Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Does It Hurt To Think?

Quite a few years ago I came across, in an obscure catalog, the book Is It Painful To Think? — a collection of interviews with philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess. I was immediately struck by the title, and made a mental note to acquire the book.

Back then my book budget was comparatively meager, and there were other books already on my buy list. After a while I'd forgotten about the book entirely. Years later, I misremembered it as Does It Hurt To Think? Once again I was captivated by the title, imagining it to be the perfect response to all manner of muddled thought that I saw around me.

Determined finally to buy the book, I performed a quick title search at and came up empty. How could that be? Eventually I realized I still had a copy of that obscure catalog (Dave Foreman's Books of the Big Outside, long ago defunct. Yes, that Dave Foreman.) in my files. I found the real title.

What hit me first was that I preferred my own version of the title. I saw the possibility of various kinds of sarcastic punning on the word "hurt". In the literal sense, does thinking require so much effort that it induces pain, thereby becoming a disincentive to thought? Or, change the does to would: Since the present approach of not thinking doesn't seem to be working, what harm could there be in reversing course and attempting to think? One can imagine an exasperated Jewish mother-in-law, in heavy Brooklyn accent, nagging "Would it kill you to think once in a while?"

Though slightly dismayed by my faulty memory, I was also delighted to discover that my version of the title is apparently "available," and so I claim it now. (Can I do that?) I like it so much that, should I ever publish a book, on any subject whatsoever, I will give it that remarkable title. More immediately, I hereby change the title of this blog from Prairie Journal to Does It Hurt To Think? I'm sure my one reader will be able to adjust.

Actually, the title Prairie Journal was never the very best fit. Having decided to start a blog, and anxious to post my first essay, I rushed through the blog creation process. Blogger rightly insisted that I specify a title, and several that I tried were already taken. So I selected Prairie Journal, not least because I anticipated there'd be a fair number of posts about my ongoing tallgrass prairie restoration.

The blog, however, had its own ideas about where we were going to go. There have been just a few prairie-related posts, such as "So you want to be a botanist?" and "Sharing My World With Snakes". By contrast, the universal themes of thought and truth, and the diminution of both, are a constant undercurrent in much that I have written. Sometimes they rise to the surface, as in "Dialog With Ideologues". Even my very first post was as much about clear thinking as it was about its ostensible subject, the Social Security Trust Fund. Appropriately, my new title underscores the importance of these substantive thematic underpinnings of my writing, and of intellectual inquiry in general.


I can think of no greater threat to thought and understanding than that font of nonsense which is religion. Religion, in all the forms with which I'm familiar, has the effect of "dumbing down" its adherents. My observations on this point will provide ample fodder for future essays, but for now a couple of quick examples will illustrate the point.

Believer to atheist: "I know you don't think there's a God, but shouldn't you believe anyway, just to be safe? If you're right, it won't matter. But if you're wrong ...."

Or, a mother whose son survives a tour in Iraq and makes it home alive: "I know there's a God, because God protected my son."

Religion's practitioners constantly employ it to make "sense" out of personal happenstance, imbuing chance and coincidence with deep meaning and strong conviction, and along the way obliterating the possibility of rational thought. Can such illogic help but corrupt lucid inquiry in other spheres of importance?

Although religion constitutes the greatest threat to clear thinking, it is by no means the only one. In this election season it is worth pointing out that politics, particularly right-wing politics, is remarkable in its ability to systematically cultivate and sustain small-mindedness. I speak here from personal experience. From what I have seen, there is a decidedly herd engendered aspect of muddled thinking that thrives at the conservative grass roots.

To wit: the endless chains of Internet emails perpetually and credulously forwarded from recipient to gullible recipient. They express a gossipy, poorly informed outrage regarding the trappings and symbols—but hardly ever the substance—attached to important issues of the day. And so, at a time when we are fighting two wars, these chuckleheads among us obsess over not the actual competence of a potential commander-in-chief, but whether he does or should wear a flag lapel pin. This crowd can be reliably counted on to reduce every substantive issue to its most shallow inanity.

Do not suppose that only the plebeian hordes swim at the shallow end of the intellectual pool. Just yesterday I received an email, with a long recipient list including much of my college-educated extended family, that (wrongly, it turns out, but so what?) alleged that Barack Obama was caught (with photo to prove it) saying the Pledge of Allegiance without his right hand over his heart. I am not making this up.

There seems to be a kind of inbred mass hysteria operating on the political right, that causes even persons of advanced education, high social status, or professional accomplishment to join the fray, while apparently checking their intelligence at the door. I don't have a ready explanation for this phenomenon, but I can attest that I never, ever, get chain political emails (inane or otherwise) from my friends on the left. It just doesn't happen.

But from the right, they keep coming. A recent chain email claimed to contain the text of a column by Maureen Dowd (no less!) of the New York Times (no less!) alleging that a large proportion of contributions to Barack Obama's campaign came from rich countries in the Middle East trying to influence the election. The email included the exact date that Ms. Dowd's column was supposedly published. Apparently none of the outraged geniuses who forwarded it was competent enough to verify, by going to the source, whether there really was such a column. Such due diligence would not even be necessary, except for the the complete gullibility, on prominent display, of presumably smart people who failed to wonder how such a massive violation of federal election law was being conducted without raising the attention of the authorities, and without getting Mr. Obama and his campaign staff tossed in the slammer.

Conspiracy theories, alas, are par for the course, and no theory is too bizarre to be propagated by mass email and forwarded to you by someone you know. How disconcerting it is that such vacuous discourse apparently informs a large segment of the voting public. How discouraging to realize that your friends, your relatives, persons who you held in high esteem, are apparently unable to think coherently.

Does it really hurt so much to think?


Debunkings of the Pledge of Allegiance complaint (as if it actually matters) can be found here and here. The Maureen Dowd scam is debunked here.

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 03, 2008

There's No There There

New York Times columnist David Brooks seemed almost giddy with delight (particularly in comments on PBS) at the unexpectedly un-weak performance of Sarah Palin in the vice presidential debate.

"Where," he asked, "was this woman during her interview with Katie Couric?"

Same woman, different format.

Katie Couric gently but determinedly brushed aside the governor's non-answers, and brought her back to the question posed. Unable to summon a coherent response, Ms. Palin spouted nonsense.

In the debate, Ms. Palin cheerfully answered (and not all that well) not the questions that were asked, but instead the ones she had rehearsed.

It's obvious which woman is the real Sarah Palin.

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved