Thursday, February 18, 2016

Another good essay--American Intellectualism (or not)

I've often laughed (with tears in my eyes) at what this country (and this world) calls "smart."  Over my lifetime, I've learned that being "smart" and having wisdom are two far different things.  Wisdom on this planet is so rare, we catch only a fleeting glimpse of it in every generation.  And it almost never comes from our "leaders." More often it is in our literature, our poetry (such as Shakespeare).  In fact, we can usually count on our politicians to be the dumbest of the dumb, even when they are referred to and sold to us as "intellectuals."  One could laugh hysterically at what has been presented to us on the national stage, framed as "intellectual" or even "intelligent." (You only need to look at Dubya Bush for proof of how low our standard is for "intelligent."  See my next email for a reminder.) The following essay names a few of those phonies--we could all add to the list, I'm sure.

In our present crazy round of today's political circus, the only candidate that even comes close to wisdom is Bernie Sanders. 

American Intellectualism: The Smartest Sons of Bitches We're Told We Have
by Jaime O'Neill | February 18, 2016 - 10:10am

Since he died, I've been hearing a lot of commentary, even from liberal pundits, about what a great legal mind Antonin Scalia was, what a towering intellectual he had been.
We get this quite often. Nixon, we were told, was a genius, a fact that came as something of a surprise to me, and not just because I found his political views benighted and often ugly. I'd heard the man's speeches since I was a child, seen his press conferences, witnessed his small-mindedness, his petulance, his wounded defensiveness whenever he was criticized, and seldom in any of that did I see any hint of great intelligence, let alone genius. He was repackaged and sold as a great statesman, mostly based on his policy that opened up our relations with China. That may have been a seminal accomplishment, but it did little to make me forget all the petty, nasty, racist, and anti-Semitic things he said on those White House tapes, nor did it erase the impression created by the self-serving books he wrote once he was out of office and was trying to restore his historical reputation and tidy up the ugliness of a career launched on McCarthyite red-baiting.
In the U.S. of A., intelligence has always been measured by money, by success in the public sphere, by fame and fortune. When I was a kid, sitting alongside my dad on a stool in one of the working men's bars where the blue collar workers went to share a beer and one another's company, I often heard them say, "if you're so damned smart, why ain't you rich?"
After Nixon left office, Gerald Ford pardoned him in a cynical political move that many people tried to sell, at the time and ever since, as a brilliant act, one that spared the country a protracted ordeal, and put an end to our "long national nightmare." The Nixon pardon was a very astute political judgment by a man whose intelligence and acumen were overshadowed by his penchant for falling down, a guy who some observers said had "played football too long without a helmet."
I have even read commentary trying to convince people that George W. Bush was a thinker, albeit well disguised as a doofus.
But the bullshit about Scalia's intellectual status just about tears it. There are any number of things I could cite--thoughts he uttered or wrote—that could have been thunk by damn near any neanderthalish nimrod whose education had ended at the second grade. But I'd just as soon make my legal case on the matter of Scalia's spurious intellectualism by citing his status as an "originalist," the silly-ass notion that the Constitution was set in stone, was meant to be read as if it were immutable. It would seem to me that an "intellectual" might be able to spot a small contradiction in stating such a view, especially in light of the fact that not only did the founders make a provision for amendments (which would seem to be a recognition that they didn't feel their work was complete for all times and circumstances) but they also started amending the document almost before the ink was dry.
Now it's possible that I'm just not smart enough myself to understand how the real intellectuals do their thinking, but it would seem to me that the meaning of words like "amendments" and "well-regulated militia" and "due process" might be a little less abstruse and puzzling than guys like Scalia seem to think they are. I know, of course, that there's no end of ways ideas can be spun, obfuscated, clouded, jangled, adulterated, or fiddled with, but taking something plain and making it fuzzy, or taking something transparent and rendering it opaque can only be called genius by people in the legal profession, whose job it is to make truth harder to see. Oh sure, sociologists do that, too, what with all the jargon they invent to enlarge simple ideas into puffed up gobbledygook designed to make common sense notions look more profound. But when it comes to bending the obvious into the obscure or the wrongheaded, lawyers are the go-to guys, the "intellectuals" who can think a hole into an ironclad concept. Shakespeare surely had a point when he had a character in one of his plays say "first, we kill all the lawyers."
It ain't just lawyers, however, who have gained the reputation for clouding issues, misunderstanding simple things, and getting credit for being smart on the basis of their capacity for shoring up dumb ideas with bafflegab and bullshit. Take, for instance, the former Republican presidential candidate and right wing bomb thrower, Newt Gingrich, a man often touted as the Republican's leading "intellectual," and "man of ideas." As was the case with Scalia, the media (right, left, and "lamestream") constantly reminded us how smart this guy was, what a deep thinker, a modern day philosopher-king. Once Newtie began to fade from the scene, dimming the intellectual glow of the nation as he withdrew, we got Paul Ryan, another in the line of Ayn Rand "intellectuals," a guy we were told was some kind of wonky genius, a brilliant man, though examples of his brilliant insights were exceedingly hard to track down, as they had been in the case of Gingrich, or Nixon, for that matter. Paul Ryan was a smartie because so many TV anchormen and pundits said he was. Because they said it often, it became part of the shared and accepted orthodoxy, a kind of freeze-dried folklore. It was, however, never explained how anyone could maintain intellectual credibility while clinging to a "philosophy" most sentient human beings outgrew by the time they got their first real job, a set of very simple-minded ideas espousing little more than personal selfishness as a guiding principle for becoming a great person. If you live in a country where twits like Newtie and Paul Ryan can be passed off as substantive thinkers and even "intellectuals," that just might be a sign you're living in a dumbed-down nation, one in which the electorate can be told that people are intellectuals even though they've seldom if ever expressed a halfway complex idea in a complete and grammatical sentence.
Oh, and lest we forget, no compendium of stupidity masquerading as intellectualism would be complete without mention of Alan Greenspan, that other follower of Ayn Rand, who happily lent his capacious mind to tanking the economy. He was, of course, another of those guys whose genius we heard about so often.
There are others, too, a long list, perhaps, but my memory isn't what it used to be, and I ain't getting any smarter myself, living in a cultural environment where being smart isn't much encouraged or sustained. The Atlantic, for instance, once a stable of mainstream intellectual discourse, is now being edited by David Frum, one of the neo-cons who worked for and admired George W. Bush. Frum ain't dumb, perhaps, but The Atlantic has seemed less intellectually substantive since he took over the editorial reins there, an "intellectual" who had so recently offered his mind in service to the expansive intellect of "the Decider," that disgraced POTUS who helped bring the world economy to the edge of a very deep precipice, and who invaded Iraq with enduringly disastrous results, in search of weapons that weren't there, and in retaliation for an offense that country hadn't committed.
Beyond politics, I would add Kanye West to the roster of idiots we're told are geniuses. In the case of Kanye, we're instructed to think of him as an a "artist," a very talented and gifted musical innovator, a cultural force to be reckoned with. Despite his self-proclaimed status as a genius, however, Kanye thinks Africa is a "country," as he said in one of his increasingly stupid "tweets." Tweeting, incidentally, may be the proof, if further proof is needed, of the collapse of thinking as an activity we engage in much, anymore. The word "tweet" is well chosen for a nation of bird brains who chirp out ideas so thin they can be completely expressed and explored in just a few strokes on a keyboard.
So, it's not just lawyers, lawmakers, and Antonin Scalia, et. al., who help set the bar for thinking so low. As a species, abstract thought is not our strong suit. When, a couple thousand years ago, a guy came up with the idea that we should love each other and practice peace, that idea seemed so "deep," seemed like such an astounding revelation, that we could only conclude that the guy who thought it up must be the son of God. A smarter species might have considered this love and peace idea something of a no-brainer. Our species, however, didn't. Oh, and incidentally, after not much thought, we decided we'd better make haste to kill that son of a bitch who thought it and was spreading such dangerous nonsense.
That was then, 2000 years ago, and we're still mired in disputes those ratty-ass people in and around Jerusalem were having back then. We're still killing one another as fast as we can, whenever and wherever we can't figure out anything better to do. And here at home, in what was once seen as the last best hope of mankind, we live in an Orwellian country now, a place where money has been defined as speech, corporations are defined as people, and guys like Antonin Scalia are said to be intellectuals because they can equivocate endlessly over ideas that are idiotic on their face.