Reading the science section of a recent edition of The Manchester Guardian, I learned that Pluto, the ninth planet from the sun, is "about to lose [planet] status." In light of new revelations regarding "the 10th object" (what an Orwellian name!), astronomers are reconsidering Pluto's classification, and many have decided that it should be deemed a "trans-Neptunian" or "minor" planet. Duncan Steel, an astronomer and comet researcher, thinks such a designation ridiculous.
"[Using] the term planet should be by public acclaim and not through the arrogant arguments of scientists. The nine planets are planets because the public thinks so."I'm inclined to agree, but reading the Guardian article, I found myself thinking not about the heavens but about the state of American intellectualism.
The word "intellectual" makes most people groan; often I am no exception. Years ago, my father explained to me the important distinction between an intellectual thinker and an Intellectual with a capital "I.". When the word is used as a noun, he cautioned me, it points to pretension and hubris. In this form, it is most often employed by groups of over-educated urbanites sharing similar curriculum vitae. As an adjective, however, the word is to be cherished, for it suggests thoughtfulness, a willingness to engage complexity and more fully examine the dirty details. Most people do not distinguish between these two different uses of the word. Indeed, today it is most often used as a pejorative. (The spread of American anti-intellectualism has been discussed at great length in any number of papers, magazines and journals and I don't aspire to - nor am I equipped to - add anything original here.)
With respect to the lower-case meaning of "intellectual," Duncan Steel's comment warrants more attention. "The nine planets are planets because the public thinks so." True. No matter how many scientists rally behind the reclassification, the populace at large will still believe that there are nine planets, at least until another generation has been educated to think differently. After all, "Mary's Violet Eyes Make John Stay Up Nights Period." That's the mnemonic that we were taught as wee star-gazers and what is a solar system without the period?
Even though I now know better, Pluto will remain a planet in my mind. My thinking is mainstream, an example of the popular catchphrase, the tyranny of the majority. That Pluto is not a true planet is irrelevant because I stubbornly choose to ignore the facts. I admit to willful ignorance.
In "The Waterboy," Adam Sandler's character denies the teachings of his Colonel Sanders-esque biology professor. "Well, my momma says alligators is ornery cuz they got all them teeth and no toothbrush," he insists. When the professor corrects the misinformed student, the waterboy becomes enraged. The dynamic of the scene is extreme - the proud professor talks down to the imbecile, publicly mocking him for his faith in all things Momma - but it remains a fair reflection of contemporary American attitudes toward science, in particular, and intelligence more generally. Viewers aren't supposed to side with the informed professor, with his degree(s) and his knowledge. Instead, we are expected to champion the ignorant, but well-intentioned, boob because we are the waterboy, each and every one of us, and we won't be told how things are, certainly not by any "ivory-tower" intellectual. In other words, we refuse to be educated.
In such a climate, is it any wonder that the thoughtful practitioners of intellectual thinking have fled center stage? No longer do we celebrate the brooding, intelligent Hamlet. These days we consider the Prince of Denmark clinically depressed, in need of Zoloft and some faith in the afterlife. After all, there's no time for melancholy when everyone should be celebrating how wonderful they are. The intellectual thinkers have been reduced to the role of Iago, slipping in and out of the shadows, whispering nasty half-truths into the ears of the powerful. These arrogant scientists tell us what to think, or not think, of our planets and the deceitful bookworms of the patrician northeast insist on referencing ancient history to bemoan the current state of geo-political affairs. The majority, it would seem, no longer finds Hamlet's hand-wringing commendable or even acceptable. As the Electric Light Orchestra put it in their 1980s anthem,
"Don’t bring me down,no no no no,Another article in the same edition of The Guardian addresses this issue as a peculiarly American one, but anti-intellectualism, infectious and easy, can't remain confined within our borders. Peter Preston's book review, "What a superiority complex," critiques Lewis Lapham's recent collection of essays, "Theatre of War." Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, is a remarkable verbal pugilist but his stylistic flourishes, encyclopedic knowledge and strident opinions don't always attract fanfare. As I wrote in "Lewis Lapham and the Evangelicals,"
I’ll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don’t bring me down."
"A year ago a co-worker told me he wouldn’t read Harper’s Magazine because 'it was just another liberal rag' edited by an 'insufferable egotist.' While I won’t deny the first charge, I am less inclined to accept the latter. Admittedly, Lewis Lapham’s monthly contribution ('Notebook'), typically three or four pages of rhetoric following the reader letters, ranges from excellent to unreadable. Lapham is a gifted wordsmith enamored of his craftsmanship; such writers can make splendid editors, but with their own work are as prone to failure as they are eloquence."Despite his faults, Lapham's is a vital voice. I consider his magazine - and Harper's clearly belongs to Lapham - one of the best publications in circulation today. Preston shares my high regard for Lapham.
"The editor of Harper's magazine writes like a dream, researches like a punctilious professor of classical history and finds his lonely judgments vindicated time and again...Is Lapham an adornment to American journalism? Absolutely. Is his critique of wars not worth the fighting perceptive and exhilarating? Often better than that."Yet Preston realizes Lapham is part of a tiny minority, one that "if not silent, [exists] only in a few small corners of intellectual refinement." In Preston's eyes, Lapham is a victim of American anti-intellectualism and he identifies with the man - it often seems most of Europe feels this way - but Preston moves beyond mere admiration by smartly analyzing the failures of the American intellectual elite.
"The difficulty - and it is a difficulty - is that the good side comes with a greyer side that readers outside America can't ignore, a built-in impotence verging on tragic irrelevance....[Lapham] and his fellow sages sit on the peripheries...because, in part, they choose to; because the sidelines fit their sense of rectitude and superior self better. It's a terrible shame."It is a shame. It's a shame that the thoughtful folks don't emerge from stage left to take charge of the country. Less than a century ago, the United States was still guided by thinkers - rather than populists like George W. Bush or shrewd schmoozers like Bill Clinton - and the now familiar lament that intellectual individuals are weak-willed and incapable of decision-making is disproven by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and, long before him, Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps if we were offered better role models the hostility and defensiveness would fade.
As things stand, the only popular refuge for intellectual thinkers is satire, a haven for sharp-tongued wits trading in melancholia. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert succeed by disguising their thoughtfulness; their exasperated looks and smarmy monologues have found favor with an audience idealistic enough to be disturbed by contemporary doings, but too cautious to raise their own voices. No one wants to be called out.
A girl walks down the street with several friends. Reacting to something another of the group says, she responds,
"Actually, Pluto isn't considered a planet anymore."
"What? Are you serious?"
"Yeah, it doesn't really qualify...it never did, but they've officially demoted it now."
"You are such a dork!" (wrinkling up his face and speaking in an uptight tone, a friend continues) "Um...act-u-ally, you guys...Pluto isn't technically a planet."
The group all breaks out in laughter and the girl sheepishly smiles. After all, it was a pretty dorky thing to point out.
And so it goes.
Photo credit: Touchstone still from "The Waterboy"