The intellect is the tyrannical ruler of the state of American consciousness which is really the state of being unconscious or unaware of the distinction between reality and illusion. Perhaps that is one reason why we don’t trust this dictator even though we pride ourselves in being “the creature that reasons.” We are also, however, a bit schizophrenic when it comes to our relationship with the intellect. We are deeply suspicious of it and yet we rely on it to solve our problems and to get us what we want. The intellect is the director of our survival strategy. This might all sound a bit crazy. That’s because false-self survival behavior is as good a definition for insanity as one could find.
Paradoxically, anti-intellectualism runs deep in the American psyche as well, probably beginning with the colonists who had no use for the effete, foppish oligarchs back in Europe much less their second and third sons sent to America (they couldn’t inherit land due to the laws of primogeniture) to strut their social and intellectual superiority. Not used to working, these sons of European aristocracy were undoubtedly miffed when in the early colonial settlement they were told, “No work, no eat.” What was respected on the American colonial frontier was hard work and common sense, not “book larnin.”
Now, centuries later, we continue to struggle trying to understand exactly how to use this human feature called intelligence. We will depend on the very perceptive film critic Howie Movshovitz who will help us see that a mistrust of the glib intellectual is alive and well in America. “Americans have always distrusted intelligence, especially, the kind that advertises itself. We like modesty, plain speech and direct talk. We’ll always choose the practicality of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee over the pretentious and dangerous medieval complexity of King Arthur and his knights.” How does this bias show up in American films and what does it mean in relationship to Simple Reality?
“Americans prefer dopes to experts and would always prefer the jawing of a down-home country boy to the slick legalese of the lawyers. John Wayne’s playful, contemptuous ‘pilgrim’ addressed to James Stewart’s bookish lawyer in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’ is a beloved example of our love of experience over book learning. In Howard Hawks’ ‘Ball of Fire,’ Barbara Stanwyck, as a gangster’s moll, teaches a houseful of stodgy professors the vibrant language of actual people and the ways of the world.” Americans value experience over theory, pragmatism over polemics.
“‘America’s idea of wisdom comes from people like Will Rogers,’ says Movshovitz, ‘and much American folk humor pits pretentious learning in a losing fight against the simple, intelligent experience. Theory makes us nervous and distrustful.’” In the film Forrest Gump the hero isn’t “intelligent” but is compassionate and possesses a vague type of wisdom. “He lacks the complexity to realize why the contemporary world is so violent and cruel—why anyone shot JFK and others, why there is a war in Vietnam—but he has the naïve sense to see through the nonsense to the basics.” Perhaps Gump has a vaguely felt sense of Simple Reality.
Forrest clearly lives in a different paradigm than the rest of us. “He’s the ancient holy fool who knows what’s what through the smoke of human rationalization. He’s the idiot savant—like Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Rain Man’—whose extremely narrow perspective still reveals great truths for the rest of us.” So much for the sympathetic film anti-hero, or anti-intellectual—what appears on the screen next—alas is dumb and dumber.
Some of our on-screen heroes seem to glory in trying to outdo each other in avoiding learning anything in their “excellent adventures.” Bill and Ted, “manage to travel through time and space, meet some of the great thinkers and achievers of all time and come away with nothing at all.” Going one step further we have Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, “a satire on how Americans admire morons. He’s the genuine article, a great example for human behavior, with the implication that it’s better not to understand what’s going on.” Now we’re beginning to get at the heart of P-B and our avoidance of suffering by denying reality. Chauncey Gardiner personifies the false self.
Now let’s throw in a little politics in the context of movies in P-B. Movshovitz quotes Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Irvine. “‘Stupidity is always conservative. It longs for a simpler time and people, for things we’ve lost. It’s inherently nostalgic.’ Williams is fascinated that ‘goodness links up with stupidity. It’s a measure of our cynicism (to believe) that the only way to be a good guy is to be stupid.’”
How about an anti-intellectual science fiction film? Based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a story about book burning, Francois Truffaut’s film of the same name is faithful to the message that: “Books are burned because they cause unhappiness and social disorder.” Freedom and chaos become bad things and are linked with the problematic “intellectual.”
Enter Alfred Einstein and his query: Is the universe friendly or not? And the closely related: Are human beings good or evil? Newsday’s film critic, Jack Matthews, answers: “I say evil.” And he continues: “I think we instinctively think that evil is a learned behavior. (A character like) Gump is a romantic way of lamenting evil and the loss of innocence.” A shift to P-A could regain both goodness and innocence as a result of reconnecting with our natural wisdom.
Finally, to the “American Fool.” We remember from watching fools in Shakespeare’s plays that the fool had special permission and indeed an obligation to speak the truth to the king without fear of reprisal. University of Colorado historian, Patricia Limerick, says that, “What the fool tells us about intelligence has to do with vanity. Vanity is a great block. Intelligence without humility leads to evil.” In the context of Simple Reality there is no such thing as evil, but vanity certainly is among those human behaviors leading us to self-destruction.
Movshovitz now gives an eloquent analysis of American anti-intellectualism as expressed in the films we have mentioned. “While the holy fool, and perhaps Gump, clarify the useless obscurities of life, Wayne, Garth [“Wayne’s World”], Bill and Ted respond to human life with ignorance. They don’t lack brains; they choose [emphasis added] stupidity and ignorance over education, whether practical or bookish. In a world much like the one we all inhabit, these young men prefer to know nothing.”
Indeed, “American Fools” continues to choose reaction over response, P-B over P-A, not because we are stupid, but because we are paralyzed by fear, unaware that our natural inner wisdom is close at hand. Pretending to be the fool, we might think we can escape our legitimate suffering and the illusion that we take to be reality. In truth as long as we play the fool, and cling to our childish survival strategy, the joy, freedom and peace of mind inherent in Simple Reality will elude us. See you at the movies.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.