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.


Holbrook Jackson said…

“Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice.”

He had nothing to say on the effect of his mustache on the younger generation…

This is a quote that is near to my heart for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because I am a teacher. I’m in contact with The Young all the time, and there is a certain division in my heart when it comes to the idea of “corrupting” them.

Every year, our school hosts the Phoenix Cup Junior High School Speech contest, in which young teens from around the country make speeches in English about the state of the world and their hopes for the future. And each year I’m stunned by their optimism and hope, their belief that we can all act reasonably and make the world a better place.

I’m a cynic, you see, and a pretty irredeemable one at that. But in order to be a cynic, one must have first been an idealist at some point, and seeing them wear their hopes so openly and bravely makes me recall feelings that had long since been packaged up and stored in the metaphorical closet of my heart.

I feel bad because I know that it will only be a few short years before their hope and idealism are put to the test, and those hopeful idealists are stuffed into the dull, jaded suits of adulthood.

And so, I don’t want to corrupt them. I don’t want to tell them about the things that I know are true, the trials that I know they will face, and the lies that I know they must one day see through. I fear that I will be the one who mark the end of their idealism, and I don’t want that on my conscience. I don’t want to be a corrupting influence.

That, however, is the cowardice that Jackson is talking about, or at least one variety of it. The impulse to shield and cosset my students is an impulse born of fear and trepidation – and not even for them, really. It is a fear that I will not be remembered for trying to help, but rather that I was the one who took their illusions away. It’s a self-indulgent fear, which is pretty much what cowardice is all about.

It also rests on a pretty adult-centered assumption: that The Young neither want to understand nor are capable of understanding these things, and that upon hearing them will crumble like delicate spun glass under a machine-gun barrage. This is pretty far from the truth. ¬†When adults lie, they know. They might not know what we’re lying about, but they know full well that we’re lying to them in one way or another and the truth – even an unpleasant truth – is preferable to a well-intentioned¬†lie.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find the context for this quote. Searching on Google just brings up the quote itself, which is commonly brought up in discussions of censorship, a topic that Jackson was most likely expounding upon. The quote suits that topic just as well as the admittedly self-indulgent context I created, I think. Whenever someone suggests censoring a book or a movie or a video game, chances are that they’re doing it “For the children.” They say that kids shouldn’t be exposed to the violent perversion of the adult world, lest their innocence be lost in a hail of bullets and/or naked grunting.

That said, this is still pretty funny.

And again, there’s something to that. There is a great temptation to let children live in their own fantasy world for as long as possible, where no one dies or despairs. Let the kids live in happy ignorance for as long as they can, right?

Maybe. I don’t have children, so I’m not as qualified to make a decision as someone who’s actually responsible for bringing a decent human being into the world. I like to believe I wouldn’t lie to them, at least not very often. I like to believe that while I would hold their innocence sacred, there would be times when it had to be put aside in order to prepare them for a world that does not value innocence. It would hurt, I’m sure, but sooner or later The Young have to be shown the world for what it is. And that requires courage from those of us who have gone before.