A colleague of mine recently called my attention to an article that basically criticized American society for “dumbing” itself down. The primary example given was that in the audience for a movie, the crowd did not get references made to turn-of-the-last-century literary characters or historical subjects. The belief of this writer was that people are so out-of-tune with literature and history because they have been “dumbed down.” Part of the blame in this was aimed at the movie industry which has been accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator many times. But, the truth is that it is far deeper than that and the movie industry – and society as a whole - is not necessarily solely to blame. There are a lot of factors that have gone into this. Also, we need to be careful not to widen the rift between the two sides and make it virtually impossible to do anything about it.
The “dumbing down” of America is not a new thing. I remember when I was in High School – back in what now feels like the Dark Ages – my American History teacher criticizing the student body for its anti-intellectualism. At my high school, and I’m sure at countless other across the country, it seemed like the kids who were smart and had a variety of interests were marginalized by the other students in favor of those that were cool and stylish, but not exactly smart. There seemed to be a gap between the two sets that widened every year. Welcome to the world of high school where class struggles played out like a John Hughes movie. Of course I would venture to guess that the kids of today have no idea who John Hughes even is.
I personally felt this pull on numerous occasions. I saw myself as a member of the first group. Even then I was into writing and literature and I have always been a big history buff. But at the same time, I was also involved in sports. I played baseball, basketball, and football. As a result, I was also thrust into the world of the prototypical jock. It was in this world where the dichotomy between the two really became apparent to me. I often found myself being pulled between two equally strong forces – those of being a member of the team and those of being a member of the intellectual class. Sometimes it created more than a few strange looks. I remember the time when I was stared at for reading Hemingway on the bus to one of our baseball games. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Major League” where Tom Berenger’s character felt he needed to read the classics, so he reads a “Moby Dick” comic book.
I bring this up not to reinforce stereotypes of dumb jocks or snooty intellectuals but rather to provide an historical perspective on this particular issue. Anti-intellectualism has been around for awhile – it is not a new thing. Also, it is not my desire to further widen the chasm between the poles. I simply wish to explain and hopefully provide a common bridge between the two. As a person who has been there and experienced both sides, I know the tension that exists.
In an effort to organize my oftentimes chaotic thoughts, I want to discuss anti-intellectualism in three different areas: pop-culture, politics, and the work world. Hopefully, by examining each of these areas, we can bring a little harmony and understanding in that particular area. (If not, we can at least have a little fun at some people’s expense in the process!) So, without further adieu…
ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND POP CULTURE
To some, pop culture is the enemy of intellectualism. It is candy for the brain, providing a quick burst of non-nutritious sugar before quickly burning itself out only to leave the consumer needing another hit to avoid mental withdrawal. The abundance of reality TV shows is probably the best example of this that we have. At any given time, you can turn on the TV and see someone either trying to win money by eating something never intended for human consumption (or animal consumption for that matter, I mean, do you really think cow rectums are a delicacy in any species?) or trying to make themselves seem less desperate than they really are in order to have complete strangers select a mate for them. Welcome to the world in which we live. On the intellectual food chain, this programming is basically akin to the microwaveable burrito. Even so, it is often better to eat a microwaveable burrito than to starve.
There is, after all, historical precedent for low-brow entertainment. Most often this occurs in the form of humor. Today, you often hear people criticize movies as being juvenile or stupid. These same people deride the movie industry for producing such tripe and the American moviegoer for watching it. I have no problem placing myself on the side of those who prefer good old fashioned witty banter to poor, scatological humor any day, but, there is value in low-brow humor – well, at least in some low-brow humor. Today, the limits are being pushed farther and farther to the point where eventually these limits will cease to exist. I am not looking forward to that day. However, those that use the old standby that “they just don’t make them like they used to” need to be aware of the historical precedent that they are citing.
This precedent goes back a lot farther than most people know. I’m pretty sure that when they excavated the Pompeian ruins, they discovered the remains of what appeared to be an ancient whoopee cushion - proof that even the ancient people practiced low-brow humor. Of course this toy was made of stone, didn’t make much noise, and was a pain in the butt to use…literally. But the point is that even the great civilizations of the past often stooped to less than intelligent means to find humor.
Even the esteemed and upper-crusty British have dabbled in humor most low. Most people would agree that William Shakespeare is probably the greatest writer the world has known. Ok, so maybe he didn’t write everything that is attributed to him. Maybe he did. Either way, no one denies the greatness of the things he is credited for writing. It is important to remember though that most of his plays were written to entertain the groundlings of his theater, those of poor upbringing and education. He wrote for the consumption of the masses. It’s just that with the old Elizabethan English, it sounds a lot smarter. Heck, anything sounds smarter with a British accent. So of course, Shakespeare sounds intelligent. Try reading “The Taming of the Shrew” with a thick Southern drawl or better yet, while impersonating Cartman from “South Park.” It sounds very different. That is what made Shakespeare so great, he wrote easy to understand humor, for mass consumption, in the language of the aristocratic class. The end result was that everyone got it. Everyone that is except for the high school students of today who try to read it while watching MTV in the background. But that’s high school and that’s a whole other scenario.
Think about it, in most of Shakespeare’s comedies the humor is provided by the character of Falstaff who exemplified the commoner of the time. His shtick was to observe the aristocratic from the perspective of the everyday person and give them a good mocking. And in truth, they deserved a good mocking. But it was a low-brow shot at the unabashedly high-brow. Of course today, this would be accomplished by someone dressed like a common person smartly kicking a fancy dressed person in the royal crotch or maybe an ill-timed escape of aristocratic flatulence - same message, different pulpit. You get the picture.
For years, the Irish have been praised for their humor and wit. Probably the most revered of these wits was Oscar Wilde. Mr. Wilde made his living volleying low-brow mockery at the upper crust of society. His greatest works are stuffed with humor designed to knock the aristocracy down a peg or two. He often accomplished this through setting his works in the middle of aristocratic society and all of its splendor and having the dialogue be crude and not-so splendorous. Imagine Beavis and Butthead in tuxedos at a high-society gala and you get the point. Think of this as a microwaveable burrito served on fine china with a side of truffles.
Even our esteemed American writers have often denigrated themselves to a lower (or at least perceived lower) level in order to accomplish their goals. Mark Twain might be the most renowned American humorist. He made his reputation as a folksy, down home man of humble origins spouting pithy statements filled with wit and perception. He didn’t set himself up as a member of the cultural elite. In fact, he was more of the anti-elite. I’m guessing Twain would have been rather fond of whoopee cushions too. Hey this is my piece; I can speculate however I choose!
In the realm of television and movies, this type of humor has been around since the good old days as well. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges are all known for slapstick humor. Ok, so the Stooges usually did slap-everyone humor. But these all-time comedy greats began their careers, long before any of the MTV generation was even born. Actually, they started their careers long before the MTV generation’s grandparents were even born. I think Dick Clark was around though. The point is that these are not the products of a recently declining intellectual society.
Back to the Brits for a second, the whole reason we know of Monty Python to this day is because they were masters of poking fun at high-society in a manner stupid enough for mass consumption. You didn’t think Holy Grail was just about finding the object of Arthurian legend did you?
Currently, the longest-running non-news related TV show still on the air is another classic example of this. I am a huge fan of “The Simpsons.” This show has poked more fun at society in general than any other institution. And let’s face it, society has needed a good poking for awhile. Much like the Pythons, the humor of the Simpsons is stratified to produce multiple results. There are stupid sight gags, funny one-liners, perceptive witticisms, and social satire, all rolled into one large yellow-skinned, four fingered ball. That’s why it works. It takes the best of all worlds and gives it a noogie.
American culture has always been rugged and rough. We have always revered the common man more than the elite. That has been our enduring legacy. After all, we made John Wayne a star. On the other hand, the French, who are often praised for their elegance and sophistication, made Jerry Lewis a star. Go figure. I guess it shows that we have some standards.
The truth is that both elements of society are required. The two exist in a yin and yang sort of symbiotic relationship. In some cases, they can even help each other out. I’d be willing to bet that viewership to “Inside the Actor’s Studio” increased after being parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” So there is a symbiotic relationship between the two – both must exist. If one went away, the other would as well. If we didn’t have low-brow, then we wouldn’t have high-brow and vice-versa. People are not all wired the same. Some people find some things funny while others find it disgusting. Likewise, some people find something humorous and thought provoking, while others struggle to form a thought period. When these two are balanced just right, we can exist in harmony as a society. The key is to not swing too far in the direction of one or the other. Sadly, we do appear to be swinging a little too much toward the stupid. That is why it is essential for the non-stupid (you know who you are, if you don’t then, well, I’ve got bad news for you) to continue to strive to educate themselves and others in the ways of the non-stupid. Just remember, both have their place. Sometimes you feel like filet mignon and sometimes that week old microwaveable burrito actually looks good.
ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND POLITICS
The suggestion that we have digressed down some bizarre Darwinian scale of de-evolution in politics is just plain absurd. We have always been stupid in this area. For every Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt we’ve elected, there has also been a Warren Harding or a Chester Arthur. That’s the nature of politics. Sometimes you vote for New York strip and other times you vote for that mystery meat from your elementary school cafeteria. It has ALWAYS been this way. Think about it, in 1876 we elected – well, actually the House of Representatives elected in the prequel to the 2000 election – a man by the name of Rutherford B. Hayes as President. The man’s name was Rutherford. RUTHERFORD. To make matters worse, he had a funny beard. That was over 125 years ago.
As you can see, Jessie Ventura getting elected governor of the land of Mall America was just the natural progression of things. Once we elected Ronald Reagan President and Sonny Bono a representative, we opened the door for a lot of potential strangeness to ensue. Actually, the floodgates were opened awhile ago, those guys just rode the wave through. To show you how bizarre politics can be, Jerry Springer was actually an elected official BEFORE he left to do his show. You know things are bad when you leave one line of work to enter one where you deal with alien-possessed, three-toothed, 400-lb strippers, who are sleeping with their brothers. Come to think of it, maybe the one prepared him for the other.
A lot of people cite the example of Hollywood stars making public political statements as proof that anti-intellectualism has taken over the world of politics entirely. They bemoan the fact in today’s world more people can name the “Friends” cast than the members of the Supreme Court. In today’s entertainment-driven culture, celebrities are often viewed as more important political leaders than the people who are actually engaged in the practice of politics. As sad as it may be, it too is not a new thing. In 1865, arguably the greatest political figure this country has ever known, Abraham Lincoln (duh), was assassinated by the most famous actor of the time John Wilkes Booth. Now THAT’S a political statement. Think about that the next time a Baldwin (pick a Baldwin, any Baldwin) or Streisand makes a political statement on television. I doubt they would ever be willing to go that far!
ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND THE WORK WORLD
Finally (mercifully) we come to this area. There are those who make the argument that in today’s high-technology, computer-driven world, we don’t need such things as knowledge of literature and history. That creativity has been replaced by productivity and utilitarianism. That’s not the case. It is true that today’s society has become more technologically advanced than any before it. The knowledge and skill required to function properly in this environment is indeed essential. But so is the knowledge of other areas as well. There is a beauty in learning about the classics. There is an excitement in learning history. These things should never be fully phased out. Once again, the key is striking that perfect balance between the two. One cannot live on one type of knowledge alone. The perfect person is the well-rounded one. Remember, your technical skill and knowledge might get you in the door, but your overall knowledge and ability to adapt to others will keep you there. Even as our society continues to shift away from the traditional realm of intellectualism and toward the cold and sterile realm of technical ability, there will always be a place for those who are enamored with the classics and remain glued to their creative ideals – they’re called waiters.
So what was my point in all of this – to be honest with you I don’t remember either. Actually, my point was that we may as a society be backsliding into some cultural morass of stupidity. We are probably appealing to the lowest common denominator instead of aiming higher. But it isn’t a new thing. We have been on this same ride for centuries. And, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Entertainment is just that, entertaining. It is meant to entertain. If something is stupid and it makes you laugh, then it did its job. We need to be careful though that we don’t become cultural illiterates. A stupid diversion every once-in-awhile can be a good thing – stupidity as a lifestyle is, well, stupid. After all, a person can only take so many microwaveable burritos before they explode in a cloud of uncultured and ignorant methane. While I’m not sure about the Pompeians, I’m pretty sure that even ole Mark Twain wouldn’t enjoy that.