May 26th, 2011 10:13 EST
An Overheated, Over-Opinionated Culture is Killing Us
The horrors of insisting on being right
The word punditry comes from the Sanskrit word for learned, pandita. In a truly intelligent society that would disqualify everyone.
I can`t think of a single thing I`m learned about, but there are a few things I know a lot about. There are many more things I`m confused about. And there are innumerable things of which I`m ignorant, and it`s in this last category that I find hope for myself and for society.
Ignorance could be, if not bliss, at least the beginning of it. In The Cloud of Unknowing we might find the beginning of wisdom, an inkling of a grand confession that we know next to nothing and yet we recognize that the potential for knowledge is an expanding universe. I love ignorance because it promises something else, it promises that there is something more.
But ignorance is a balsam shield, plastic armor. It works for us only as a window and a warranty that things could be so much better if only we admit how little we know, how much there is to learn.
We`ve all known the person who can`t wait for you to stop talking so he can begin. He`s not listening to you, he`s listening for an opening. That`s your clue that he`s not worth listening to. How well that fits our politicians we wince to know. They`re dying to tell us how little they know, how little it`s necessary to know.
And our pundits, are they pundits or opinionators? Are they instructors or intellectual drug-pushers?
I take all this as a given, that if we could shut our societal mouth we could begin to learn something. That is why I loathe this idea of teaching to the test. What test? Our existing level of ignorance? The authorized hand-me-down beliefs that have served us so poorly?
The trouble with this business is that, like so many ideas, it defies common sense. Who the hell writes the tests? They remind me of a so-called Newsmax poll about the Obama presidency. The first few multiple-choice questions approximate reasonableness and then you get four choices that leave you no choice but to condemn his presidency. Ignorance as a balsam shield.
But my problem with the pundits runs off in another direction. They are invested in how they look. I`m not talking about the occasional toupee. I`m talking about whether they come across as expert. They`re invested, like the politicians they savage and idolize at the same time, in being right. And being right is a depressingly adolescent ambition. Being wrong, or at least being as willing to admit it as you are willing to exult in being right, is the wee beginning of progress, of wisdom.
But the pundits write and yak for media that require the appearance of infallibility, a dirt-cheap commodity. They`re hired for their leanings, to balance opinions in an inherently unbalanced society. They are not hired to show us how to learn, and the teachers compelled to teach to tests are prevented from teaching us how to learn, not least because students learn in different ways "and reveal what they have learned in different ways.
With so many people being right a society is bound to founder on the rocks of certitude. It would be better to teach in our schools and inculcate in our politics that being wrong and changing course is inevitable and admirable. Instead, we smear people who change their minds as wobblies, which says a great deal more about us than it does about them.
Changing one`s mind is a sign of intelligence. Of courage, even. How could we have fashioned a society that does not want anybody to change his mind? That`s a formula for a game of crash cars. Give me a pundit who insists on being right and I`ll give you the very definition of an anti-pundit, because he cannot insist on being right and being learned at the same time. He can only persist in bluffing. And that includes me, here and now. At any given moment I run the glorious risk of being full of it.
But the pundit`s bosses want him to insist on being right. They don`t want their in-house liberal going all conservative on them or their in-house conservative wandering from red states to pink notions. They want stasis, deadlock, polarization. They want what we have, what they have helped make "an intellectually frozen society. The polarization that the media claim to report dispassionately is largely of their making. Their dismay is a crock of crocodile tears.
The pundits were not chosen for their willingness to learn, to be persuaded, to arrive at consensus. They were chosen for their ability to express a basketful of received ideas well and to chuck these objects at each other. They were chosen, in other words, to play a childish game by media that have outlived their heyday and are reluctant to rethink their roles in a society where information is moving faster than we absorb it.
The Tunisians who forced out their corrupt government thanked Facebook, not newspapers or television. They thanked a vehicle that conveyed free ideas, unfettered by advertisers` pressure. They thanked a medium of this century, not the last. Are the 20th Century artifact-media listening? Hardly.
The pundits were chosen to fill physical space and time "and that is the parameter of the old world, the world that is fading out of existence before our eyes. The new world is ideally suited to become informed, to change our minds, to arrive at a new consensus. But the pundits and their paymasters are fighting a rearguard action against this world`s coming into being.
The situation is analogous to literary magazines that see the Internet is ideally suited to lyrical and even narrative poetry. But first they must find, buy and install the kind of software that won`t savage a poem by imposing Gutenberg strictures on it.
The people, everywhere, are supplanting the pundits. For example, I take a picture of a flag hanging over a brilliant azalea bush in my front yard. I post it on Facebook. Some people make nice about it, but across the world others say my flag represents a great evil in the world. I say maybe all flags do, all nations. But the point is that this is the new journalism, if it can even be called that. This is the population of the world shaking off the fetters of an antiquated press, trying to express the suppressed.
It ain`t pretty. I was disgusted by the instant denigration of my country`s flag. But I heard it. I saw it. This is a giant step beyond the kind of corporate propaganda represented by our media, and it is a giant blow against the kind of polarization that comes from insisting on being right.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com