Enquiry in America Today

The quality of enquiry, or quirth, is one that has largely evaporated from American life, like the water set to boil in a pot of frogs intended to demonstrate that frogs don’t know they’re being boiled if you raise the temperature slowly enough. Vestiges of that spirit (of enquiry, not frog boiling) endure, but they have become almost nonsensical: take Missouri’s motto “The Show Me State”, for example, which is not the condition of latent homosexual voyeurism it seems to describe, rampant among Republican senators in public lavatories; rather it is an expression of skepticism. Show me proof, and then we can talk. Not a bad sentiment. Unfortunately one no longer found in most quarters of the United States.

This may come from the explosion of information to which we are subjected, in the form of advertising and storytelling (or the amalgamation of both, in the case of televised programming). 500 channels, we are promised. 500 channels of what? We now have an acronym for it, TMI, which stands for either “Too Much Information” or “Trombone Meat Infringement” if you prefer acronyms made up of random words. It is hard to formulate sensible questions when a million answers have been thrust upon one before the first question had a chance to get out. Some years ago, the nuclear energy industry in put out a preemptive “educational campaign” to allay fears expressed by the millions of Americans that lived alongside the railway routes by which said industry had decided to move nuclear waste.

The industry patiently and unrelentingly answered all question about the safety of this program by saying, “this spent fuel” (they call it “spent fuel” because “nuclear waste” sounds, oh, you know, so negative) “this spent fuel cannot, and will not, explode.” But can it get into the air or the groundwater? It will not explode. Can it be flung by that commonplace railway accident, the impact of two trains, out of its containers and into the sorts of places a fellow is likely to come in contact with it? Is not a single flesh-rotting molecule of the stuff an absolute guarantee of death? Hush, little commoners. It will not, cannot explode.

You know what? I have no idea if they’re shipping spent doomfuel around on trains these days, There were too many other things going on around then, and the subject just got swallowed up along with the fate of Joanie Loves Chachi or Twin Peaks or whether Boy George could stay off heroin– I don’t even remember what the distraction de jour was. I suppose they do ship the stuff by train; the old system with donkeys was hopelessly outmoded even then. The point is that I haven’t even thought about it, me who prides himself on quirth in abundance. Jesus, I can’t even remember what I was going to ask my fiancée when I go downstairs with an unmatched sock and a necktie in my hand. It’s too much to imagine I’m also going to remember to ask what’s happening to the nuclear waste, let alone demand an answer to whatever I asked last time. But is the only problem that we Americans suffer from Trombone Meat Infringement? I think there’s something else, as expressed in a motto ginned up by the Clinton people: “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If ever there was a rubbishy catchphrase dredged up from the large intestine of a Madison Avenue disinformation factory, this is it. Are you gay? Don’t ask, Sergeant. And Private Danglers, whatever you’re thinking in those lathery showers, think away, but don’t tell. Let’s all pretend the issue isn’t even there. Homophobia is one of the most pervasive and pointless problems facing us today: if a certain congressional poofter that recently made headlines with his clumsy solicitations to an undercover policemen had merely been able to say, “gold dang, I’m as queer as bull tits”, he might still have a career. Instead, he was forced to make an elaborate defense of his solicitations by describing in nauseating detail every peculiarity of his seated bathroom habits (TMI) in an attempt to answer the explicit police report filed by the officer to whom he made the advances (whose name has not been released to the press, but apparently he goes by the moniker “Swingin’ Hammer”).

What I mean to say is Americans now expect to find something horrible under every Rock Hudson. [Note to editor: remove previous cheap gag and replace with simple word “rock”]. Ask the most innocuous question, like “when we inevitably do leave Iraq, what is our plan for doing so?” and the hideous truth flashes out like the fangs of a hideous truth: there is no plan. This all began when someone said, “is that pop combo Milli Vanilli really singing?” It’s been downhill since then. Ask any question regarding the American Gertztramufiner(‘sup, yo’) and if an answer is forthcoming, it will certainly be what you least want to hear. One finds oneself not asking.

Then of course there’s the explosion of faith-based thinking. We have started to think Word is better than word. The abstract authority of the preacher or the evangelist president, the simple demand that they be trusted, believed, is deadly to any spirit of free thinking, of doubt, and even the ability to absorb basic information that doesn’t quite line up with what the Daddy Figure is telling you. You add that to the endless streams of falsehoods and fudging in which every American is bathed today, you got yourself a nation of dupes.

So have we seen the end of the American tradition of self-reliant doubt? Will we, as a nation, ever work up the gumption to question the word of the ‘expert’, the ‘authority’, the ‘talking head’ out loud, even if we secretly lack any faith that we’re being told the truth? It appears, I regret to say, that we’re in for a further spell of incuriosity. Maybe it started with the Reaganite anti-intellectual vogue, or earlier, when Joe McCarthy turned inquiry into inquisition. It could be the decline of such subjects as rhetoric, or the decline of schooling in general. Maybe it was Trivial Pursuit. I (by which I mean me, or the guy most people think is me, because who can ever really know anybody?) hope we can restart that useful skepticism that helped us rebuff the blandishments of kings and courtiers.

There are signs this is happening. Only a handful of truly damaged individuals still believe what the government is telling them any more. A lot of people are profoundly discouraged by the energy wasted on the fad for 9/11 conspiracy theories, replete with invisible airplanes, missiles disguised as jumbo jets, and a host of demolitions experts coordinated by a White House that couldn’t organize a birthday party if the kid brought his own cake. This line of questioning may be misguided, but at least it’s questioning, and I’m glad the doubt is there. Building seven: why did it drop? I don’t know, but Bush sure as hell wasn’t behind it. He couldn’t drop his own pants.

The Iran war is going to be a much harder sell than Iraq was, for an example of progress. You can already see the White House people getting out of breath just trying to keep the media drumbeat going, regardless of how compliant the reporting is. There are a million other distractions, for one thing; for the neocons it’s like trying to write a best-selling novel while being eaten alive by locusts. It’s not the media asking the questions, it’s the American public. This is encouraging. If we imagine Wolf Blitzer or that most closeted of closeteers, Anderson Cooper, is going to pitch anything but the slowest of softballs to the evil sods destroying this and other nations, our imaginations have up and quit on us. But ordinary people, meaning consumers, consumers, and voters, in that order, are asking tougher questions. They’re taking less on faith. They’re starting to experience the thrill of quirth, that feeling of not believing an unproven answer, of not letting someone else ask the wrong question and trying to pretend the answer will suffice.

Will it turn into a change in the national character? I don’t know. Disco was just a fad, thank fuck, and probably the intense Evangelical frenzy gripping certain segments of the population will wear off once old-time religion turns out to be of less utility than Disco. One can hope. I’ll take a slight decrease in the level of bovine credulity. Hey, Nancy, why are you really so determined not to oppose Bush? First ask the question, then question the answer, and at last you’ll have a better idea of what the real question is. For me, it’s enough that I remembered why I was boiling a pan of frogs on the stove.

BEN TRIPP, author of Square in the Nuts, is a hack in many mediums. He may be reached at credel@earthlink.net.

Creative commons copyright 2007 by BEN TRIPP


Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.