I just ran across a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that touched a nerve. In a column entitled, "Just Another Leftist Loon," James E. McWilliams, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Marcos, writes about the hate mail he received after writing an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times about President Bush (the op-ed piece is available free online from the Dodge City Daily Globe, at least for now, at http://www.dodgeglobe.com/stories/112203/opi_1122030038.shtml).
So, why do I care that a professor in Texas got hate mail for criticizing the president? I find it disturbing that so many people cannot learn about and respond to issues rationally but instead are infuriated by any opinion that contradicts their own. A democracy, government by the people, requires that the people doing the governing can think and respond rationally. Instead, too many people in our nation respond to differing opinions with all the rationality of an angry mob carrying torches. Those who respond primarily with emotion rather than reason are easy to manipulate with emotional appeals, making them--and our nation--easy prey for an aspiring tyrant who can fuel their fears and kindle their anger for nefarious purposes.
And there are others who stand to benefit from a populace ruled primarily by their guts rather than their brains--marketers. Most advertising appeals to emotions, and often our less-honorable ones--greed, envy, fear, and lust come immediately to mind. The more people make decisions rationally, the less likely they are to fall for the latest spiel dreamed up by Madison Avenue. So, as a capitalist democracy, we face two conflicting needs: a well-educated, rational populace capable of effective self-governance, and a large population of not-too discriminating consumers to buy products and thereby fuel our economy.
Interestingly, our aversion to reasoned argument is a big part of the op-ed piece that prompted such angry letters. McWilliams argues that we Americans find the "yeoman with a sledgehammer" more appealing than the "smarty-pants with a book." Hence, according to McWilliams, the appeal of George W. Bush. But much of the McWilliams essay is devoted not to Bush but to his yeoman predecessor, Andrew Jackson, who also eschewed intellectualism in favor of instinct. As McWilliams points out, many Americans have long been driven more by the gut than the mind, yet our nation has survived and prospered in the 175 years since Jackson took office. In this fact I find some comfort.
Thursday, January 08, 2004
People who dislike buzzwords and trendy slang will enjoy the annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English, courtesy of Lake Superior State University. You can find the 2004 list at http://www.lssu.edu/banished/archive/2004.php. My favorite entry is "hand-crafted latte," an abomination I heard for the first time a few weeks ago in a Starbucks ad. Talk about pretentious--it's not a work of art, it's a !@#$% cup of coffee! Or, in the words of Orin Hargraves of Westminster, Maryland, who nominated the term for the list of banished words, "This compound is an insult to generations of skilled craftspeople who have mustered the effort and discipline to create something beautiful by hand. To apply 'hand-crafted' to the routine tasks of the modern-day equivalents of soda jerks cheapens the whole concept of handicraft." I couldn't agree more.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Welcome to Janet's world! In creating this blog, I am violating several fundamental tenets of good writing: I don't know who my audience is, I don't have a specific purpose in mind... I don't even have a topic. I suspect all of these will develop over time, assuming I keep this thing up. I read recently that the great majority of blogs (>80%) contain only one entry. Well, we shall see. If you stumble across my blog, please drop me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know what you think of it or what you'd like to see in this space. Thanks for reading!