The high cost of incuriosity
Who was it who first remarked on how incurious George W. Bush seemed? The late and sorely lamented Molly Ivins perhaps? Or Christopher Hitchens? Whoever it was deserves a medal. Sometimes good journalism lies not in a body of evidence but in singular perspicacity.
I didn’t realize it when I first encountered this observation, but I now see it as emblematic of a national plague. Isn’t it incuriosity that emboldens fools to accuse leaders of flip-flopping when the ability and willingness to change one’s mind is a benchmark of intelligence? What a curious notion that changing one’s mind is somehow synonymous with a lack of integrity or will. The idea doesn’t stand much scrutiny, but neither do most of our political and economic ideas. The idea suggests a people whose body politic is standing in cement watching it harden.
To be incurious, to settle for a tired handful of received ideas and slogans is surely one of our besetting ills. But I’m not so sure that intellectual sloth is at the root of the problem. The problem is, of course, polarizing in itself, because it discourages the compromises necessary to move a republic forward. This accounts for much of our deadlock. But I think the problem is rooted in the received idea being so flattering to our persistent racism. Hence you get the increasingly inane John McCain blaming illegal immigrants for Arizona’s wildfires.
When I was a boy it wasn’t uncommon in upstate New York to see Reserved signs hanging on little chains on doors of hotels and inns. What came immediately to mind, everyone’s mind, is that the signs meant no African-Americans. But it actually meant anyone who didn’t look like the owner’s cousins.
Now it takes a lot of slogans, incuriosity and received ideas to sustain this kind of prejudice. It requires a big box store full of unexamined, unchallenged stereotypes, especially now that we see African-Americans as film heroes. So we have had to broaden our interpretation of Reserved to mean newcomers, Hispanics, Arabs, Somalis, and others. The horizons of our bigotry have been broadened. And Hollywood has helped with movies like True Lies that portray Arabs as repulsive creatures instead of the very people who gave us most of our higher mathematics and transmitted to us ancient Greek literature.
The real news, perhaps even more significant than the press’s suppression of the question who profits from our endless wars, is how is it that in the 21st Century, with all our newfangled means to communicate, we are such an incurious society? Inundated by books and periodicals, dinned by chatter, how is that we gather around our tribal campfires parroting bullshit as if our lives depended on it? Is it because this new world, with its exhilarating means to communicate, frightens us? How can a patriarchy scared of women refrain from scapegoating newcomers?
Why are we so immune to new ideas, so resistant to changing our minds in the presence of new facts and ideas? My guess is that we fear The Other and we pin labels of convenience on The Other-African-American, Latino, Jew, Arab, Muslim, whatever bears the stickum of bigotry. The other side of bigotry is fear. We live uncertain lives. A new idea intimidates people who have been taught that education is learning by rote instead of learning how to learn.
Our jobs are here today and gone tomorrow. The Predator Class is after our benefits, our pensions, our homes, our cars, our vacations, our health, our children’s education. And our response is fear expressed in resistance to ideas.
It was the plethora of pharmaceutical ads on television that ushered me to this conclusion. They are almost comically fear-mongering: you may die if you don’t take this drug, and you may die if you do take it. Fear-based advertising. Fear-based reportage. Television has even managed to demonize the weather. Fear stampeded us into Iraq, and now we’re unwilling to concede that serial wars may be as much the cause of our debt as the social safety net, to say nothing of the lunatic war on drugs.
In a century when there are exciting reasons for hope we have retrenched into a fear-based society. We fear Muslims, cancer, illegals, debt, drugs, hijabs, Sharia, gays, abortion. Everywhere there is blather about what we fear, but very little about the causes for optimism, very little about how we might prosper. Even our political ideas are about cutting, slashing, scapegoating, blaming, limiting, prosecuting, imprisoning, waging war. The press doesn’t even bother to insist that candidates have ideas about creating new technologies, new industries, new ways to approach problems. It’s enough for them to disguise their scapegoating in such worn-out terms as states’ rights and immigration reform.
A fear-based culture is bound to be incurious, and it is bound to lash out at those who call upon it to rethink its notions. I suspect the Bush No Child Left Behind initiative is the inevitable waste product of an incurious administration. The idea is to test children for what they have learned by rote, not for how they have learned to learn, and then blame the teachers for the results. And then underfund it to make sure a bad idea fails. In other words, test the children for received ideas rather than their skills at finding and examining new ideas, and when it predictably fails blame the teachers and their unions, the real targets of the cynical program. No Child Left Behind is a fine way to produce a new generation of dupes who will challenge nothing and believe any damned thing at all.
George W. Bush was an avatar of this culture, hero of an intellectually arthritic nation. And the first observer who called him George the Incurious was a kind of Robin Hood, robbing the comfortably narrow-minded of their complacence.
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 Latte’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