FOR ONE YEAR in college I had a German roommate who used to like to proclaim: “There are no intellectuals in America!” At the time I didn’t have the moxie to argue with her. Because she was cool and European, I figured she had an advantage over me in pretty much every way. But I secretly disliked her for the comment and wanted to pull her hair and tell her to stop talking in her annoying German accent about “America.”
I should’ve reeled off names like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Susan Sontag (of the three, only Chomsky is left standing), but I was distracted by the fact that Fraulein Drechsler was standing there, as she often was, eating cold, slimy raw hot dogs right out of the package. It’s true, “America” has its problems with dumbness. And I’m not talking only about Jersey Shore or our troubled public school system or a recent president who humiliated us across the world stage. I’m talking about pervasive, mainstream stupidity that seeps into our lives on a regular basis even if we consider ourselves too smart for it. The writer Isaac Asimov, who enjoyed great crossover success, warned about this when he said: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.’”
So it seems that we have to take certain measures to fight against idiocy and ignorance, to push back against the pull of bad mass culture (as opposed to good mass culture, of which there is, granted, quite a lot). In some ways this fight has gotten easier. With nearly everything available on the Internet, we can access practically any fascinating DIY project or non-Establishment line of thought that we want. But working against us is all the crap that also comes with easy access and the general trend toward passivity from too much noise and stimulation.
Sure, many of us listen to NPR every day and consider ourselves well-informed liberals. (If you are detecting a liberal bias in this piece, you are correct.) But even that stalwart bastion of relative sanity that is NPR can let us down. The stories, while entertaining and informative, often follow an overly tidy format, and political segments frequently lead with the official word from the White House. Hosts like Melissa Block—who in her perky delivery makes even the war in Afghanistan sound slightly whimsical—rarely give interview subjects the drubbing they deserve. Air America was way better for drubbings, as are the progressive Canadian talk-radio shows that sometimes end up on our late-night airwaves. I will still profess my undying love for Terry Gross, though, a longtime member of the NPR family, and will go into a depressive spiral the day “Fresh Air” goes off the air.
There are other avenues to take in this struggle. It’s not a bad idea to regularly inhale The New Yorker. This is not a radical choice, but the magazine is still one of the best sources of in-depth literary journalism and really good fiction you can find. Jennifer Egan’s recent tweet-inspired piece of fiction in the magazine, “Black Box,” was one of the most arresting, ingenious stories to appear in an American magazine in a good long time. The New York Review of Books is also a great venue for long, expansive journalism. If you don’t always have time to finish the articles in the NYRB, at least look at the publishers’ ads throughout the pages; it’s consoling to know that a book entitled Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist can still get published in this country.
Now and then pick up a literary journal and read something by someone you’ve never heard of and may never again. There are smart, overeducated, and underemployed people all over the country toiling over these things. And I’m not just talking about the journals that we’ve already heard of, like The Believer and The Paris Review. Try some of the lesser-knowns like The Lowbrow Reader, Fence, or The Literary Review. I read a story not long ago in The Literary Review by a writer named Adam Wilson that contained two sentences that kept me happy for days: “The problem is the space between what we want to feel and what we’ve come to expect from certain situations. Sometimes I think that space is what it means to be an adult.” You won’t read anything that good on TMZ.com this week.
When it comes to films, if you must go see bad, scarily overstimulating mainstream blockbuster thrillers starring people like Dwayne Johnson, at least try to balance this out by watching an old 1970s thriller every now and then, like, say, Alan Pakula’s Klute, or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. These kinds of movies are so slow, subtle, layered, and open-ended that I want to cry every time I watch them. There is so much time and space and quiet in the movies to really watch what is going on. In The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, is actually a character with a beating heart and not just a vehicle for the film’s action or its peripheral merchandise. He is a private detective whose job is to invade other people’s privacy, but when it comes to his own privacy he is ferociously, maniacally protective of it. We don’t know exactly why. He confesses in a dream that he was very sick as a child. Is he afraid of being discovered as weak? Why is he so unable to be with women? What is his Catholicism about? The mystery of it all is sheer beauty and reminds us of that shimmering link between art and the imagination.
If you watch an episode of Extreme Makeover or Glee, counteract the devastating effects of this by curling up in bed and reading a dead and obscure writer. Or if not both dead and obscure, at least dead. Since reading that person will not have anything to do with buzz or product—at least not the way it does for a living artist—this will refreshingly de-emphasize the connection between art and commerce. Paul Auster’s book of essays The Art of Hunger is a great place to find out about such writers. In it he writes beautifully about people like Georges Perec, Laura Riding, and the little-known poet William Bronk. Auster begins the Bronk essay by remarking, sadly and accurately, “America swallows up its poets, hides them away, forgets them.” Geoff Dyer is another great essayist who reminds us that there are people worth reading about other than Angelina Jolie (although he could probably write a brilliant, hilarious piece about Angelina Jolie). In his new essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he mulls over people like the photographer William Gedney and the writer Rebecca West. In an essay called “Is Jazz Dead?” he thrills with sentences like, “The history of jazz has been the history of people picking themselves up off the floor.” You won’t read that on TMZ.com this week either.
So don’t let my German roommate win. Put on your thinking caps. There are so many ways to keep the intellect in fighting shape, even if you risk being called an elitist snob. Otherwise, it’ll just be darkness out there. It’ll be a world with only LOL’s and emoticons and viral Youtube videos. As that famous poet once said (Rod McKuen or somebody?), “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”