Americans are fucking crazy.
Of course, that's a gross generalization. Not all Americans are fucking crazy. I don't consider myself one of the exceptions, though. I, like most of my countrymen*, am fucking crazy.
I think I would, however, place Sarah Vowell in the "not-fucking-crazy" category. I've been reading another book of hers, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, believing it to be the one in which she talks about Wounded Knee, but I'm over halfway through it and no mention yet, so I may be mistaken. Though rather less cohesive than Assassination Vacation--it just seems to be a random collection of essays, which is fine, but not what I was expecting--it makes a very good read. I am more convinced than ever that I would like to count Sarah Vowell among my friends, although I've yet to come up with a way to say that in a fan letter that doesn't make me sound like a potential stalker. There's a fine line, and for a crazy person like myself the line becomes even finer.
Vowell says, in a chapter on nerds that I will expand more upon later, "before I am a Democratic nerd, I am a civics nerd first and last." (Hmmmm, bit of redundancy with that "first and last" bit, but it happens to the best of us.) Elsewhere, in this book and in Assassination Vacation, she talks about the need to believe in something bigger than herself and, eschewing religion, she believes in America. Not the Democratic party, but America. This is what I like about her, she is reasonable about her beliefs. I respect reasonableness in people. When contemplating Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement on the Supreme Court, I don't necessarily hope for a liberal judge over a conservative one, or even a moderate, although that probably would be the best case scenario. I just want someone reasonable, someone who can look beyond their own beliefs and say, "Hey, maybe those differing opinions have some merit too."
It would seem that reasonableness and moderateness would be synonyms, but I don't think that is necessarily the case. Vowell is an unabashed liberal, but she seems to be reasonable. Then, of course, we must address the question of what exactly it means to be reasonable. The Romantics to which I hold my intellectual and philosophical allegiance would probably be quite annoyed with me for praising the virtue of reason, since they valued pure emotion. Likewise Enlightenment thinkers would probably sneer at my idea that to be reasonable is not to completely discount emotion. But I believe that true reason is a marriage of logic and rational thought and emotion, compassion, empathy;a yin yang that brings balance and harmony, in which both the brain and the heart play an equal part. It's no good to have one without the other, you become half a person, a talking head, a grotesque caricature. Too much emotion and you become Jonathan Edwards or Zell Miller, too much logic and you become Spock. Let's face it; Vulcans are fun to watch on TV, and we as the nerds/geeks we are probably find them as "fascinating" as Spock found humans, because it's something so foreign to us that we just can't wrap our brains around it. But to be honest, I think if most of us were going to spend time with Spock, or any other Vulcan for that matter, we'd want to punch them out after about fifteen minutes. Perhaps I'm wrong about this; I'm not much of an original Star Trek fan for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that, until I got cable, I didn't have easy access to them, but I've just never been able to get into the series. It annoys me. For one thing, on the bridge there's that constant pinging noise that just drives me up a wall (do you know what I'm talking about, or am I imagining things?), but mostly I find the characters just entirely unappealing. Kirk is a womanizer, McCoy is a crotchety old coot, and Spock is just fucking annoying. I just want to punch him and say, "Feel something, dammit, feel SOMETHING!" He just always seems so arrogant and smug: "Oh, you humans, we used to be just like you; it's adorable." It's so condescending, and one thing I absolutely can't stand is to be condescended to. (I'll hearken back to the discussion of Spock a little later on when I come back to the topic of nerds and discuss Al Gore.)
Contrast this with the character of Data. He, too, is driven almost solely by logic, of necessity; unlike Spock, who HAS emotions but supresses them (does anyone else suspect that the planet Vulcan is a huge ticking time bomb?), Data has no emotions to supress, or so we are told. But unlike Spock, who considers himself above emotions, Data longs for them. All he really wants is to be able to feel. So he respects emotions, studies them, tries to emulate them with mixed results. And so I, at least, find the character of Data much more endearing and engaging as a character. And as far as Data being emotionless, I don't buy it. Is not the want, the desire, to be human, an emotional response? Is not the concern for one's friends and even animals or complete strangers the emotion of caring, of unconditional love? Is not the need to create something, be it a painting or a poem or another life a reaction to a feeling of emptiness inside one, and if one's response to this emptiness was not emotional could one even be bothered to go to the trouble of doing something about it? If these elements were absent from Data, would he be as interesting a character? No. He'd be a toaster, a computer, a calculator. He'd be Hal...or maybe not; I'm actually not familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey. But my point is, regardless of whether or not Data is truely without emotions, he is an example of what I would consider true reason.
I have no illusions as to my own reasonableness. For me, reason is something to practice until I get it right, which may be never. I don't like people who aren't reasonable because they feed the beast in me. I like to compare myself to the Incredible Hulk, though as an English major and a neo-Romantic I should probably go with a more literary reference and say Jekyll and Hyde. But I like the Hulk analogy better, because (at least at first) Jekyll had to take that potion to transform (I forget what, if anything, triggered it when it started happening on its own). The Hulk, on the other hand, emerges when Bruce Banner loses his temper, and when I lose my temper I feel as though I'm becoming bigger and badder and turning colors (though perhaps not green) and I absolutely want to smash things. It's not a pretty sight; I don't think anyone reading this has seen it, and I hope you never will. I've worked long and hard to develop the discipline to keep myself under control and at least part of the reason why I decided I wanted to become a writer--and, ironically, the reason why I believe I may not be able to hack it as a professional writer, because anymore it gets to the point where I'm so frustrated I can hardly string two sentences together, that there's so much going on in my mind that I hardly know where to begin or where to go from there. Another reason why I like to compare myself to The Hulk is because, as a child, I was always kind of afraid of him (sort of a fascinated kind of fear), and I fear my own temper. I fear letting it out, I fear the monster I become when I let it take control.
So reason is something for which I have a great deal of respect. Another thing that I respect is intelligence. I like intelligent people. I like talking to them; I like listening to them. I like reading about them and reading books by them. I like watching them on TV. The people I consider my best friends, and perhaps my friends at all are intelligent people. I have very little patience with unintelligent people. I consider myself an intelligent person, and I'm not ashamed to say so. Perhaps that makes me seem arrogant, and I apologize if that is the case, but I won't apologize for what I am. This is not just my opinion; it has be attested to by numerous friends, teachers, and grade-school bullies: I am an intelligent person. I know that there are many people who are far more intelligent than me. Come to that, I am only intelligent in certain areas; I know where my strengths lie, and my weaknesses as well. I am a strong believer in the multiple intelligences theory. So when I talk about "intelligent" people, I don't just mean people who are "book-smart" or "intellectual". My dad, for example, is practically a genius in areas where I am a complete dunce, like mechanics and spatial reasoning; we're both very intelligent people even though we have almost no intellectual common ground. But I respect his intelligence, and I do enjoy being around him even though his grammar sometimes makes me cringe. And I really hope he knows that, because I imagine that for someone who once convinced his wife to write a sonnet for him to hand in as an English assignment, it might be kind of intimidating to have a child pursuing a Master's degree in English.
But I digress. The point is I respect intelligence, even in people I don't particularly like. Therefore I think it's a good idea to elect intelligent people as leaders. I agree with Jon Stewart when he bemoans the fact that people who run for office try to downplay their intelligence and try to appear to be a "common man". "Why do they want to be like us?" he asked in a C-SPAN interview. "We're fucking idiots!" And at another point he rhetorically asks the candidates, "Why do you want to be like me? Here's an idea: be better than me, be waaaaay better than me." And that's the way I feel. I want a president who's "better" than me, not financially, not socially, not in any racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted--and, therefore, fictional--way, but intellectually. I want a president who is as smart or smarter than me, or smarter than me in the ways that count, like understanding economics and having practical problem solving skills.
So the question, as I see it, is not "Why do they want to be like us?" The answer, obviously, is because it works. And that is the question: Why does it work? Why don't we, as a people, want people who are smart to lead us? Why do we instead vote on the basis of "likability" (which I don't understand because I find intelligence to be the most likable quality out there. But that's me).
My preliminary answer is, as I said in the first place, Americans are fucking crazy. But that answer's not very satisfactory. Sarah Vowell presents an interesting theory in The Partly Cloudy Patriot; she compares the political and social landscape to a high school setting in which the "nerds" are always in opposition to the "jocks". It's like we're all still stuck in high school, desperate to be considered "cool." And apparently, according to this mentality, being smart is not cool. In the book Vowell quotes a friend who says, "If you know something, you're not smart. You're a smarty-pants."
This came as a huge relevation to me, as someone whose entire life is driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge (and wisdom, which is perhaps the subject of another essay). I want, if not to know everything, then to know a little bit about everything. I celebrate that in myself; that thirst has made me who I am, and I like who I am. I embrace that now, and I embraced it all through my school days. And yes, when I was in grade school that, among other things, did cause me to get picked on, and yes that was difficult, but by the time I was in high school that was mainly over. In some respects, I was a few steps ahead of many, if not most, of my classmates, but by the time we got to high school they were pretty much caught up, and soon people who'd been making fun of me my whole life started treating me with respect. I think it all started my freshman year of high school. We held an annual talent/variety show, and that year I got up and did a humorous monologue written by my older brother, a parody of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart. Humorous monologues, unfortunately, were in short supply, as nearly everyone did musical acts. There were some other short skits, but they mainly involved more than one person. People thought the monologue was really funny. I remember one of my classmates telling me later that she and some of her friends didn't really know what to think at first, but eventually (and I suspect, cueing off the adults in the audience), saw the humor in it. Little did they know, I had been funny all this time and they just weren't getting it. I think they also admired me for, basically, getting up and making a fool of myself. What they didn't understand is that I wanted to do that. In addition to seeking knowledge, probably my second biggest drive is the drive to perform, to entertain. I have no idea why, but for some reason I derive a great deal of satisfaction in getting up in front of people and making them laugh, or possibly cry, or applaud. I don't know why, because I've never considered myself to be a "show-off" or a "class-clown", or anything like that. Although the thought occurs to me that that's what they may have thought I was doing all those years, being smart and not being afraid to show it. But I wasn't showing off, I was just being true to myself. So I think they found it both threatening and, once high school came around and they were trying to forge out their own identities, fascinating.
I don't say this now to brag, to say, "Look at how cool I was, being all self-realized and stuff." This was not a universal positive; in fact, it served to make me pretty lonely at times when I was growing up. It's an interesting conundrum: was I socially inept because I was largely not accepted by my peers, or did they not accept me because I was socially inept? I don't know, but all I know is that I was surrounded by gaggles of friends to which I did not belong, and I wanted to. I didn't necessarily want to be surrounded by any PARTICULAR gaggle, you understand, I just wanted to form my own gaggle, and I didn't know how to go about it. Oh, what a relief it was when I was in high school and finding a place to sit in the lunchroom no longer involved drama and intrigue and crazy teen-girl politics, but while it was nice to no longer be nearly universally loathed I wanted to start making friends but didn't have the first clue how to go about it. To this day I don't think I have a friend who didn't approach me first. If I was more mature than my classmates in some respects, I was years behind them socially, and that's not something I'm proud of.
But my point is, I'm completely mystified as to why we Americans don't respect intelligence, but the more I think about it, the more true it seems to be. And this is part of the reason why I think Bush has such a wide appeal in this country. Values are a big part of it, sure, but it's also that attitude, that "I'm rich and popular and I sit at the cool kids' table" sort of thing. Vowell talks a lot in The Partly Cloudy Patriot about Al Gore. She characterized Bush as a jock and Gore as a "big honking nerd". This came as a huge revelation. Al Gore is like me? Al Gore is one of us? Al Gore is a nerd? Actually, I consider myself a geek, not a nerd; my definition of a nerd is not just someone who is smart but someone who is smart in areas like science, math, and computers. Based on what Vowell says of Gore I think my definition of nerd fits him. But even though I don't consider myself a nerd I have tremendous respect for them because they are intelligent, and I certainly relate to them more than I relate to so-called jocks. Most people use the terms geek and nerd interchangeably, and even though I do not I think the nerdiest nerd usually has geekish tendencies and vice versa. And so, in reading about Gore and his prodigious knowledge, I feel a connection to him. And I feel sad. I had no idea. I had no IDEA he was so smart. I never had any particular feeling toward Gore before now, mainly because he is often characterized as someone just completely unlikable. So I didn't really have an opinion. I could take or leave him. I had no idea, and that's partially because no one bothered to try to show me any differently. But that's no excuse. The information is out there, Sarah Vowell found it, if I'd made a little effort I could have found it too, I could have found out that he was smart five years ago when it could have made a difference. Would it have made a difference to the election? Extremely doubtful. But it would have made a difference to me.
I didn't vote in the 2000 election, and I've regretted it ever since. I didn't vote because I didn't find in either candidate a reason to believe in them. Also because at that point I was still a left-leaning moderate, and I still cared about abortion and gun-control and felt that, whichever candidate I voted for, I would be voting for a man who, in some capacity, sanctioned the slaughter of innocent children. (I sometimes worry that, as I become more liberal, I also become more annoying, but looking back I was probably pretty annoying as a moderate as well. And when I look back on when I was a conservative, I annoy myself. So maybe I'm just annoying.) At that point I only had one gay brother that I knew of (that's how I put it too, that I knew of; at that point I had suspicions), and I naively believed that eventually people would realize that it's not very nice to keep people down as second-class citizens and that gay rights would just come about somehow, without a struggle. Of course this was after the murder of Matthew Shepard, but even though that hit me close to home, literally and figuratively, I had not yet, as Rulon Stacey said in The Laramie Project realized "the magnitude with which some people hate." And of course, at that point there was no war, and no indication that there would be a war; at least, not one that was publicly known. If there was any way that I could have known then what I know now, nothing would have prevented me from voting, even if it wouldn't have made a difference. And if I had made any sort of effort in finding out what I learned today about Gore, I would have been proud to vote for him, as proud as I was voting for Kerry. More so, because I don't find Kerry to be particularly geeky/nerdy, but Gore, as I now know, is one of us. He's one of my people.
I had intended to wrap up at this point, but as I was writing about Star Trek and Spock it occurred to me that my personal disdain for Spock may provide a clue to why the people of this nation prefer jocks to nerds, other than the fact that they're crazy. I don't like Spock because he comes across as arrogant, but, as Vowell points out in her book, that's the issue that people seem to have with Al Gore. They find his intelligence, and his unabashed demonstration of his intelligence, arrogant, and perhaps threatening. I find this extremely ironic because it's difficult to imagine someone more arrogant than Bush, assuming he can get away with the shit he pulls. What makes Bush all the more irritating is the same thing, I think, that makes Spock irritating; Spock, with his pure, emotionless logic, is very often right. I don't mean to say that Bush is right about his policies or his ideologies or his actions--good heavens, no--but he is right in that he can say they craziest fucking shit out there and people--not everybody, but enough--will go along with it. Just accept it. I don't understand it, and it frustrates me, that he has some knowledge that we don't know and he flaunts it. That being said, I can see why people may find Gore contemptible for the same reason that I find Spock so. In her book, Vowell quotes an article which says that part of the reason Bush decided to run for president was "to keep intellectual pretentiousness out of the White House."
Now, I do not like pretentiousness. I'll forgive it--somewhat--in a person who is generally intelligent, but it is one of the traits I find least attractive in a person. Yet this statement just gives me chills, because what Bush was reacting negatively to was, apparently, Gore discussing a French existentialist." Okay, I don't claim to entirely understand existentialism, and I find it somewhat frustrating, but the idea of having a president who does understand existentialism and can discuss it is appealing to me. I don't think we need to agree with every intellectual or philosophical theory out there, but I do think we should have some rudimentary understanding of as many of them as we can. That's what broadens and deepens our character, that's what sets us apart from the animals, and having a president who doesn't seek that knowledge, who doesn't find it valuable, who wants to keep it out of the power structure, who seemingly wants to snuff out that light of knowledge and learning and wisdom...well, that just makes me want to hurl the book against the wall in frustration, although I don't because I have the feeling that it will hurt Vowell in some cosmic way if I do, and she's just the messenger.
Come to think of it, I don't see why I'm so surprised at Bush's attitude; I've known for as long as I've known about No Child Left Behind that he values only the barest, most practical essentials of education.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make about Gore is, now that I know he's a nerd, I feel some tenderness, some empathy for him. Perhaps it's not that he's pretentious or arrogant but that he, like me, is socially inept. I was lucky in that I was somehow able to show my classmates a side of myself that helped them to understand me, so I was, if not a full participant in the social circle, at least allowed to observe and learn and start gaining acceptance. Since I'm not sure how that happened for me, I have no suggestions that could possibly help Gore. Vowell suggests that he could take a lesson from the character of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but as I'm not in this fandom I don't think I could explain it, but it had something to do with what she calls a "nerd voice". No, my oldest and most revered fandom is Star Trek, and particularly TNG, and to me, now, Gore is not Spock so much as Data, not good at showing emotion, not sure exactly how to fit in, and misunderstood and resented by a lot of people. Data nearly had his basic civil rights taken away from him, a situation to which many people and more populations in this country could relate, though not, perhaps, Gore. But he did, as many assert though I haven't entirely made up my mind yet, have the presidency wrongfully stolen from him. And, like Data, a lot of people fear and mistrust him, a fear and mistrust that is based largely upon misunderstanding and misinformation. And I think that's sad.
So what my point of all this? What conclusion to all these thoughts can I come to? It's clear to me that, if America is to survive, nerds** have to take over. The Nerd Revolution has begun already in the economic world; as we become more and more reliant on technology, it is the nerds who are getting the top-jobs, and with affluence comes influence. But we need a society in which nerds, in which intelligence, is respected. Since it is this high-school mentality that has so shaped us, we need to change that paradigm. I'm not saying that we need a so-called "Revenge of the Nerds," that we should have math bees instead of football games. But what I am saying is that we need to appreciate all areas in which people excel. We should celebrate the Knowledge Bowl's victories the same way we celebrate football victories, not say, "We have a Knowledge Bowl team?" Like the ancient Greeks, we should realize that, to be a whole person, one needs to have a strong mind and a strong body, and that none should be more stronger than the other. To that end, we need to revamp the educational system. Throw out No Child Left Behind; that's doomed to failure, but set up a system in which schools get the resources they need, especially the ones who most need it. But more than that, let teachers use the stuff we learn in teacher ed. We learn all these wonderful theories and then don't get to use them because we have to teach to the test. Keep the idea of content standards, that's good, but let there be some free form, some room for creativity, improvisation, what we call "the teachable moment." Let the lawmakers work with educational experts, educational theorists, and actual educators to develop a system that works, that benefits students, that takes into account the multiple intelligence theory. And for the sake of all that is good, base the proof of student learning on critical thinking, not standardized test scores. Anyone can fill in bubbles, anyone can remember stuff for the test and then promptly for get it, but that's not learning. And if we don't demand learning and demand critical thinking we'll end up with a bunch of people who haven't been stimulated into reaching their full intellectual potential.
Worse, we'll have a severe dearth of reason. Reason isn't something people are born with; it has to be cultivated. Reason is cultivated through critical thinking. The person who has never had to justify their beliefs because their beliefs have never been challenged will not become reasonable; the reasonable centers in their brains will atrophy from lack of use. We see this around us, all the time. Jon Stewart likes to point it out in the TV news media, in the twenty-four hour networks, in the so-called debate shows where people just shout their particular ideologies at each other. Those people are not reasonable. People who see the world bichromatically, whether it be Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative, Marxist-capitalist, male-female, or what have you, are not reasonable. People who cannot accept the possibility that it's possible to believe in God and believe in science are not reasonable (many of the scientists we revere or malign were God-fearing people; Darwin had a degree in divinity for crying out loud--yes, that Darwin).
I don't think that the Nerd Revolution is as flawed an idea as, say, the proletariat revolution. For one thing, I think it's already underway. The fact that myself and people like me can suddenly gain acceptance into a society which, up until that point, largely rejected us implies that there is a niche (great, I'm forced to used Darwinian terms) for us, that we are fit enough to survive (if I'm going to do it, I may as well do it all the way) and able to learn and adapt, perhaps not unscarred but without carrying that bitterness in our hearts, that dark desire for revenge against those who hurt us. I believe that reconciliation is possible. When I was in seventh grade there was a girl who, before and after gym class, would pick on me most nastily, for no reason that I could ascertain other than that I was there. I didn't counter her again until I was a senior in high school, and at that point she was no longer nasty to me and we were able to find some common ground and actually became friends. She had changed a lot over the years; she was mildly eccentric and was, in some respects, a nerd. This is not to say that I think we nerds should try to "convert" people into nerds, as the relentlessly unreasonable anti-gay crusaders believe gay people do, but to find common groun amongst the non-nerd. Because after all, what does it mean to be a nerd? The answer is, perhaps, different for everyone, and perhaps everyone has a little nerd inside them. Sarah Vowell points out that the mere devotion to sports doew not necessarily a "nerd" make, and indeed, perhaps the more fanatical of sports fans could be considered sports nerds. We need to share our nerdiness with others, and we need to believe that nerdiness is cool, because if we believe it it will be true. Sarah Vowell is, of course, a nerd, and has made a successful career of being a nerd--she even played a superhero, and nearly everyone--nerd or otherwise--likes superheroes. A lot of nerds turn a negative into a positive by becoming comics and thereby gain some respect (unfortunately, they sometimes lose the respect of the more elitist intellectuals). I think Jon Stewart is a nerd (and I think anyone who watches his C-SPAN interview will agree), and he's not only gained success but also a degree of legitimacy. He's gained the respect, grudging in some cases, of nerds, politicians, journalists, cultural theorists (there's going to be tons of papers out there on his Crossfire appearance in the coming months and years, I guarantee it), intellectuals, and regular schmoes.
So, I guess this wouldn't be a manifesto if it didn't end with some slogans, and even though I think slogans are the opiate of the masses, I say unto you, my fellow nerds and geeks, let's go out into the world and be proud of our nerdiness. And let's take to the streets and shout, "Be reasonable!"
I have a dream. Call me crazy.
* Of course, when I say "countrymen," I also include women. "Countrymen" just has this beautiful, dignified ring to it that I like. It just wouldn't sound good to say "countrypeople," and something like "my fellow citizens" just seems needlessly long and unwieldy. So report me to the Equal Representation in Language police; I don't care.
** From here on out ther term "nerds" will encompass both my definitions of "nerd" and "geek"