Cool to be dumb

October 25, 2010

I had an odd little flashback today. As a guest in a training class where the icebreaker was to share a fun fact about yourself, I mentioned that I had been in the National Spelling Bee in
197[CENSORED] and got to meet the First Lady at the time. About a year ago,  I shared that same fact as a comment on John McIntyre’s delicious blog, You Don’t Say (http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/, and if you don’t peek in on that blog regularly, you should), and was obliquely ridiculed by another commenter, who seemed to feel that memorizing arbitrary lists of useless words was a waste of time for a preadolescent.

One thing that the National Spelling Bee does today which it did not in my day is televise nationally, usually on ESPN. Anyone with basic cable, therefore, can witness the contestants querying the judges about word origins, parts of speech, and usage. If you’ve ever watched this event, on TV or in person, you know that the children, ferociously competitive without exception, do this extensively. I can affirm from experience that many years from now, these techniques help not only communication skills but analytical skills in general, specifically left-brain skills. Moreover, I can also affirm from experience that the words themselves are far from useless. Words such as stochastic, risible, supercilious and internecine occur and have recently occurred in my work life and Internet reading. Heck, even Frank Costanza referred to Elaine once as supercilious. (http://www.seinology.com/scripts/script-90.shtml) So why does the commenter on McIntyre’s blog think this is a waste of time?

Assuming that commenter is American, he is a symptom of a peculiar and, I hope, momentary trend in American societal development. Some time in the recent past, perhaps in the past sixteen years, Americans seem to have lost respect for being smart. Put another way, it’s really obvious we’re more dumbed down than ever.

This Sunday’s Washington Post carried an article and, in the print edition, a catchy pop quiz entitled, “The tea party warns of a New Elite. They’re right.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/22/AR2010102202873.html) The New Elite is deliberately anti-intellectual. They’ve lost curiosity toward many subjects. They ridicule true intellectuals as if “elite” were something to be avoided. An Ivy League degree is something to be scorned; Christine O’Donnell is proud of not having gone to Yale, and her supporters are proud of her for not having gone to Yale. (My guess is, so is Yale.)  Newt Gingrich used the term “elite” a lot in 1994 to deride those opposite him on the political spectrum. (He, having a Ph.D in history himself, is a clearcut case of the pot calling the kettle rusted. But I digress.) This is well-documented: http://thinkprogress.org/2007/04/22/gingrich-liberalism-vatech/; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/int_newtgingrich.html, especially risible because of his use of the oxymoron “elite mainstream;” see also http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-11-12/news/1994316001_1_newt-gingrich-washington-elite-programs We can hardly swing an Internet cat without hitting some frothy-mouthed anonymous bloviator grousing that the President or some other commentator is an elite. He’s too intellectual. They want a President who’s ‘a regular guy! Someone they can have a beer with! Here’s a terrific example of just that from a comment today, reproduced verbatim, to an opinion column written by Yale grad Anne Applebaum:

We have had it with all of you ignorant elites, get out of our way already! All we have to do is cut and past from Wikipedia and we can all see what the delusional fantasists from Yale still are on the WaPo’s payroll to brainwash into us their sense of inbred superiority based on hedonistic, secular, and Satanic wicked and sinful blindness:
Her parents are Harvey M. Applebaum, a Covington and Burling partner, and Elizabeth Applebaum of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She graduated from the Sidwell Friends School (1982). She earned a B.A. (summa cum laude) at Yale University (1986), where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. As a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics she earned a master’s degree in international relations (1987).[4] She studied at St Antony’s College, Oxford before moving to Warsaw, Poland in 1988 as a correspondent for The Economist

My word. I had no idea being smart and well-educated was a detriment.

Look, I don’t want someone in the White House who’s a regular guy, or gal. I want and need someone who’s way smarter than I am. Someone who’s dumber than I can get us all killed. (I’m looking right atcha, Dubya.)

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Shut Your Everloving Piehole rant without a jab at the radical right. Their collective lack of intellectual curiosity is summed up in that bumper sticker you’ve no doubt seen on the road: “God Said It/I Believe It/That Ends It.” OK, I get it: Some people believe the Old Testament + New Testament = the complete, inerrant word of the Almighty, and no other faith’s holy books need apply. Go ahead and believe that G-d created the heavens and earth. …Don’t you want to know how? Don’t you even care? (I’m still looking at you, George.)

Now, I know that bumper sticker’s been around a long time. And there will always be a few folks who sincerely believe it. But it’s dangerous to put such people in charge of determining our children’s science curricula (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/31/national/31religion.html and many others) and textbook content (http://tfninsider.org/2008/10/15/creationists-launch-first-strike-against-evolution-in-texas-science-standards/) at a time when those children will grow up to compete with kids in other countries who received a much more solid science and math education. We need teachers and parents who cherish and honor intellectual curiosity, more than ever. We need people who are not willing to be intellectually lazy. We need elites.

Elite. Teach your children it’s not a dirty word.

…but at the same time, I would be unwise to put on my car, lest it be vandalized by rightwingnuts.

The Washington Post ran this article a couple of weeks ago:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041302365.html

(If the above link doesn’t work, try this one:
http://cbs3.com/topstories/Mike.Huckabee.gays.2.1630642.html)

Now, I’m sure Mike Huckabee believes everything he said. And he certainly has the right to say what’s on his mind. But in this event, he manages to piss off a variety of groups whose vote he could certainly use. He must not really want to be President. Or, at least he hasn’t yet learned that you can attract a whole lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Many people have deconstructed what he had to say. But I can’t resist throwing in my opinion.

  • “Marriage has historically never meant anything other than a man and a woman. It has never meant two men,…” Gee, for an ordained minister, Huckabee sure doesn’t know his Bible very well. “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” (1Kings 11:2-4, all quotes NIV) I am not even gonna get into the Mormons here. Nor current-day Arab royalty. There are plenty of counterexamples to Huckabee’s claim, and he no doubt knows it.
  • “I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle….” And yet, there it is in, yup, you guessed it, the Good Book itself: “After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. (1Sam 18:1)…I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2Sam 1:26)”
  • “That would be like saying, well there’s there are a lot of people who like to use drugs so let’s go ahead and accommodate those who want to use drugs.  There are people who believe in polygamy, should we accommodate them?” he said, according to a transcript of the interview.” On the first point, the official LP view point is basically, yes, let’s. Using drugs (presumably illegal drugs, not the okay ones like tobacco and alcohol) should be an individual choice, as long as no one else is harmed in the process. On the third point, there are people who do “believe in” polygamy, all over this world. See the first paragraph.
  • “There are some people who believe in incest, so we should accommodate them….[Marriage has never meant] a man and his pet, or a man and a whole herd of pets.”These arguments are such huge red herrings, you could cater a whole bar mitzvah with them. The reason you can’t marry your dog, or your preteen daughter or whatever, is that there is a lack of consent involved. Two people—any two people—who consent to the sacraments of marriage should be able to do so. (This, by the way, is also why NAMBLA doesn’t get a pass—boys by definition in our society cannot give consent. Even my gay male friends think NAMBLA is creepy.)
  • He also advocated isolating AIDS patients from the general public, saying it was necessary to confine “carriers of this plague.” Apparently Huckabee hasn’t kept up with the news. It is true that throughout the lifespan of the epidemic, the plurality of those infected with HIV have been men who contracted the virus through sex with another man. However, if Maryland is any representative, the largest group now is intravenous drug users:
    (http://dhmh.state.md.us/AIDS/Data&Statistics/NewMDQtrEpi.pdf ) and has been for some time now. When I worked at HERO, eleven years ago, about 80% of its clients had gotten the virus from shooting up. Sadly, one big reason gay men aren’t the largest group of carriers any more is that most of them died before effective treatments were developed.

    As you’ll note from the graph in the PDF document referenced above, drug shooters and good old heteros now far surpass gay men as “carriers of this plague.” If we were to actually do what Huckabee suggests and quarantine carriers of HIV, look whom we’d be quarantining (from http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/basic.htm#hivest, about the only time you’ll catch me quoting the government on something):

Transmission Category Estimated # of AIDS Cases, Through 2007*
Adult
and Adolescent Male
Adult
and Adolescent Female
Total
Male-to-male
sexual contact
487,695 487,695
Injection drug use 175,704 80,155 255,859
Male-to-male
sexual contact and injection drug use
71,242 71,242
High-risk heterosexual contact** 63,927 112,230 176,157
Other*** 12,108 6,158 18,266

That’s over a million people, folks. Where, exactly, does he propose quarantining them to?

So in just a few well-placed sound bites, Huckabee manages to piss off a lot of gays, many of whom are Republican; nearly a million HIV-positive voters; as well as a lot of us gay-friendly types who just want to see our friends/parents/siblings/children/coworkers treated fairly. Oh, well—guess he’s not interested in our votes. And without the votes of open-minded, fair, tolerant adults, he’s got no chance to be President.