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Bowling for asinine

| Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Like the rest of America, I tuned in on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl. I must admit my enthusiasm for the event was somewhat deflated (har har) by the NFL’s sundry controversies. Nevertheless, I determined to do my patriotic (I’m sorry, the puns just happen) duty and enjoy the show while inhaling handful upon handful of Grab-and-Go popcorn.

During the commercials and quieter moments, I took the opportunity to revisit an old friend — Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” In this masterpiece of a dystopia, government edict renders all people equal in every way. The strong and fast are weighted down with lead ballast, the beautiful are covered up with ugly masks and the intelligent have noises piped into their heads to break their concentration. When athletic genius Harrison Bergeron tries to rebel against the society that has scorned him, he is brutally suppressed.

The story remains to this day my favorite work of Vonnegut’s, and it even got a TV movie in 1995 starring Sean “Rudy/Samwise Gamgee” Astin. Every time I read it, I feel the vague apprehension that comes with reading great dystopia. This time through the Big Game, with its most wonderful celebration of excellence — was a welcome antidote. Our beloved country is safe from the tyranny of conformity.

Or is it? We certainly celebrate astounding feats of physical ability — to a fault, at times. Yet we fail to show the same reverence for our top-tier intellects. The names of the great athletes persist through history, while the scientists and philosophers fade into obscurity. This is particularly strange, as any impartial observer (an alien, say) would view the thinkers’ achievements as more worthy of commendation than those of the ball-players. As much as I love the sport of baseball, how can we esteem Babe Ruth’s home runs more greatly than Norman Borlaug’s genetic engineering, the savior of a billion lives?

To be fair, a lot of the disparity can be explained away by the fact that science, to the uninitiated, can look dull. Try as hard as we might, even something as primal and revolutionary as the splitting of the atom can’t compete with the tension of a fourth-and-inches. (Perhaps if we got Katy Perry to perform midway through the Nobel announcements, flanked by men in helium atom costumes, we’d make up some of the deficit.) But that still doesn’t account for everything. There remains some undercurrent in our society that’s made us suspicious of the intellectual elite.

Ah, there’s that word “elite.” I’ve always been puzzled as to why it’s such a snarl word these days. If you want to undermine a scientist or economist’s credibility, there’s no need to formulate a counterargument — just accuse them of being an elite, and they’re suddenly reduced to nothing!

For some reason, this doesn’t work when the target is not part of the intelligentsia. Those who spent the run-up to the Super Bowl slandering Tom Brady and Russell Wilson never got around to calling them elites, even though such a designation unquestionably fit both of them. Whether it’s the NCAA’s Elite Eight or Pokémon’s Elite Four, the suggestion of excellence doesn’t seem to be a categorical insult. The only places where excessive competence is considered a liability appear to be science, the arts and of course, politics.

I’ve never seen people try to distance themselves more violently from their education than they do in politics. Candidates desperately attempt to out-“down-on-the-farm” their opponents, scrabbling for the populist vote. Consider the case of Jodi Ernst (R-IA), who gave the Republican response to the most recent State of the Union. Did her campaign advertise her as a high school valedictorian with a bachelor’s in psychology? Of course not, that would be elitist. Instead, Ernst told tales of her childhood on her family’s farm, castrating pigs.

This is particularly baffling given how many of America’s founders would today be ostracized as elites. George Washington was a multimillionaire with an 8,000-acre farm. Thomas Jefferson was a polyglot who graduated from William and Mary and founded the University of Virginia. And don’t even get me started on Benjamin Franklin!

The Harrison Bergerons of history built this country and this world. These so-called “elites” deserve our praise, not our scorn. Hopefully one day we’ll live in a world where the brightest minds of the day are held in the same high regard as their athletic counterparts on the gridiron. And no one will point and sneer, “Elitists.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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