Why are good guys so dumb? Pick any movie over the past few decades that had a protagonist with a heart of gold; chances are they also had a head of brick. The bad guys are always clever and smart but evil, and we are left reluctantly rooting for the virtuous but somewhat slow hero. They are all a bunch of Homer Simpsons, bumbling and making mistakes for 89 minutes before their moral sense kicks in and they channel their inner strength to do the right thing before the credits roll.
Is it just a Hollywood formula or is there a deeper truth? Does too much smarts obscure your moral compass?
In the world of academia, it is a cliché to observe that the more educated the faculty the more likely they are to be socialists, but that might be a combination of effects, including the ivory tower feeling that we can and should control the masses, if only we had the right people in charge.
In your own life, you probably knew all there really is to know about right and wrong when you were a toddler. Don't take other people's stuff. Don't hit. Since then, you've grown a lot smarter. Now, it is okay to take other people's stuff if someone else wants or needs it more. It is okay to hit if the person looks like someone you don't like.
Except you still have a niggling doubt in the back of your head, a tension you can't quite reconcile. You know it is still wrong to take people's stuff, so you call what you are doing "redistribution." You know it is wrong to hit, so you call it "spreading democracy."
Maybe there is a bug in the human psyche, a moral cancer, that grows and takes over our basic, simple understanding of right and wrong the longer we live, the smarter we get. Maybe it's why we look down on those who still cling to their childlike beliefs in good and evil.
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Our country was founded by Yankees, and Yankees originated essentially right here in Fairfield County. But Yankee started off as a derogatory term. By the time of the revolutionary war, the British were using it condescendingly to describe our kind of stupid but determined forefathers. They called us "Yankee Doodles," basically ignorant dolts. We stuck a feather in our cap and called it macaroni — how droll!
But it was us Yankees who kicked Britain's rump right back across the pond.
The original etymology of the term probably came from the diminutive Dutch first name Janneke, meaning Little John. And ironically it probably came from us Connecticut people using that name to describe the Dutch settlers of New York, but an outside group, the British, began applying it to us.
Sound weird? It's happened before and it'll happen again. Here's the phenomenon. Group A insults closely related Group B with a derogatory term T. Then outsiders come in and hear this term T being bandied about but they can't really tell the difference between A and B. The differences A and B perceive among themselves are too small for an outsider to notice, but they can hear the tone behind the term. Just as the first words you learn in a foreign language are the insults and swears, so too do the outsiders start disparagingly applying the same term T to members of both A and B.
You already know of another example: Eskimos. There are actually lots of different types of people that we broadly call Eskimos. One of the groups is the Innu. They speak a language called Montagnais. The Montagnais use the word assime-w, either meaning "person who laces snowshoes" or "people who speak a different language" to refer to the neighboring Mi'kmaq people. But we call all of the different indigenous northern people assime-w's or Eskimos, just as first the Brits and now the rest of the world refers to all Americans as Yankees. In fact, the Mi'kmaq live in northeastern New England. With a slightly different history, all us Yanks could have been Eskimos.
The Cherokee people are another example. They don't call themselves Cherokee. Even the word Cherokee is hard to pronounce in their own language. It was what another Native American tribe called them. The Cherokees call themselves Tsalagi, meaning "Principle People."
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And of course you've heard of Guido's. MTV's Jersey Shore stirred up enormous controversy recently by launching a new reality show throwing together a bunch of Italian kids in a summer house and seeing who does what to whom. Initially, they even used the word Guido in their promos, but it was considered a derogatory term for Italians, so they stopped, but they couldn't stop all of the guys from proudly referring to themselves as Guidos and all the girls from admitting that they were Guidettes, only interested in landing themselves a nice Guido, a term that seems to mean an Italian man who works out obsessively and spends enormous time in the bathroom styling his hair and making himself look good (though no episode has yet aired with any Guido sticking a feather in his cap).
When we the smarter people encounter these weirdos who still keep things simple, and seem to us a little slow, we are always curious. I know because I am one of those weirdos. I am a libertarian, and the libertarian party is the party of principle. We keep things simple. Don't steal. Don't hit. After my debate at the University of Connecticut in Stamford in 2006 against the Republican and Democratic candidates for the fourth district Congressional seat, the spouse of one of my opponents was waiting at a crosswalk with me. "How does a libertarian cross the street?" she joked. She was quite nice and we chatted for a bit, but I now understand what she and many others must think about libertarians, about Guidos, about Yankees and Eskimos, and what I think about all those film heroes: they're all a little off-putting. They remind us of our own simpler core. And we don't like it. We need to bring them back to size, and a derogatory term makes us feel better.
Imagine a world of hunchbacks. You and I used to walk normally but as we grow old, we slouch and our posture takes a permanent dip. When you meet someone who walks tall, do you not want to ask them how's the weather up there? What's stuck up your bum? Why are you walking so tall? Relax, man!
Let's not forget that it is these tall-walkers, slow-talkers, and macaroni-cap buffoons who are the only ones who ever have or ever will fight for freedom, a freedom that benefits even those that make fun of them. We all still have that core moral compass inside us, if we just brush off the years of dust.
It's been 89 minutes. We've made our mistakes, with the economy, with war, with health care, with too much government in general. It's time to channel our inner strength, free our inner Yankee, and once again do the right thing.
This article originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.
January 19, 2010