The Two Cultures With All Due Respect

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As the culture dies, the schools fail, the cities teem with functional illiterates and our children turn into tattooed primitives cosseted by a civilization whose origins they barely know, I watch them with…I will say it plainly…contempt. A mild contempt, but contempt. Sadness also, for they have lost much, but yes, a contempt I do not want yet cannot escape.

So, to judge by my correspondence, do many people old enough to read fluently. None use the word “contempt.” The taboos are too ingrained, the penalties too harsh, the unspoken laws protecting everyone’s self-esteem too punitively policed. Again, it is not a contempt that people want to feel: All would prefer that things not be as they are. Yet contempt is unmistakably what peers through their letters.

Contempt is the proper reaction to the contemptible.

I sometimes think the country is dividing itself into two cultures. The first, and much the smaller, will be of those who read widely and know much, who are cultured and live in a wider world than the merely present. The second will be of those who received high grades without understanding that they were being cheated by their elders. An abyss will separate the two.

The chain of cultivation, once broken, is not easily rejoined. We are doing everything we can to break it. It is a shame. People deserve more. We are doing this, as nearly as I can tell, so that the dull and uninterested will feel good about themselves. We are doing it to conceal that some of us are better than others.

Yes. Better. That word.

In the past it was recognized that certain qualities were superior to others, and that people who cultivated those qualities were superior to those who didn’t. The honest were thought superior to the thieving, the kind to the cruel, the provident to the shiftless, the wise to the foolish, the learned to the ignorant. Today one must not hold these views. They constitute the crime of elitism, which is the recognition that the better is preferable to the worse.

One must never, ever notice that some people are better than others.

Not to notice the inescapable requires either stupidity or moral blindness. Since few people are very stupid, we have chosen the road of blindness. We feign stupidity for reasons of politics.

It takes some serious feigning. If I said that Mother Theresa was no better than the Hillside Strangler — “she wasn’t better, just different” — people would laugh. If I said that Albert Schweitzer was of greater worth than an illiterate drug-dealing parasite in what is called the inner city, I would be called a racist. If I said that a white suburban kid who couldn’t do long division amounted to a medieval peasant without the excuses, I would be called, spare me, an elitist.

Which I am.

What, pray, should one feel toward intelligent people who cannot read without squinting laboriously, who know less of their language than a fourth-grader in 1954, have a shaky grasp of the multiplication tables, cannot write a coherent paragraph, and seldom read a book? Respect comes to people who merit respect. It isn’t an entitlement. Contempt also comes to those who merit it. And should.

I do not scorn, say, savages from Papua-New Guinea who wear penis gourds, eat huge grubs from within logs, and peer at distant airliners as those vouchsafed a glimpse of divinity. It is unreasonable to blame them for not having profited from opportunities they didn’t have. I watch them with wonder, but not contempt.

But the lazy, shiftless, deliberately half-lettered, the feckless and socially worthless — yes, worthless: that, and “shiftless,” are words that could well be resurrected — those who have had every opportunity to better themselves but couldn’t summon the effort…for them I cannot help feeling pity. And contempt.

And what should one think of the bloated welfare mother with a second-grade education, with a litter of five she can’t feed and won’t school, by twenty-five fathers she can’t remember, who spends her limited time between couplings in watching Oprah and feeling abused? The best I can come up with is revulsion. And pity, yes. Being a public uterus cannot be pleasant. Yet I will not pretend that it is admirable.

And what of the mall children of the suburbs, who leave high school with less arithmetical fluency than I had in the sixth grade in 1957 in the schools of Alabama? I didn’t know arithmetic because I was particularly meritorious. I was a barefoot Southern kid with a BB gun in one hand and a fielder’s glove in the other. I knew arithmetic, we all knew arithmetic, because the society, the schools, and our parents made it plain that we ought to know it, and in fact were going to know it, at which point the conversation was over.

This brings us to a greater question: What should one feel other than contempt for a society that, enjoying virtually unlimited resources, deliberately enstupidates its children? We don’t have to do it. We choose to. We are ruining our society on purpose.

Today I see mall rats who go through high school with the red puffy eyes born of dope, and literally count on their fingers to do multiplication. On graduation they take one course at the community college, play video games, and hang out pointlessly with their friends. I’ve got more respect for dirt. You can grow plants in it.

I once wrote a column on the almost comic state of regained subhumanity. A friend of mine responded:

“Johnny can’t add coz (a) his grade school teachers are moron socialists, (b) his parents are mouth-breathing, TV watching losers, and (c) he’s majoring in sociology so he can get a gov’t job like everyone else.”

I can’t see much wrong with that analysis.

The desire to disguise differences in merit by ideological cleansing, and the atmosphere of pre-human irredentism now earnestly promoted in what were for a time the schools, will promote precisely the elitism they pretend to vanquish. Those who achieve will always look down on those who didn’t bother. This is certainly true in regard to schooling. As the gap increases between the few who know their history and literature, and those who gurble ungrammatically about their favorite situation comedies, the contempt will become sharper. Two cultures.

Maybe self-esteem comes too high. Besides, who will have greater respect for themselves, the puzzled and half-literate, or those who read confidently and know that they have been well educated? If you want to respect your self, do something worthy of respect. Now there’s a concept.

Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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