I was once driving around with a colleague, an actor of sorts whom I will call Harry Hotdoggen, when the subject of William Shakespeare came up.
“Shakespeare is The Emperor’s New Clothes, Harry said in a statement so definitive that I thought I could perceive the stone tablet he was burning the words onto.
“What?” I said, never really liking stone tablets.
“Everybody thinks he’s this great writer, but his plays are really crap,” Harry said, happy to elucidate. “You know, it’s just that English teachers and intellectuals tell you Shakespeare is great, so everybody has to believe it, when, really, his plays are crap, I know, I’ve done some Shakespeare, I’m telling ya, ya can’t understand what the hell he’s taking about.”
“What?” I said again thinking maybe some carbon monoxide had leaked into the car and I was just imagining this conversation.
“And Stephen Sondheim too, he’s also the Emperor’s New Clothes. The only people who like his musicals are effete snobs, and they don’t really like his work, they’re just pressured to say they do, refusing to admit that his tunes are not singable — they’re awful.”
I love Sondheim. I love Shakespeare. I would have said, “What?” again, but What? Was the use?
Harry Hotdoggen is an actor with a particular talent — some might call it a peculiar talent — and what he does he has wanted to do from a very early age, and he has known success doing it. Because he was convinced from that early age that he would achieve this success, he paid little if any attention in school, did not achieve any academic standing at all (and is proud of it), and has never considered for a minute wasting time suffering “higher” education — except that which he could achieve through drive time talk radio.
William Shakespeare has been judged the greatest writer of the English language, and possibly any language; Stephen Sondheim is considered by his fellow professionals and devoted fans as the greatest composer and lyricist of the last fifty years of musical theater. But the ill-educated Harry, a man and talent with his own fans to be sure, but one not destined, I would be willing to wager, to go down in history; Harry, with unshakable conviction in his wisdom; Harry has spoken the Word: Both Mister S’s are nothing but frauds and shams.
Harry Hotdoggen’s greatest role may be as a stand-in for the Great American Anti-Intellectual. He is the perfect example. I do mean anti-intellectual, not nonintellectual; there are people who are nonintellectual but not, necessarily, willfully ignorant. The Harry Hotdoggens of the world are not the type who, when confronted with a complex idea or a challenging work of art, say, “Wow, that’s hard for me to get my head around, I’ll have to give that some thought, but, jeez, interesting if nothing else.” Harry Hottdoggens are the type who immediately resent the idea or work of art. I have known Harry (and Harriet) Hotdoggens who take other people’s intelligence as a personal insult, as if they (the intelligent) have passed through their (the anti-intellectuals) lives only to diminish them by example. Which, if you think about it, is a bit of a backhanded compliment.
Harry Hotdoggens don’t see it that way, of course, their egos — as strong, individualistic, and inward directed as all of our egos are — will not allow such vision, nor allow that those more intelligent than they may truly be intelligent. The Harry Hotdoggens are not saying, If you can’t say something stupid, then don’t say anything at all; they are saying, If I don’t get it, it ain’t got nothing worth getting.
This arrogance of ignorance is especially true if an idea, some knowledge, a few well-established facts, or an intellectually rigorous conclusion goes against a deeply held belief, either social or religious. This arrogance of ignorance rests at the core of the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design. It gives spines of steel to homophobes defining marriage as only the type they have or wish to have; and volume to shouters for small government who still happily cash their unemployment, disability, and social security checks, not to mention climate change deniers who stand in the storm like a million mad Lears and shout, “It’s not our fault!” It is the arrogance of ignorance displayed by all those who would rather take the revelations of ancient, antique, antiquated and inadequate, supposedly written-in-stone, yet much too open to interpretation “sacred” texts, rather than the most current understanding of the workings of the universe that we have wrestled from nature by the scientific method, which is not open to interpretation, but always open to refinement and even — if new data justify it — falsification.
This arrogance of ignorance leads to ideology not ideas; madness not method; hate not the humane.