Saturday, August 25, 2012

Beyond America's Smart/Dumb Divide

On a weekend lull before new political storms, what poet Randall Jarrell called “the sad heart at the supermarket” is filled with mixed emotions over American life, a tangle of instinctive knowing and willed ignorance he evoked 50 years ago.

“If we meet an honest and intelligent politician,” Jarrell wrote, “a dozen, a hundred, we say that they aren't like politicians at all, and our category of politician stays unchanged; we know what politicians are like.”

In that era, JFK would say, “You can’t beat brains.” But his own experience proved you sometimes could. David Halberstam devoted an ironically titled book, “The Best and the Brightest,” to how Kennedy intellectuals led the country into a Vietnam quagmire.

Now, in a time of overflowing opinions, the question comes back in haunting new forms, in dispiriting debate over elitism vs. common sense, rigorous analysis vs. raging prejudice, sophistication vs. aggressive ignorance.

As Todd Akin makes Mitt Romney look like an intellectual giant, Romney’s own emptiness becomes an irresistible target. Willingly or not, we are dragged into new versions of the old argument.

Why can’t we have better? Even, as in the VP contest, the lines of demarcation break down to mislabel Paul Ryan wonkiness and Joe Biden emotional outbursts, the categories don’t hold their own contradictions.

If we reduce national discussion to liberal soft-headedness/conservative common sense or liberal smarts/conservative stupidity, we broaden the national breach and narrow any ground for connection, let alone consensus.

That may be our inevitable fate but, as liberals relish the final installment of HBO’s “Newsroom,” it may be worth remembering that Aaron Sorkin’s “cri de coeur at the uncivil state of America in the digital age” is an entertainment, not a religious revelation.

Those who cannot keep up with the characters’ rapid-fire references are not inferior to viewers who do, only less attuned to the show’s lonely-hearts glaze over legitimate issues of media, politics and morality. William F. Buckley would have appreciated it.

Half a century ago, Randall Jarrell wrote, “The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced.”

John F. Kennedy once wryly quoted a distraught mother’s complaint, “My son wants to be a politician and they’re teaching him poetry.”

Not too many have that problem today.

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