The Stealth Fight Against Stupidity


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.’”

Noam Chomsky: Please live a really, really long time

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.

Jennifer Egan knocked some socks off recently with her tweet-burst fiction

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 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.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul: enigmatic 1970s antihero

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 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.”

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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15 Responses to The Stealth Fight Against Stupidity

  1. Caleb Powell says:

    Chomsky? Isn’t he the mouthpiece for Hamas? Or every psychopath uprising, communist or otherwise, that hates the US?

    Ever since his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge he’s been a supporter of violence against the US, a critic of US violence (with some validity), but lacks the will to be consistent. He’s no longer credible or relevant, and hopefully will become an asterisk in history.

    And anyone who can say the following is not intellectual:

    “There is much talk of bin Laden’s ‘confession,’ but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon.” – Noam Chomsky

    • Major Weekling says:

      If one defines “intellectual” as “someone who makes me stop and think about my own prejudices and positions,” Chomsky is surely that. Put it may be that my consent for him is manufactured…

      • Caleb Powell says:

        Ok, he’s an intellectual, but I just enjoy tweaking Chomsky-droppers. Chomsky’s half-right, but in political analysis half-right = wrong, and that’s a dangerous place to be.

        As for the Chomskyphiliac M. Lerner, down below, who sees common sense ande wisdom in the Boston Marathon bit…huh? And then the rhetorical “anyone who doesn’t have the same turd in my brain blah blah blah” bit. Huh? Huh?

        I take Hitchens with a grain of salt, but his piece on Chomsky in Slate nails it:

        • Major Weekling says:

          I think it’s kind of cool that this stuff is his side gig. I mean, his area of expertise is linguistics. The dude is brilliant. Although, yes, not always right.

  2. M Lerner says:

    Anyone who can’t see the common sense wisdom in Chomsky’s Boston marathon comment is not… oh never mind.

    I’m just popping in to note that, hey, the Weeklings has comments now. I wonder why the change? (Perhaps you do, too.)

    Nice piece, as always, Janet. I’ll take a scarily overstimulating mainstream blockbuster thriller over most things Paul Auster has written, but I take your point.

    What are the chances Fraulein Drechsler has already paid dearly for her snobbery (and raw hot dog habit) with a deadly case of trichinosis?

    • Janet Steen says:

      M Lerner, I want to know what this Auster thing is all about.

      • M Lerner says:

        James Wood skewers him better than I ever could: Well worth the read. I keep falling for Auster, like Charlie Brown with the football. “I know the last book was so bad it was practically a self-parody, but surely this one must be good. It’s got a nice cover. And the New York Trilogy was so fun when I was 23.” Lather rinse repeat.

        • Major Weekling says:

          I bought HOTEL HONOLULU at a bookstore because I got Paul Theroux confused with Paul Auster. It was a fortuitous error…I love love love Theroux, while Auster leaves me cold.

          And Mark, we have comments because we want to hear from you! And the non-comment way was more trouble than it was worth. Thanks for noticing!

          • Janet Steen says:

            For the record, I do not like all of Auster. Nor have I read all of Auster (see first Weeklings piece about my half-assedness). But I do like his nonfiction quite a lot, and The Art of Hunger champions a lot of undersung artists.

  3. Maggie Kast says:

    Janet, it’s great to know what you really think after experiencing you as an editor! Thanks for standing up for smart people, especially Chomsky, dead authors, living and little known writers, and other things that get run over on the information highway.

  4. Jennifer Kabat says:

    Can I just say I want both. I want to live in a world where I can have both blockbuster and brainy, but I want to stand up for the ones no one reads, the ideas I want us to share, the words I want us to talk about. And, I want everyone to see The Conversation. Janet, I want to keep reading your thoughts on life and words and writing and ideas.

    • Major Weekling says:

      I want to live in a Bizarro World, where Roland Emmerich movies are watched by only a select few, and Polish films with subtitles are blockbusters. Also, where ice cream is good for you.

  5. Jennifer Kabat says:

    Mr Saturday Weekling wants to live in a world where the bell on the ice cream truck means it’s out. At least that’s what he always threatened to tell our kids. I told him we’d never be able to afford the therapy bills for the kids. AT least chocolate is good for you. And wine.

  6. Great article. It reminds me of a quote I read by Susan Sontag in that book her son just wrote about her. It was something to the effect of “when I asked my mother why she was holding on and fighting so hard to live when she clearly was in so much pain her reply was ‘I just want to see how stupid it all gets.'”

    Just how stupid is it gonna get? I am on pins and needles!

    • Major Weekling says:

      Ah, poor Susan Sontag. I so much prefer watching people be smart…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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