Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Revenge of the Nerd

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Al Gore bemoans the diminishing role of reason in public discourse. "Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?" he intones seriously.

Ok, Al, if you just stopped at "reason playing little role in decision-making," I would have been right there with you. You're right: a population that spends most of it's free time watching American Idol is not likely to be a hotbed of intellectual debate. But the moment you say "sharply diminished," I just had to bust out laughing.

Sharply diminished from what? Perhaps you thought you and Bill and epitomized rule-by-policy-wonk -- government by the smart. Perhaps you flattered yourself by thinking that you shared the essential ingredient of success with Clinton, which was being really smart. But that's where reason has actually clouded your vision. You saw William Jefferson Clinton, voracious reader of white papers. We saw Slick Willy -- a creature of charisma, for whom intelligence was merely a tool for power and pleasure, and definitely not a being dedicated to "the truth."

No, we didn't have more rational policy and reasoned debate back then. There never was a Golden Age of civil debate, even if you go all the way back to ancient Athens. Read the newspapers of century ago; the invective was more furious, the slanders more vile, the demagogery more numb-skulled than even today. Even Jesus was sold out by the mob . . . so why should you be surprised, if things are no better now?

Nor has the populace at large changed that much, either, for all of our television sets. Television was merely quantitative -- not qualitative -- advancement in mind-numbing technology. Before television, we had booze, and cards, and dice, and burlesque shows, and many other methods of pleasantly stifling the activity of our neurons. You needn't lecture me on the evils of television -- believe me, Al, I'm with you on that one -- but don't for a moment presume that, if you took away their televisions and gave them all blogs, you would have a nation of philosopher kings.

And don't think I'm putting down the intellect, Al. I'm a nerd, too. I believe in brain-power. I want to believe that the geek will inherit the earth. But that is not human nature, Al. Go back and read your Hume: reason is the handmaid of emotion, and not the other way around. Or, as Augie Turak puts it in more modern language: "Intellect has no oomph." People might be persuaded by intellect, but they are not motivated by intellect. Motivation is a phenomena of the imagination, desires and emotions . . . and politics is ultimate game of mass-motivation. Do not be deceived by raw intelligence, or the lack thereof. Political power always belonged to those who were long on conviction and brief on their talking points. Reagan was the "three-by-five card President" . . . and Clinton was the stay-on-message candidate who forsook analysis for "It's the economy, stupid."



Blogger Kenny Felder said...

I go back and forth on this one.

Usually, I'm the first one to criticize those who look back on the "good old days" when (for instance) reason was king. But I do think something is degenerating, and I do think TV is one of the culprits--not the only one.

Have you ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates? On the one hand, they are exactly what you would expect: which is to say, full of random slanderous suggestions about each other and high-strung emotional drama. You could easily argue that nothing has changed.

On the other hand, what they are *not* is simple on-message sound bites. They went on for hours. People listened to them for hours. Newspapers reprinted very long excerpts.

There's a lot of evidence--I'm sure I've told you my Sesame Street story--that the attention span of the average American has declined precipitously in just the past few decades. I blame TV and computers for that, definitely. But there's another problem over the past century or two, one that you won't hear Al Gore complaining about, and that is increased Democratization. The founding fathers, and the ancient Athenians, never dreamed of giving *everyone* the vote. Voting was restricted to the leisure classes--not just literate, but with the time and inclination to follow the issues.

I don't vote in local elections. I don't vote in them because I have no idea who the players are and what the issues are, and I don't flatter myself that I can become an expert by reading the leaflets that they hand out at the polls. The more we encourage everyone to vote, regardless of complete ignorance, the more politics will be reduced to sound bites.

5:22 AM  

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