Dear Dirty America

DDA

The Dumbing Down of Smarting Up

March 27
15:30 2012
CONOR MATTHEWS
Ireland
Where intelligence meets stupidity there’s a stalemate. What I mean is there seems to have been a decline in the standard we hold for high intelligence. Now I don’t mean that there aren’t intelligent people. There are probably more intelligent people now than ever. But it seems like the title “intelligent” has been lent very kindly in the same way “special” or “celebrity” has been. Everyone who scribbles a picture is intelligent. Everyone who makes it into college is intelligent. Everyone with an opinion is intelligent. Anyone who can act like they’re intelligent is intelligent. Intelligence is now an obligatory compliment you have to pay to each other, or even something you can buy like some obscure band’s underground demo album that only you know about. I don’t fully buy into the idea that people are naturally dumb, but I do believe the illusion of intelligence is a fully fledged epidemic going under the radar of the zeitgeist.
By intelligence, I’m not talking about super, Einstein/Hawking level intellect, or the school of thought paved by Aristotle or Plato, but every day, 110+ I.Q. level, opinionated rationale, the same anyone would have by as early as 16 or so, to make an informed decision, converse in discussion, with witty retorting, and maybe a personal belief here or there (N.B. 100-120 I.Q. is considered average,
In the last number of years, what major books have come out and been hailed as marvels; “The Da Vinci Code”, “The Secret”, “P.S. I Love You”, and “Twilight”, to name a few. Amazingly manufactured, generic, and highly flawed books. The Da Vinci Code prays on the bare shreds of a conspiracy theory covered in “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” from the 80’s, The Secret is a collection of inspirational quotes piled together into something thousands of philosophers and metaphysicians have been screaming for years, “P.S. I Love You” has the vague de ja vu of some rejected screenplay from the 60’s (as well as proving the Ahern family are soul suckers), and Twilight has not just been criticised for its lazy grammar mistakes but also held up by a union of psychologists as boarder line dangerous to women of all ages for its irresponsible disregard and glorification of an abusive, sado-masochistic relationship. What do these have in common? They fit into a market.
One of the most soul destroying moments in my life was attending a children’s creative writing workshop when I was roughly 12 or so. The lecturer, Steve Downes, told us (myself and two 10 year old girls, friends who came together) that the two bestselling book genres are Thrillers and Romance, and that they out number some of the most critically acclaimed books of all time 20 to 1 (note: Thriller covers “mystery” and “crime”). I also remember my grandfather accumulating a mass of Tom Clancy-esque books in a spare bedroom at his house. Even check it yourself. Go to any book store and find the Thriller or Romance section. They will always be separate from the rest. I’ve been to shops where sci-fi and fantasy mix like piss and water. The graphic novel section is tossed among the serial issues of comics (yes, there is a difference!). I’ve even seen gay erotica interwoven with heterosexual fetish catalogues.
From my own experience at writing, it’s amazing how anal publishers are about their word limits. In case you didn’t know, a novel is actually a very exact thing. It’s 40,000+ words. Anything less is a novella or a novelette. “Animal Farm” is thin enough to fit in a coat pocket. “A Clockwork Orange”, which I have right beside me, is the same, no thinner than my little finger. And think about the books that don’t, simply don’t, fit into these set genres. Is “Nineteen Eighty Four” sci-fi, or thriller, or gay erotica? Does Albert Camus’ “The Outsider” (or “The Stranger” in some translations) count as murder mystery, romance, or home cooking? Would “Dorian Gray” have a “target audience”? Would “The Iliad” be returned to Homer with a note from the editor saying “can you add a vampire called Edward?”
This seems to be a trend in nearly all the creative fields; literature, journalism, cinema, television, theatre, music, art, design, etc. It’s this bizarre marriage between marketing and critical expectations that hinder the exploration and expression of intellectual property. Of course, this creates a state of appreciation for the odd piece that manages to retain a sense of originality and gain a standard of acclaim, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series and Inception film, along with bands such as “My Chemical Romance”, or even the television series “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad”. But these really seem to be the few exceptions from a shotgun scatter of mediocre endeavours ending up being highly praised, none more so than by the producers who proclaim how the newest reality show spin-off was their genius work.
Speaking of mediocre, Google is just as much of a problem as anything else. Now I love Google, I adore Google, but Google (or “keyword” based search engines to be more exact) have created a “Google It” culture, where everything is asked of. I love the fact that the greatest bank of knowledge the world has ever known is practically at my finger tips. I love the fact the world is there for the taking for those willing to read a simple article every now and again. A simple article with fancy numbers and graphs and quotes. In fact, so fancy, that I’ll quote these facts and statistics. Don’t know what they mean, don’t know where they come from, and I’m not going to reflect on them, but they sound great with my opinions. What happens after a while is this drone of facts and words and sentences and noises begin to clutter the world. Interestingly enough, because these things are repeated so often, they actually outnumber and block access to the more updated data, even if the more quoted data is out of date compared to the newer, potentially corrected, revision. We could be quoting the same statistic about social issues from ten years ago, maybe longer. Saying 1 in 10 people are gay sort of loses its meaning after a while (especially since that statistic has been corrected numerous times and is now somewhere in the region of 1 in 5 (either that, or there’s 9 guys who have secrets to keep from their girlfriends)).
Take another example; the Ku Klux Klan, the right wing white supremacy racial purity group, Jerry Springer season ticket holders, and anti-Westboro Baptist church campaigners (that’s actually true! You have to admit you’re wrong when even the KKK are saying you’re wrong), have used these same statistics to proclaim that America is only 20% white. Now, at first glance, that’s pretty surprising, and maybe a bit of an attention grabber, but then hold on a second. 20 percent of America…. 311 million Americans…. at any given time there could be close to an extra million or so, just completely off the radar. Just haven’t paid taxes, isn’t registered, hasn’t voted, never made a call in the last few months, maybe lives off the land, maybe is just a guy who lives in a cabin somewhere, likes to keep to themselves. If there are a couple of people who literally do not exist as far as the US government is concerned, how in the name of sweet mother of God Jesus are they meant to accurately get 311 million Americans to tick a box (and be truthful). We can’t get votes counted accurately, whether for elections or American Idol! So all of a sudden that 20 percent represents only the people who filled out a form or two, which may be a tenth of the population, maybe less. Also, look at the term “white”. Given that we’re talking about the KKK, it’s fair to say their “white” excludes people with mixed heritage, like people with Hispanic connections (like Cameron Diaz or Jessica Alba), and people with Jewish heritage. Taken these factors out of the equation, 20 percent doesn’t sound like much of a problem. And then of course let’s look at the simple fact that 20 percent is one-fifth. How many races are there in America? Caucasian, African, Native American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, Pacific Islander, Inuit, South East Asian, and Australian Aboriginals. So one race out of ten taking up 20 percent is still pretty good. But, if any of the above is still not convincing enough that the “data” is perhaps flawed and ill conceived, the fact that we get this info from the Ku Klux fucking Klan might be a hint to the overall honesty and trust worthiness of this statement.
Funny enough that my last sentence ties neatly into another trend of the quasi-intelligent people; cynical, sarcastic, snobbish opinions scoffed in the direction of whoever is on the other end of the table. We’re all guilty of this, including me, but my excuse is I’m an idiot. But really, this targeting is the lowest common denominator of the stereotype of intelligence as a joke anyone can get in on. Christopher Hitchens, the writer, (when he was alive) caught Bill Maher, the comedian and host of “Real Time with Bill Maher”, doing this exact same thing with his constant bombardment of George W. Bush (president at the time of the incident) with stupidity jokes, turning the joke back at Bill and even his audience as just a pack of clapping sea lions, as bad as any plug-eared Bush supporter. The remark was met with little applause and a pout from Bill. Either side can take a look at the childish moronic screaming being fired across and write them off as incapable of holding a valid point. The Occupiers are hippies. The Tea Party are racists. The Republicans are Nazis. The Democrats are Communists. It’s a pissing contest with the contestants blind folded, unable to see the similarities between either side, convinced that they’re right and the others are wrong, refusing to truly analyse the claims and achieve a hybrid of the two capable of truly getting something done.
Not only is this contradictory to new findings that a core feature of intelligence and creativity is actually the sampling and then “remixing” of ideas (i.e. like how Stars Wars is a remix of Westerns) explained in such works as the documentary “Rip; A Remix Manifesto” and “Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius” by Robert Weisberg, but also it’s contradictory to the “open minded” or “informed” appearance some people try to portray. Again, appearance is everything, especially if it’s popular. Similar to Bill Maher’s Bush bashing, The Simpsons took a swipe at Ayn Rand calling her the “sexy slice of [male] beefcake” who wrote “the bible of right-wing losers”. Cutting stuff, as always, from The Simpsons. Meanwhile, “Bio Shock”, a 2007 video game with a cult following offered a much more in depth and accurate survey of Rand’s Objectivist message by giving life to a tribute sequel to “Atlas Shrugged” in the form of an underwater Libertarian Objectivist paradise gone wrong by the lack of altruism invested into a wide spread drug epidemic, and the virtues of free will with human kindness. This is a video game! This didn’t just make a good point, it took the ideas of free will, objectivism, altruism into a new era of media and a new generation, taking elements already set and accepted as only what they are, and morphing them together into a new and exciting exploration, worthy of any cultural evaluation.
This vacuum of critical thinking has led to a flurry of people all with thoughts and opinions and theories, but still falling into the pitfalls of scripted monologues and speeches, a lot of these coming from either the small scale workings of an underground vegan hipster coffee shop in Blackrock desert outside of the normal Burning Man schedule, or on a much larger scale of “cash-cows”, where everyone has their two cents on topics. But those two cents are going to cost you a buck twenty five from I-tunes, or twenty dollars for a five step DVD to a happy life and more financial future, or the price of shipping and packaging for Amazon’s best seller that explains how Obama is turning America into a socialist state (from the same author who wrote how Bush was turning America into a fascist state back in 2003 (but Amazon wasn’t that popular back then so it doesn’t count)). Ann Coulter has made a living out of this pandering to people’s fears for years. She’s done it amazingly well, but she talks about topics beyond her experience, ranging on various issues so far apart from each other she might as well have just recorded herself giving commentary on a slide show of images compiled by Google’s “I’m feeling Lucky” button.
Penn Jillette, the giant from the Penn and Teller magician double act was criticised by Pierce Morgan for his book “God, No”, for having no real answer to questions about spirituality and religion while retaining the notion that everyone else is wrong. Meanwhile, Rhonda Byrne, the author of “The Secret”, “The Power”, and “The Magic”, has taken this play school level philosophy marketing system to a new low through the mass production of these “neo-self-help” droppings, composed entirely of vaguely enlightening quotes that sound life changing, because for the price people pay for them they’d better be. I do believe in positive thinking, but not of such a watered down point that you would scoop these books into your shopping cart with a few bottles of Coca-cola and vegetables at your local shopping centre all in the same run. An episode of Family Guy put it well by deeming these loose foundations as “psuedo-spirituality”, “harmful” to the majority of people who try to take substance from them, with only a chance of being any help to the 5% of the people who have the “educational advantages [and the] societal advantages”, while exploiting the rest.
But who cares what those elitists think. They’re elitist. Not like us hard working, average men. That’s why you should listen to me, because I’m too smart for those elite elitey elite elitist elites. I’m seriously going to slit my wrists if I hear that term ever again uttered from the lips of another politician, standing on a labor union built stage, held together by the nuts and bolts of sweat of a hard day’s work, draped in the royal red robes of the Westminster lords, looking out onto the crashing waves of little Chinese crafted plastic American flags.
When Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a “snob” because he said he wanted to give everyone the chance to go to college, I really considered leaving planet Earth. It’s a bad thing now to appear to be smarter than your voters. They want a “local boy”, a guy they can “have a beer with”, not an “Ivy-leaguer”. This paranoia stems back to the old British parliament system where it was high society preaching to the lower class; democracy was a formality in those days, not a philosophy. But none the less this attitude of hostility to anyone who tries to get voted based on their experience and proposed plans has led to a parlour trick that anyone can do, vaguely resembling “cold reading”, where buzz words and terms like “middle class”, “lower taxes”, “family values”, “economy”, and of course “elitism” can be said with a great reception.
These politicians who have an opinion on economic programmes, foreign relation strategies, environmentalism research, rather than actual expertise in this fields are held up as just as good since surely how can uninformed voters pick the wrong guy, especially if I have a vested interest in seeing him succeed, much like how I have an emotional interest in seeing my favourite team win, or a sexual interest in buying someone another drink before we go back to her place (not mine, since I live with my parents).
But this has resulted in a horrible watering down of democracy. Of course you can vote for whoever you wish, but it’s who you think is good for the position that you always vote for, rather than the person with actual qualifications. We never hold these genius politicians to their word, nor question their motives and methods of how they will bring about these changes. Rick Santorum would like to bring back bans on openly gay soldiers in the military. That sure will help the number of troops already pretty low at the moment, which has a knock on effect on the number of troops who are recalled back into the frontline, meaning the odds of you getting shot and dying increases, meaning that more families will lose the sole bread winner and more kids grow up without a mommy or a daddy, which is funny considering Rick is also against single parents. That’s right Rick, gays actually help straight people. And Newt Gingrich wants to go to the fucking moon…. despite the fact the NASA programme was cut due to expenses, meaning either Newt is gonna have to raise taxes or actually come up with an idea that isn’t based on a black and white French silent film! And Mitt’s just there… doing his thing… something to do with Mormons or elves or something.
Again, intelligence in America is a bestowment given to those kindly, but on a grander scale of nepotism and cronyism in politics. The former director of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, Michael D. Brown, was a judge at a horse competition before he was given the position. A man with literally no experience in disaster relief management was appointed to one of the most important positions of the 2000’s. Why you may ask was this man given such power? Because he was a friend of Mr. George Walker Bush. I can only imagine some of you are holding your head in a painful mimic of the hang over that was the first eight years of the new millennium. “Heck of a job Brownie” will forever be etched into the memories of people standing on rooftops; people whose world was shaken through the actions of their ballots, confident that nothing going wrong is the equivalent of nothing happening at all, and anyone can do any old fancy government job, especially if they can kiss a baby and make promises. On a side note, did you know it’s near impossible to fire a governmental employee? You can be as lazy and as dim witted as anyone can be, as long as you fill out little files correctly, you’ve got a job for life! If a lazy employee wasn’t fired from a business, the whole thing would succumb eventually. What do you think is the reason things move so slowly in governmental bodies?
I wish I wasn’t going on longer on democracy (in case you haven’t noticed I try to keep topics under two paragraphs… seriously, check), but I still haven’t cracked the egg yet. The democracy of everything these days has created an alien culture of facts and figures being replaced by majority rule. American Idol doesn’t call for the most talented or most original person to win, but the favourite, the most crowd-pleasing, and yet they are championed as a pantheon of greatness, of the highest possible star of glory to be reached. But why? Why do people want to glorify the things they like. It’s actually a nice reason; it’s because we don’t like to think we’re bad. We as people don’t like to think that we’re harming society, that we’re slowing its development. We make choices, and we would like to believe they are beyond simply good, but that they are actually stupendously amazing and awe inspiring. We don’t like to be stupid, as charming of an idea that may seem, like how a child doesn’t like to feel guilty after they knocked over a plant or broke a vase. We like to believe that our office job, our little quiet neighborhood, our meditation in front of the television is a reflection of society and not our underachievement. We like to believe that we’re more than meets the eye, that there’s a fascinating, cultured, creative individual just as good as the likes of Martin Luther King, or Ronald Reagan, or Steve Jobs….. except without the whole getting shot thing, and the trickle-down theory stuff, and the tripping on acid while beating little Korean kids stuff. And intelligence is that. Even the people who seemed to defy the conventions and mannerisms of intelligence (Hunter Thompson’s drug-fuelled ramblings, Bill Hick’s nihilistic optimistic swears, and even Einstein was illiterate and apparently liked dirty jokes) were amazingly insightful and thoughtful. Standing on the shoulders of giants brings with it the desire to have someone standing on your shoulders. And that may come in the form of trendy bohemian hipsters, scripted facts and statistics, class warfare, or even self indulgent college courses on obscure topics that will offer no real job prospects.
Some may see what I’m talking about as simply the dumbing down of society, or the effects of an overly democratised culture, where there are no wrong answers because everyone has free speech and are entitled to their opinions, but really, as I’ve said in the beginning, it’s the misplacement of the endorsement and approval of intelligence in our society I’m concerned with. There is no work anymore, no great struggle or empathy for the people who drive our world. John Galt would be crying in a corner somewhere. The point of this article can be summed up in a quote by Isaac Asimov;
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.’”

Conor Matthews can be reached at: matthewsconor@hotmail.com, and at Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/conorelmo . He’s also the author of two other articles posted at DDA: Who framed Capitalism? and Should homosexuality be a choice?

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