The Dawn of Idiocracy

My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all…

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

~George Carlin

This week I read about the 900+ writers who signed a letter to Amazon asking the company to stop selective retaliation of authors published by Hachette who are in a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. You can read about the letter here. And for simple explanation of the dispute, you can view this LA Times article. In all of this a current runs much deeper than it appears on the surface, one aimed not at sticking it to writers who worked hard to be where they are now but at control.

What bothers me about Amazon and the alleged bullying is not that I feel sorry for successful authors in the thick of this debate. Ok, actually I do. I know a little about what it takes to start writing a novel and finishing it. The success part? I am still waiting, but that’s a separate issue. What bothers me is that Amazon has gone from selling books to everything under the sun. Need a lawn mower? Check out Amazon prices. Need body wax? Look no further than Amazon. Can’t find that doo-hickey that does the thinga-mah-bob? My guess is Amazon has it.

Amazon has obliterated brick and mortar bookstores, both chain stores and independent operators, and with no other competition around it is attempting to fix prices namely because there’s no other game in town. In other words, control is the law of the land.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an Amazon Prime member. I also have a couple of books for sale on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion here. And over the years I have purchased plenty of items from Amazon; mostly books, but a few videos and perhaps a video game or two for my son.

So, O’Brien, why are you so hung up on the control issue? For the last thirty years or so there has been a systematic drive to create less critical thinkers in our society. A good many corporations, Amazon, while relatively new, can be counted among them, contribute to this drive by steering attention away from books and learning. In Amazon’s case, at least in my humble opinion, by offering all kinds of crap readers do not need. If you don’t believe me, go over to the Amazon web site. If you’re already signed in, then sign out. And then look at the home page. Right now, as I write this, there are ads for men’s fashion, solid state drives (not that I would know what a solid state drive is if you dropped one on my head), videos, and digital cameras. Did I leave out the Bluetooth Audio Receiver? How about the ad from Xfinity Triple Play? Never mind. Moving on.

Call me crazy. Laugh if you want. Go ahead. I’m thick-skinned that way so I don’t mind. Then ask yourself this: how does critical thinking help me get what I want? In the question I pose there are two operative words that sum up our culture: get and want.

Someone smarter than me once wrote that Americans, despite whatever label they self-apply—mother, father, CEO, postal employee, teacher, factory worker, carpenter, philosopher, are first and foremost consumers. This word ‘consumer’ need not be applied to those of us who feel compelled to buy things. A consumer can also be someone like me consuming electricity to write these words. As such, we are more concerned with wanting and getting than we are with thinking.

But O’Brien, you say, I’m finished college. Why do I need to think critically now? Or to put it more bluntly, in the words of one of my former professors, the late great John C. Berkey: “Oh fuck that, man.” Why? Because I am a member of the society in which you live. Because year in and year out many of us accumulate worthless crap that we just don’t need. Because no matter what side of the political fence you fall on we all vote for the same people who, when you get right down to it, don’t give a rat’s ass about their constituency. Sure you can vote for the person whom you think will end the deficit, eradicate war, bolster big business, lower taxes, etc.; but ultimately we do not matter to them.

The eradication of critical thinkers in any society is bad. We weep for other countries or at least feel uneasy when we see in the news that teachers, humanitarian aid workers, religious figures, or what have you are rounded up and summarily executed in the name of a system ‘wanting’ to gain power. Ironically, we cruise through our own lives in what David Foster Wallace referred to as the ‘default setting,’ not questioning things, not caring about anyone else but ourselves (and what we want to get), and generally not interested in bettering ourselves. We eschew radical thinking, but we will not think twice about gaining benefit from such radical thinking if it somehow becomes mainstream (penicillin, electricity, the telephone, equal rights, the list goes on and on). And we appear, as Americans, to be quite comfortable with the continued dumbing down of our population.

Case in point: my son’s high school summer reading list. It is peppered with books on a middle school reading level. Dumbing down gone wild. Was it a dream? Or do I remember when teachers attempted to challenge students with reading assignments? For my son, and his contemporaries, it’s a brave new world; one in which corporations have the last say in education (or what they loosely define as education).

It is the dawning of the age of idiocracy. My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all, that knows not how to offer resistance to detrimental conditions, that will not understand what all the fuss was about in the Sixties with Vietnam protests or even the Eighties with protests against nuclear proliferation, that closer to home none in his generation will stand up against police brutality, genetically modified foods, etc. Worse, my son’s generation will no longer understand why it is important to nurture their own ideas with the ideas of those who came before them. In short, they will lack critical thinking. As a parent, a writer, an educator, and a human being, I find that troubling.

My Precious, or Weird Things about Writers

Writers have weird writing habits; some more strange than others. I read somewhere recently about a dozen or so writers who get up in the morning and write without fail. Then there were the powerhouses like Ray Bradbury who advocated for joy in writing. Others, I am sure, were tormented. We all know their stories. Somewhere, a long time ago, I read about Henry Miller who would not write at night; not anything serious. He preferred to go out and explore places (read: visit whorehouses, no doubt), or just go read in a café somewhere. I wonder what Miller would have made of all the internet cafés and people taking up space in chain coffee joints like Starbucks.

In college, we read Flaubert among others. My professor in that class raved about how Flaubert would agonize all day over a single sentence. I didn’t get it back then, but I do now.

Hemingway would quit for the day just when it was getting good.

Thomas Wolfe was famously reported to have shouted “Ten thousand words!” one day when he hit that benchmark. I was always a fan of Wolfe. But more than Wolfe I admire Henry James; not so much for his portrayal of Americans meeting Europeans or his use of interior monologue and unreliable narrators. What I admire is how he wrote so much in longhand first. Writing with a pen and paper (or pencil if you prefer), lends a different pace to writing, to the process, that typing at a computer cannot.

Some writers leave the comfort (or chaos) of their own homes and go to a writing studios or an office. I never understood this. But then I am not in a position to write full-time for a living so I don’t know if that would work for me or not.

Other writers carve out a niche in their homes; one author I friended on Facebook wrote of how her children had, on some quest that only children understand, invaded the sanctity of that space recently. I suspect there is a story in that day. Perhaps she will remember it and write it down in the future.

I think most writers, to a degree, have a ritual they go through before getting down to business. Kerouac, it’s been pointed out all over the internet, used to write by candlelight. Later, he prayed to God to keep his mind intact. And, speaking of the beats, I remember reading somewhere once that Ginsberg often sat naked at a desk composing poems.

Like famous authors, the writer plying his trade in secret also has his quirks. For instance, I have this pen. It’s my favorite. I bought it eight or so years ago at a Papyrus stationary store of all places. It was a steal at fifteen bucks. My pen is black, thick and fits my hand nicely. I covet that pen. And yes since then I have purchased countless replacement ink refills for it. One time, the cap cracked and I repaired it with some epoxy. It was as good as new.

Recently, I attended an orientation for adjunct professors at a school where I started teaching. It was the usual fair for an English department meeting: endless talk about essay lengths for incoming freshmen, departmental policy that, at least for me, turned into a hypnotic white noise that was broken only by the cackle of some veteran adjuncts who sounded like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth on crack. At one point, a blank sheet of paper was passed around to collect email addresses.

One of the veteran adjuncts leaned across the aisle of desks in a classroom where our meeting took place and asked to borrow my pen. Not just any pen. THE PEN. She must have thought I was a lunatic as I went into my beat-up book bag to find another. I didn’t have one. Begrudgingly, I let her borrow my precious but I never took my eyes off her, fearing she may abscond with my powerful talisman and leave me mojo-less. I got my pen (THE PEN) back, but after the meeting I couldn’t help thinking that its magical powers had somehow been diminished, contaminated by alien hands.

It’s been a busy start to the semester and this weekend is the first time since last week that I’ve been able sit down and write something. With the pen I wrote two new poems. Later tonight, I’ll go back to work on my novel; one I am writing the first draft, you guessed it, by hand. Pray the pen still works for me. Without my sacred Precious, I would be lost.