Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

Much of what we have written thus far on The Dissentators concerns our troubling public discourse -- one mangled and rotted from the inside, bereft of reason and, perhaps most troubling, our inability to summon synthesis from the warring factions. Many factors, of course, feed these pernicious roots -- the partisian politics of Washington, the Manaechian world view of our administration, the talking heads of 24 hour news networks -- and we who write for free on the internet are not without blame. There is a theme to much of the hot air hanging over our debates, and that was pointed out in a recent article on the Huffington Post that examines what its author calls, SPIRD or Smartest Person in the Room Disorder:

"SPIRD symptoms include, but are not limited to: thinking you should know all the answers, thinking you have all the answers, bulging forehead blood vessels, shouting down the opposition and an impulsive need to demonize or ruin your adversary."

I will be the first to admit that I have suffered lapses of this not so rare condition. Sometimes, I get riled up (Johnny Mac knows all about this) and don't have all the fact on hand, so, flailing desperately to prove my point (which I truly do believe in and want to convince someone else of) I may make a broad generalization or snobily delve into the swirling eddy that is my memory of our college core curriculum. This does not mean that if you allude to Hume's position on utilitarianism or some other big name, that you are just posturing. Many people really do remember that stuff. I just want to get this out of the way so as to avoid any overarching hypocrisy to this post.

As I have been out of America for a few months now, I am able to dodge much of the SPIRD bombardment that I would get back home. I don't have television, or more precisely I do, but it's three fuzzy channels, one of which plays Cricket nonstop (speaking of bullshit). So, the easiest things to watch over the internet are old Charlie Rose shows and Real Time with Bill Maher, once someone has kindly uploaded it onto YouTube over the weekend. What I've noticed is that not only have we really begun to rely on celebrities for their opinions on serious issues (i.e. Tom Cruise's expertise with the History of Psychology, which HE'S READ!) but that most of the talking heads are more personality than substance. What I'm getting at is the lack of rhetorical whimsy from learned men of letters who once populated American televisions.

What happened to them? They're either gone or close too it, and those Baby Boomers didn't supply us with much in the way of replacements.

George Plimpton: Founder of the Paris Review, who wrote with equally loving prose about Dick Butkiss and Muhamid Ali as well as world figures. Now, he's gone. So it goes.

Gone too are the days when pre-election coverage had relatively high minded debate, between such figures as Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, as they had in 1968. Hell, even such scornful figures like Joseph McCarthy quoted poetry throughout his witch hunt; take that for what you will, but at least it reveals an interest and respect for finely crafted language. I don't mean to say that all of it was great back then(certainly 1968 is a year more famous for its tragedies and turmoil than for its rhetoric), as Kurt Vonnegut said, "There weren't good old days. There were just days." But at least these eruidite public figures, as full of snobbery and pomp as anyone, had a shot at being the smartest person in the room.

This is not to say that there aren't a few public intellectuals out there, but their presense is so mired in controversy or silenced by the dismissing and loud mouthed men and women who share the screen that their status is dimished and their rhetoric dimsissed as snobbery -- intellectuals such as the much maligned Christopher Hitchens or Tony Kushner. And from our political figures we find no source of linguistic redemption. Even someone like John Kerry, who in 1971 gave a unabashedly eloquent speech in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had over the course of 33 years lost even a hint of his prior flair for oratory. And I don't need to get into examples when it comes to presidential oration.

I cannot say for sure whether anything would be different today if the airwaves were once again populated with public intellectuals, but at the very least we wouldn't have to suffer the societal symptoms that spread from contemporary SPIRD. I do believe that there was an era when eriudition and intellectualism were sought after ideals -- when Charles Van Doren graced the cover of Time Magazine and we rooted for a team of scientists and brave pilots to race to the moon. We could have it again, and I hope that our politics have not breeched the event horizon of cynicism, so that our hopes for a truly collective effort (possibly our global environmentalist cause), founded on reason and pushed forward by rhetoric, may be made manifest.

Maybe I should just let them speak for themselves. Here is a clip from Buckley's old show, Firing Line, when he debates a young Noam Chomsky.

1 comment:

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