Friday, June 04, 2004

Making the Human World More Real

One of my favorite parables is Flatland, in which a two dimensional-being who learns of the third dimension is ostracized and made to feel as if he is crazy for speaking of a third dimension. It is a helpful reminder of the limits to our vision, and how those who see only two dimensions will consider someone who sees three to be insane.

Most intelligent, responsible, educated people more or less believe in our existing social and political arrangements. They believe that there are smart people at Harvard and Stanford and elsewhere who study these things and that the latest, cutting-edge theories for how to improve society are well represented by the academic leaders. They may know personally a top clinician at Johns Hopkins, or a great teacher in Evanston, or they may follow the latest ideas in Harper's or The New Yorker.

There may be a general sense that conservative Neanderthals are harming the country, embarrassing us internationally by foreign aggression and dishonesty, undermining us domestically through crony capitalism, destroying the environment, and pandering to the religious right. The hope remains, among the educated elites, that once John Kerry (or Hilary Clinton) has been elected, and Democrats once again control Congress, that the top clinicians at Johns Hopkins and the great teachers in Evanston can continue their intelligent, responsible approaches to solving social problems.

Because I want to be liked, I would very much like to be able to believe in the good NPR Democrat vision of the world. I feel no affinity for Bush Republicanism; given that I'm not for Bush, my life would be so much easier if I were for "the good guys," the Democrats, the intellectuals, the professional classes.

Worse yet, the notion that "there is too much regulation" or that we should "eliminate credentials and licenses" sounds, frankly, whacko to most people, including the most respected and responsible voices in our society. It would be very helpful to me if I were capable of believing in the existing system.

But no matter how hard I try, I can't believe in the social and political world that has been created. I feel very much like the poor Flatlander who has been exposed to the third dimension: Yes, it seems crazy to believe in a third dimension, and yes, it is difficult to explain the third dimension to people who have only experienced two dimensions. Nonetheless, those facts do not change my belief in the third dimension.

At bottom, the problem is pervasive crap. Yes, I know we are supposed to respect those people at Harvard and Johns Hopkins who believe in the crap. I just can't.

In the former Soviet Union, the joke used to be "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

In education today, for a large percentage of high school students, a similar joke could be made, "we pretend to learn, and they pretend to teach us." This is crap.

Bill Cosby's recent remarks on the African-American underclass were a refreshing break from crap.

I hate the mean-spiritedness of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But the reason that they have such large and enthusiastic audiences is because, despite the fact that sometimes they make ridiculous exaggerations and rude or mean-spirited remarks, on many key issues they cut through the crap. The politically correct, overly sensitive, self-imposed world-view of universities today has led many of the respected voices in academia mostly to speak in terms of crap. If decent, conscientious human beings like Bill Cosby won't be honest (and thank heaven that he chose to be honest), then demagogues like Limbaugh and Coulter will be.

In order to make the world a better place, people need to be more direct with each other and we need a culture that supports greater honesty. Lazy, rude, incompetent people are not going to get good jobs and should not get good jobs. People with terrible habits with respect to eating, exercise, substance abuse, and choices of sexual encounters are not going to have good health and we shouldn't spend inordinate amounts of money compensating for their self-destructiveness. Young people who ridicule learning, who don't respect teachers, who don't study or pay attention in classes, are not going to get an education and shouldn't be allowed to destroy education for others.

Young people love honor and courage. The medieval splendor of "The Lord of the Rings" is appealing to them. They love brave, audacious heroes, people who are not afraid to "tell it like it is." Thus Eminem is widely respected by the young. Although young people would love to admire an Aragon, leader of men in Lord of the Rings, if they can't have an Aragon they would rather have a freakish-but-honest Howard Stern than a full-of-crap Jesse Jackson.

We have created a world that is substantially dishonest. Young people escape into drugs, sex, fantasy, music, and violence instead of striving for excellence with respect to health, education, honor, and idealism.

Not all young people, of course. The children of the elites are most likely to go to good private or suburban public schools, where, with the advantages of a lifetime of parental attention and private lessons, they are more likely to excel in athletics, academics, and a social life the entry to which requires costly cars and clothes. These winners within the system, the children of the professors, diplomats, doctors, and lawyers, seem to validate the system as a whole to the elites. If only Bush would give the poor more money, then everyone could succeed the way that my child succeeds!

Bill Cosby took a great personal risk by being honest. The establishment rewards conformism to the mainstream message and penalizes those who do not conform to the message. Cosby violated the accepted boundaries of decent political discourse. It is a testimony to his personal credibility and undisputed decency that he was able to do so. There will nonetheless be a backlash against him for having done so.

We have very few opinion leaders in any fields that are willing to be honest. The best way to mute the Limbaughs and Coulters is not to launch a Left-liberal radio station with Al Franken – unless Franken is ready to cut through the crap on the Left as seriously as he is willing to cut through the crap on the Right. The best way to mute the Limbaughs and Coulters is for more national opinion leaders to have the courage of Cosby.

Be honest, be real, and then we can begin to solve our problems.