Word-a-day anger in the American Midwest

January 26, 2009

FROM JASON’S LACK OF IGNORANCE — I am going to rant a little bit about people who are willfully stupid.

A co-worker of mine has been trying to expand his vocabulary by having a word-of-the-day sent straight to his phone, and I give him kudos for the attempt at self-improvement. A couple of weeks ago, though, he decided to see whether I  could define “ossuary” (a repository for skeletal remains), and I could not comprehend why he became so angry when I tossed out the answer in an off-handed way without much thought.

He’s brought me a new word each day since, hoping to stump me and getting more irate each time I give the correct definition. It was not the reaction I expected. Competitive, maybe… but actually furious?

I tried to head off his growing head of steam today after nailing “mimetics,” explaining for the fifth time that I’ve got a BA in English. After all, I’m still paying down on the $68,000 I paid to learn those words, I told him.

It didn’t calm him down.

His attitude is frightening. This is a guy — an adult — who finds affront at the very knowledge he is seeking to gain. I could not grasp his outrage that I would simply hold a piece of information.

I tried soothing him by explaining how I pick apart the roots of the word to discover how the word works, first stripping away prefixes and suffixes and then thinking about the (usually) Latin or Greek at the heart. That didn’t work.

I tried to water it down by telling him that “mimetics” is really close to “mime” and “mimeograph.” That didn’t work either.

This is a man who never seized on the idea that you could actually apply the information Mr. Harrigan taught in seventh-grade English, or that anyone could have enjoyed doing so. He refuses to believe anyone would pay attention all those years ago, or care to keep all that “useless book learnin'” locked away and ready to access.

He cannot see the attractiveness of routinely flipping to the Discovery Channel for a quick documentary on the pyramids at Giza or how coral reefs form, or that such a thing to me is as fun as a beer and a football game.

This is a man for whom learning is torture, something to be avoided unless it comes in the near-painless dose of a text message once a day. I just don’t understand that mindset — anything more is unacceptable. I tried imagining what it would be like to be incurious, and I was horrified.

This is the blatant and god-fearing anti-intellectualism of the American Midwest. People here aren’t afraid of the unknown; they embrace it. They’ve been taught that mysticism is good, that their lord is in heaven and in control, and I’ve observed that that kind of spiritual dependence extinguishes the burning need to know more.

These are people afraid to speak precisely for the fear of being labeled “gay.” They avoid interest for fear of being “nerdy.” They refuse to exercise their minds so their friends don’t see them as “stuck up.”

This is why Paul Blart: Mall Cop is number one in the box office. It is why I weep for the future and pit myself so defiantly against the trusting apathy of theism. It is why I am forming a habit of buying neat books I hope will hook the children my wife and I will someday have.

My mother had a very limited education, but she made a decision early to make sure I had easy access to books about outer space, life under the oceans’ surface, and the peoples of far-away lands. It worked. There but for the grace of Mom go I.

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‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.