2008-10-14

Too cool for school

Interacting with the people over at Morris Berman's blog has gotten me thinking. Well, I guess I could say that I've been thinking about this ever since I read Dark Ages America, but lately I hadn't done much active thinking about it, until I posted on Berman's blog.

The general question is: is there some aspect of American culture that has, in one way or another, earned the negative reputation the country has in a significant portion of the world?

I'll be the first to admit that this question is one of those impossible-to-answer, touchy-feely, liberal adgenda questions. It's like, your opinion, man. But it's worth thinking about. Seriously. Don't get all offended.

One of Berman's main theses is that, as the U.S.A. is the most capitalist among large developed nations, the competitive natureinstilled by the economy spills over from people's professional lives into their personal lives. Therefore, there is a lack of "community" among U.S. residents, which manifests itself in many ways. This seems plausible, but any purely logical argument breaks down when we start using anecdotal evidence to support claims. Berman likes to mention lots of anecdotes from the time he has spent in Mexico (he lives there) and compare that to the life he knew in the U.S. This is an absolutely valid way to form an opinion, but not extremely compelling argument for coldly rational person like myself. I am not so easily convinced. Anecdotes are great, but I could tell you the story of how George Washington mercilessly killed loads of British soldiers, while George W. Bush saved tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. From this information alone, you may be persuaded to go against the opinion that you may have if you have all of the information (if that's possible).

The main point that has gotten me thinking in the last few days concerns the nature of what people value. I had a very interesting exchange with a coworker a couple of weeks ago. We had been talking about how one Republican, when campaigning for the presidential nomination in the primary, seemingly bragged about having read only one book in his [adult?] life. Apparently some people connect with a guy who's not an "academic", but a down-to-earth, "regular" guy. Who doesn't read books. I suppose if he'd said he'd read no books, he would have gotten significantly fewer votes, but then again, I'm not sure what that one book was. But I can take a guess.

Sure, I understand the attraction of voting for "guys like me". A guy like me might have the same opinions as me and end up voting on the issues like I would. Great. It's hard to say that you wouldn't vote for yourself in an election, but that's exactly what my coworker said. She said, "I haven't read many books either, but I'm not running for office. He's the one who's supposed to know a lot and have read a lot of books." Briliant. Refreshing. And very smart.

And that comment leads me into the Question of the Day: Does the U.S. value intellectualism any less than the rest of the world? On one hand we have hordes of people voting for a self-proclaimed functional-illiterate, and on the other we have what is arguably one of the very best university systems in the world.

I keep reading that this university system is increasingly catering to foreigners, but I also know that the vast majority of U.S. top-level elected officials have excellent education records. I don't know if there is a way to solve this quandary using data alone. Thus, the anecdotes become almost necessary.

What do you think? Is it seen as a good thing when someone you just met tells you that they recently finished Slaughterhouse 5, and they ask you if you've read it? Or is it more amusing to have someone claim "I never really paid attention in math class" when confronted by an everyday solve-for-x type math problem.

Berman claims that in Mexico, it's not uncommon to talk history or politics with your taxi driver, but that it's quite the opposite in the U.S. I confess that with respect to history and literature, I was much like Berman's American when I lived there, and I have changed quite a bit since I left. But that has little to do with where I live. It was a change that I can claim had been brewing for quite some time.

I have thought quite a bit about this now, about whether my own anecdotes follow the paths fo Berman's, if the americans I have come across during my lifetime value this contrived definition of intellectualism even a bit less than the other individuals I have met.

The only semi-concrete resolution to my ponderings I have come across is my own response to the question: Would I feel more comfortable approaching relative strangers at, say, a party outside the U.S. and attempting to start a conversation about the last novel I read? The answer is a resounding probably. But then again, that's the company I keep.

Do you like reading, smart people, thinking, and just all around learning things? Let me know! Write a comment, email, whatever. Even if you don't like any of those things.

Oh, and one last thing: Anybody who claims to be an intellectual is certainly not. They're just an idiot trying to make themselves sound important. Intellectualism is not somewhere you can be, it's more like a direction you're going. I got a late start.

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