Two Cheers for Nerds

Isn’t it nice, the way we’re always so anxious not to let each other get above ourselves? The way we’re so terrifically concerned to make sure no one gets any big ideas? The way we’re so very very careful to make sure that everyone understands that our first duty is always to be normal, to be regular, to be like everyone else – so that if we must do something as eccentric and peculiar and self-indulgent as developing some intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and inclination to think about things – well, all right, maybe we can be forgiven for that, as long as we can show that we’re not nerds about it, and that we realize how boring all that stuff is really.

I was musing on this subject earlier this morning, because I was thinking about the significance of the fact that in an hour of listening to the radio yesterday I managed to hear two examples of Major Media assumptions that most things other than popular culture are boring – and then when I got on the computer, the first thing I saw was example three. There’s something strange about this…

The two yesterday. The first was in a bit of dialogue from the new movie ‘Shattered Glass’ on Fresh Air. It sounds like quite an interesting movie – centering on events at the New Republic, of all things. Not a big newspaper, not a tabloid, not a shiny popular magazine, but the New Republic! Not your normal Hollywood fare. And as Terri Gross pointed out, no car chases, no guns, no romance; just pure journalism. So that’s good! That’s excellent. It’s very encouraging that once every ten years or so the adults among us are allowed to see a movie that’s not all explosions and flames and collisions of one kind or another. Very, very good. But even there…The movie is about Stephen Glass, a reporter who made up his stories, and the bit of dialogue is from an editorial meeting at which he pitches a story about the boxer Evander Holyfield and biting. Then Charles Lane has to pitch his story, and he begins by saying, sheepishly, ‘That’s a hard act to follow.’ Long pause. ‘That’s a very hard act to follow.’ Sheepish laugher. ‘My story is about Haiti…’

Hm. So a boxer who bites is fascinating, and Haiti is boring. Hmmm. Really? Is that really true? And is it true even in the editorial offices of TNR? No, as a matter of fact, it’s not, because it turns out that particular scene didn’t happen, it’s a screenplay fabrication, and Tanner didn’t think the Haiti story was boring at all. Not surprisingly. But then how dreary that the movie has to pretend that it is.

And the other item in the hour was from ‘On the Media,’ an NPR show I hardly ever listen to because it’s so relentlessly cute and would-be funny – but I did hear a few minutes, which included a listener writing to rebuke one of the show’s hosts for calling C-Span ‘a yawn’. Well, granted, some of what’s on C-Span is not what you’d call lively, but it a lot of it is important all the same. And much of it is highly interesting, and even if it isn’t, is it helpful for influential voices such as those on National Public Radio to tell us that it isn’t? Remarks like that aren’t just a description, they’re also a prediction, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a meme – in short, an instruction. ‘This stuff is boring and if you don’t think so you’re boring too.’ ‘This stuff is boring because it’s about the gummint and tedious crap like that, not about good old cop shows which are so much more interesting.’

And today, browsing for news, I promptly find an article in the New York Times about John McWhorter.

Mr. McWhorter, an intense, confident and — perhaps not surprisingly — loquacious man, is not a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. Nor, for that matter, a nerd, despite a résumé that bristles with intellectual precociousness. Self-taught in 12 languages — including Russian, Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew, which he initially took up as a Philadelphia preschooler when he was 4 — he is a respected expert in Creole languages. (In his spare time, he is compiling the first written grammar of Saramaccan, a Creole language spoken by descendants of former slaves in Suriname.) A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books…But none of these exploits, he is at pains to show, should be taken to mean that he is not hip. His conversation is peppered with knowing allusions to pop culture — Britney Spears, Tori Amos, television sitcoms, rap and Broadway.

Well, who said they should be taken to mean he is not hip? Why would we think he’s a nerd, and why does intellectual precocity (not precociousness) imply nerd-dom? And why should we care anyway? Why do we need people not to be nerds or unhip? And what do those words mean anyway? Do they really mean people who don’t know how to talk or walk across a room, or do they just mean people with intellectual interests? Why is it not possible in a mainstream mass market publication to mention people with some kind of knowledge (other than that taught in law school or business school at least) without apologizing? And what does all this constant nagging repetition of the idea that intellect is suspect or risible or both do to us? Does it train us to believe that we’d better not develop any ourselves lest we wind up in some sort of zoo, in the Nerd cage, having peanuts and battered volumes of Heidegger thrown at us?

Oh never mind, I’m bored, I think I’ll go shoot some pool.

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