When people ask me what I do I often pause before I speak. I know that everyone thinks, but I always feel strange telling people that I’m a professional thinker. I find it hard to admit that I am a philosopher. Sometimes I think that people would rather hear that I’m on parole for armed robbery, sell kidnapped house pets to laboratories for medical research or run a Right-wing, anti-government militia group rather than to hear that I’ve made a career out of thinking.
Although given obvious factors it might be a little difficult convincing people that I’m a member of a Right-wing militia.
But now, I’m declaring this loudly and proudly: I like to think for a living. I am a philosopher.
Dare I call myself an intellectual.
I’m not trying to brag on myself or anything. I’m really not all that smart. I say this because we lost a brilliantly philosophical mind this year when Gore Vidal died.
* If you haven’t read any of Gore Vidal’s stuff, I suggest that you stop reading this blog post right now and hustle your butt to a bookstore… or your could hustle your fingers to Amazon (or Wikipedia)… or better yet, just go to YouTube and type “Gore Vidal” in the search bar.
Don’t forget to come back and finish reading this post, though.
I suppose everyone has their first time stories about everything (get your mind out of the gutter!), and I certainly remember the first time I realized that there were people out there who liked to think.
Here’s what happened:
My radio had lost the signal from the local urban/hip-hop station I usually listened to every morning, and so I had to search the dial for something to listen to while I brushed my teeth (you see, there’s a Spanish radio station that has a signal that obliterates every other radio signal within a 1000 mile radius). It was the first time I had journeyed to the far left of the radio dial. That morning I stumbled on to Amy Goodman interviewing Gore Vidal on her radio show Democracy Now!. This discovery was pretty amazing to me. I was convinced that the only people who got on TV or the radio had to be on MTV or on the cover of People magazine or good-looking — they certainly weren’t old or thought deep thinkers like Gore Vidal. And none of the people on MTV seemed to have a clue who Gore Vidal was.
Maybe Chris Hardwick did. He studied philosophy at UCLA.
You don’t have to think too hard to know that there’s something wrong with this. There was a time, long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away when people (called public intellectuals) did appear on daytime television.
With a mainstream media that would rather cover celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Dina Lohan than to interview public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Peter van Inwagen, to say that the quality of participants the public discourse has declined is a bit of an understatement. Here is television host Bill Maher on why Americans are stupid:
The public complains that the American people are “stupid” and “uninformed”, yet we state that this is so knowing full well that an informed public requires an informed leadership.
Listen: Our Founding Father and 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, knew that a successfully democratic government requires an informed public. Jefferson wrote, “. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…” and “that democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment. ” Of course, in Jefferson’s time the town crier shouted the day’s news in the streets — but the fact that no one physically stands in the public square does not mean that the public square is vacant, nor does it mean that the public does not need to be informed.
We tend to think that we have a choice between two extremes: brains or looks.* Ask anyone which they prefer. If you’re not anywhere near a philosophy class, the answer you’re sure to get is that people, on whole, prefer looks. In our celebrity-driven age, the choice is amplified: being smart is well and good, but what you really want is to be super hot. We aren’t shown people who are famous for being smart (or worse yet, intellectual). What we are shown is people who are famous for being famous or famous for their external qualities alone.
Valuing a person merely for one’s looks may be beneficial to the individual who is being valued for their looks, but it does nothing for the public as a whole. Being aware that Halle Berry is “super hot” does not enhance my capacity for rational thought. Nor does the fact that Channing Tatum has washboard abs make it any easier to understand modus ponens. The fact that intellectuals like Gore Vidal, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn are dying off after spending many years not on network television makes the fact that professional thinkers are no longer
welcome invited even worse — once our aging public intellectuals are dead they will be replaced by Snooki, the Richards sisters from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and girls from The Bad Girls’ Club.
I’m going to guess right now that unless the topic of conversation is getting drunk or fighting, the level of intellectual thought won’t be very high.
I mean, really. For Pete’s sakes people, Noam Chomsky is 83 years old for goodness sakes! He hasn’t much time left!
Get that man on Watch What Happens Live right now!
* Ok, I’m not suggesting that a person cannot be both hot and intelligent. These qualities are not mutually exclusive. What I am saying, however, is that as a culture, we tend to value one quality over the other; which explains why a fellow like Bertrand Russell would not be chosen as one of Barbara Walters’ Most Fascinating People, and why the Kardashian family was.