, I love making comparisons and contrasts, especially in literature. However, my goal is to make a point and to link that point to similar texts. I like to think that I'm intelligent and well-read, but I know there is a lot of information and literature that I'm not familiar with, and I would be the first one to acknowledge that fact. People who know more about given subjects than I do are fascinating to me. However, people who impart knowledge can be in a tricky position, and that is a part of White's argument. People are either talked down to ("The Middle Mind assumes that the people it takes as its audience don't know anything; it assumes that most people are benevolently stupid [31]") or given empty fillers that pass for culture and intelligence ("The Middle Mind's motto could be Promise him culture but give him TV [33]").

The roots of the elitist claims about Obama did not come about because he mentioned Thomas Pynchon in a speech; he made remarks about residents of small towns in Pennsylvania that many (conservative) people felt made him sound "above" the small town citizens. He referred to them as "bitter," clinging to "guns and religion" because of insecurities about employment and the economy. Once he said this (his intentions aside), people were quick to draw their elitist epees. I could go into the irony of conservatives defending religion and the right to bear arms, and then turning around to bash someone for a statement like that. Perhaps a replacement of the word "clinging" (maybe "focusing?") would have eased the sting.

Interestingly enough, in my research, I found an excellent blog posting by Carl Golden, a Republican (think of this as blog partisanship). He believes that Obama was being honest in a political arena where honesty can be taboo. Again, it wasn't what Obama said, it was how he said it. Like I mentioned above, the elitist claims did not come to light because of intelligence specifically, but the idea of elitism is rooted in that. An elitist (one can be found in any field of study and any political party) believes that he or she is above others, presumably because he or she is more intelligent and understanding on a given issue. I wish I had a specific quote, but I recall someone mentioning that all Presidential candidates are elitist, because they believe they are the best ones suited to run the country.

In conclusion, there should be more focus on intelligence, whether political or otherwise. "One of the great tragedies in public discourse in the United States is that what we need most (powerful intelligence) we forbid (White 59)." It's all fine and good for candidates to appeal themselves to everyone, but intelligence should be celebrated, not alienating.

Work Cited:
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Copyright 2003 by Curtis White.

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