I was looking out the window at the melting snow on Prospect Street the other afternoon, dreaming of palm fronds rustling in a spice-scented wind, when my wife, who was doing the laundry, started to scream from the basement. I ran downstairs into a cold rain coming down from a twenty-foot pipe, soaking everything in sight. One of those good days.
We got the buckets and basins in place, turned off the water, then called the plumber. The man I got on the phone, recommended by Angie’s List, immediately struck me as the right man for the job. He was a yoga instructor, he said, though he’d spent most of his life as a pastry chef. Plumbing? Good God, no, he was proud to say he hated plumbing almost as much as he hated plumbers. Couldn’t tell an elbow joint from his kneecap, but if I showed him where the leak was, he’d bring his axe and see what he could do.
“I have a good feeling about this guy,” I said to Leslie after I hung up. “There’s something about him I know I can trust.”
I used the hour before the plumber came to call Phil Jackson, the manager of the New York Knicks: I’d heard that Carmello Anthony, the Knicks star, had blown out a knee, and since it had been a few years since I’d given up tenure at the University of Chicago, I wanted to him to know I was available.
Phil could barely contain his excitement. The organization had been looking for a five-foot, eleven-inch, 58-year-old white man who couldn’t make a lay up for love or money and who thought the triangle offense meant assault with a dinner bell. It implied authenticity. How did I feel about 9.6 mil for a three-year contract?
It was a start, I said - he should talk to my agent.
You don’t need to have read Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to know that Americans’ relationship to knowledge is complicated; all you need is a working set of ears and a pulse. Still, even those of us accustomed to being entertained by leaders who can’t speak the one language they’ve been given, whose attempts at an English sentence make them sound like extra-terrestrials sent to Earth before they’ve completed their training, have to stand back and marvel at the spectacle that unfolds once every four years for our benefit. This is the Olympics of Ignorance, and the competition is stiff.
But even though it’s fun I’m less interested in re-hashing our leaders’ ignorance (trees pollute, “Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease,” climate change is not a problem because “America is not a planet,” etc.) or even our own (in 2014, one out of four adult Americans thought the sun revolved around the earth), than I am in trying to figure out when, exactly, ignorance became a job qualification.
If you think about it, there’s something almost inspired about this back-assward-ness: To gain the highest political office in the land, our wannabe leader has to demonstrate he’s not a politician; to earn his four years in Washington, he has to convince us he hates Washington; to be hired for what is arguably the most stress-filled, blindingly complex job in the world, he has to somehow communicate to us (preferably by delivering up a string of garbled inanities that would shame any sixth-grader capable of shame), that he’s just your average, run-of-the-mill, “Duck Dynasty” ignoramus, which, of course, means we can trust him.
How did we come to equate ignorance with integrity? When, exactly, did presidential candidates figure out that in order to win our faith (and our vote), they had to prove they were no smarter than we were: “Heck, I didn’t know who the President of Turkey was neither!”
To be fair, this is largely if not exclusively a phenomenon of the political right. Thumb through your collection of Greatest Hits of Heartbreaking Stupidity (the “I-Can’t-Believe-I-Just-Heard-That” variety), and you’ll find that 90% of them come from the right. Sorry, folks, but so it is. Listening to the Republican debates this year, then shifting to the Dems, is like leaving the nasty kids’ table and joining the grown-ups in the dining room.
Which is not to say that liberals can’t be irritating, sanctimonious, close-minded, dishonest, spoiled or flat-out wrong – trust me, they can – just that they’re generally not going to think there’s something suspicious about you if you happen to know that Egypt’s in Africa. There’s a reason, after all, why virtually every town in America with a college or university skews left, why the deep blue centers of American liberalism (from Cambridge to Madison to Berkeley), are also the places with the highest levels of education. The conclusion is obvious: the more you know, the more likely you are to vote Democrat.
Flip this on its head, though, and you have the grotesque spectacle of a major American political party (one with deep historical and intellectual roots), so antagonistic to knowledge that its popularity is proportional to how little education the citizens have.
Who’s responsible for this mess? Well, it’s complicated. Partly it’s history: Americans (and others), have long equated plain-speaking with honesty and courage and fancy talk with trickiness and cowardice. Partly it’s the work of some in the Christian, faith-based community who see exposure to argument as a threat to ‘traditional values.’ And partly it’s the work of propagandists like Rush Limbaugh, who portray universities as liberal indoctrination mills, as if students were zombies incapable of forming their own opinions.
The counter-argument to all this (that trustworthiness doesn’t decline with knowledge, that the Church has a long tradition of debate, that a conservative zealot like Ted Cruz emerged unscathed from Princeton and Harvard), shouldn’t be hard to make, but it is. Old misconceptions die hard, - probably because certain parties have a stake in keeping them alive. Bluntly put, keeping a certain percentage of the American electorate ignorant is good business for folks like the Koch brothers (the largest carbon producers in America today), or, for that matter, Rush and the boys, whose ‘brand’ depends on keeping us foaming over the latest PC non-issue while their benefactors are robbing us blind in the name of ‘free’ enterprise.
It’s not complicated: The less we know, the easier it is to lie to us. If you want to get away with murder, you don’t want detectives who can see through your rolled-up sleeves and your just-us-folks bullshit. What you want is to be able to keep them distracted, or confused, or laughing as long as possible. You want to align yourself with them, convince them you’re on the same side, fighting against those tricky elitists with their tricky ‘facts.’
All of which may explain why Ted Cruz hasn’t been wearing his Harvard Law sweatshirt much of late, or why W. went out of his way to assure us that he'd slept through Yale. For either one to admit that he used that extraordinary opportunity to actually learn something would suggest he was deficient in character. It’s a lesson Obama ignored at his peril.
The simple truth is, you can come out of your four years at Princeton (or any other institution of higher learning) pretty much the same jerk you were when you went in, as Ted Cruz has amply demonstrated. Harvard may make you a better person, or it may cement you in your insufferability. Though an education, ideally, should be about forming your character (primarily by forcing you to consider different points of view so you can come to a truer understanding of the world you inhabit), more often it simply provides an opportunity to learn about something you didn’t know before - primate social organization or Josef Stalin, Kafka or the Koran - which won’t necessarily make you a better person.
What it will do, with luck, is give you a bit more information from which to form your opinions, or at least the sense to understand that there’s more out there than you know, and that it’s your business to try to find it and consider it.
Which could be tricky – how do you control that?
H. L. Mencken, one of our most brilliant and necessary social critics (as well as a human being with flaws and biases), once memorably observed that “nobody ever lost money betting against the stupidity of the American people.”
Guess we’ll see.