George Burns said…

“Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

Even God was young once…

I feel this one is especially timely, given that it’s election season, and I wonder what Burns would make of our current media culture. In his day, the amateur wonks were indeed relegated to taxicabs and barbershops, with only a small, captive audience. You endured a rant, perhaps occasionally nodding and grunting to show you’re listening, and then you dash out of the cab or the barbershop as quickly as you can. If you thought of them at all after that experience, it might just be with a rueful shake of the head, muttering, “Some people…”

Today, of course, you can get the same level of ill-informed, vehement political discourse just by turning on a cable news channel. And you don’t even get a haircut out of the bargain.

One of the great things about America is that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. One of the worst things about America is, well, that anyone is allowed to express their opinion about politics. It’s the price we pay for freedom, people. And if we confined it to just those simpler, one-on-one rants, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.

In this day and age, though, the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle needs fresher faces and louder voices, people who will bring in the viewers and bump up the ratings. It doesn’t matter if they have their facts right or if they have any kind of expertise in the topics they’re ranting about. All that matters is that they have a platform from which to speak and an audience that won’t go away. As long as people keep watching them, they must be right. Thus, for every event there is an opinion. For every statement, there is a reaction. No matter how quotidian the non-event might be, someone, somewhere can figure out an angle to get angry from, and the cable news cameras will be more than happy to be there for them.

Of course, Burns’ comment can also be connected to the oft-rephrased quote, my favorite version of which comes from Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” While Yeats was using it as part of his apocalyptic vision, it’s all too true in regular life. The people with experience and knowledge in a certain field are acutely aware of how much they don’t know. Thus, the more you learn, the less certain you can be about everything you think you know, and you make sure to consider your opinions and your statements carefully. On the other hand, people who know very little about a topic often feel like they know everything there is to know. They have a few little facts or an idea that makes sense, and they take it and run with it. And god help anyone who tells them they’re wrong.

We do this because, deep down, we like to believe that we have some handle on what’s going on. We like to believe that there is an order to the universe and that we know what it is. Whether we understand correctly or not is irrelevant. All that is necessary is to say, “I believe,” and leave it at that. The brain will take care of the rest, employing various logical fallacies – confirmation bias among the most useful – to continually remind us that we’re right, regardless of what the evidence might say to the contrary. It takes an effort of will, a decision, to think critically, and it’s a way of thinking that you must carry on all your life. It’s work, and it carries not only the responsibility to back up your statements, but the risk that you might have been wrong all the time. Some people – a lot of people – can’t handle that kind of responsibility and risk, and so go on in the belief that what little they know is really all they need to know.

Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal found a great way to express the phenomenon as well:

We’ve all been there, and I think if he were alive today, Burns would approve of the idea.


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