Category Archives: Culture

The Coronavirus Rhapsody as Music Therapy

alex atkins bookshelf musicThis is a challenging time for most Americans, especially if you have been watching many hours of news each day while sheltering in place. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults say that the pandemic has affected their mental health; 19% of respondents indicated that the pandemic has a “major impact.” Mixing social isolation with unemployment with the fear of getting ill and possibly dying makes a toxic mental health cocktail. Consequently, millions of people in America — and all around the globe — are experiencing the same conditions: anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Interviewed for The Washington Post, Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster notes the importance of staying connected: “It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of people, including all of us who are experiencing difficulties along the way, will ultimately do well. Finding and sharing creative solutions to the problems people are facing, taking care of ourselves and our families in the best way we are able, and staying connected to one another will remind us we are in this together and help us get through this difficult time.”

And many people are doing just that — with the luxury of time afforded by being self-quarantined, people are finding very creative ways to deal with current climate of stress and anxiety. And what is one of the most therapeutic tools? That’s right — music. Extensive research has been done with music as a therapeutic tool to increase relaxation, reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, promote optimism, induce meditative states, reduce loneliness, relieve boredom, and so forth. There is another powerful tool… ever heard the adage “laughter is the best medicine”? Many of the most successful comedians use their personal difficulties as fodder for their humor; and by baring them and making fun of them, they disarm feelings of despair and anxiety. It is a cathartic experience for the comedian and a therapeutic experience for the audience.

So what happens when you mix these two tools, music and comedy? You get the incredibly delightful and therapeutic tool of the music parody. To that end, singer Adrian Grimes and comedian Dana Jay Bein recorded the delightful Coronavirus Rhapsody, a parody of Queen’s hit song, Bohemian Rhapsody, from the album A Night at the Opera (1975). Here are the clever lyrics.

Coronavirus Rhapsody

Is this a fever?
Is this just allergies?
Caught in a lockdown
No escape from the family
Don’t touch your eyes
Just hand sanitize quickly
I’m just a poor boy
No job security
Because of easy spread
Even though
I washed my hands
Laying low
I look out the window
The curve doesn’t look flatter
To me… to me

Mama, I just killed a man
I didn’t stay inside in bed
I walked past him, now he’s dead
Mama, life was so much fun
But now I’ve got this unforgiving plague
Mama, oooooh
I didn’t mean to make them die
If I’m not back to work this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on
As if people didn’t matter

Too late, my time has come
Send shivers down my spine
Social isolation time
Goodbye everybody
I hope its just the flu
I’ve got to leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama (Chorus: just look out your window)
I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I never went out at all

I see a little silhouette of a man
(What a douche, what a douche
Did he even wash his hands though
No toilet paper frightening
Very very frightening me
Gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low
wait… what did he say?)

I’m just a poor boy, facing mortality
(He’s just a poor boy facing mortality
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

(Touch your face, wash your hands;
Will you wash your hands?
Bismillah! No! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Never, never wash our hands
Never no — no! no! no! no! no! no! no!
Oh Mama mia, Mama mia,
Mama mia, wash your hands)
COVID-19 has a sickness put aside for me, for me, for me

So you think you can stop me and just shake my hand?
So you think we can hang out and not break our plans?
Oh baby! Can’t do this with me baby
Just gotta stay home
I hope I don’t run out of beer

(Oooooooh…. ooh yeah! ooh yeah!)
The curve could get much flatter
Anyone can see
The curve could get much flatter
You know it’s your responsibility
Just look out your window

Like COVID-19, the song has gone um… viral. As of this writing the music video has been viewed more than 4.1 million times. But not everyone is a fan of the parody. In an interview, Grimes elaborates, “I’ve had a few comments suggesting that this is ‘insensitive.’ I want to emphasize that I know where these people are coming from. My wife works in healthcare and I have two young kids. I know very well how this virus could impact my family. Every day that my wife goes to work, I hope it is another ‘bonus’ day we get together before the wave hits and I don’t have to quarantine her and stop our children from hugging her. However, I hope that even in those circumstances, should they occur, I will still be able to maintain a sense of humor, and a lot of comments from people already affected by coronavirus have told me how much they appreciate this. I thank you for your understanding in these unprecedented times.”

Listen to the song here:

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
What is the Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream?

For further reading:

What is the Trolley Problem?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureNo, the trolley problem has nothing to do with bewildered tourists in San Francisco who don’t know which trolley to take: the Powell/Hyde line or the California/Van Ness line? Rather, the trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics or moral psychology. The trolley problem is set up like this: Imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks and you are standing some distance off, right next to a lever that controls the direction of the tracks. In the lever’s current position the trolley will travel straight, leading to five people standing on the main track; if you pull the lever, it will divert the trolley to a side track where one person is standing. What is the ethical thing to do? Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people? Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person? Not an easy decision to make is it?

In ethics, the trolley problem sets up a clash between two schools of moral thought: deontology and utilitarianism. A deontologist would argue that the morality of an action is based on whether an action itself is right or wrong under a set of rules, rather than the consequences of the action. In short, the action is more critical than the consequences. The utilitarian would argue the opposite: that an action is right as long as it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If you are a fan of the original sci-fi series, Star Trek, from the late 1960s, you will recognize the theme of utilitarianism that is woven into many episodes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  We can paraphrase the Star Trek aphorism to align more closely to true utilitarianism: “The happiness of the many outweigh the happiness of the few.” And in contrast with the deontologist, the consequences are more critical than the act.

On another level, the trolley problem represents a Cornelian dilemma: a dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forego revenge and losing his honor.

So what are you — a deontologist or a utilitarian? What would you do in this difficult situation? Philosophers and psychologist are fascinated with this moral dilemma, and many studies and surveys have been done to study how people respond to the trolley problem. In many surveys, 90% of the respondents choose to pull the lever and sacrifice one live to save the five people. A survey of professional philosophers conducted in 2009 revealed that 70% of them would pull the lever, 8% would not, and 22% could not answer or offered another view.

Why is the trolley problem relevant now? As the COVID-10 pandemic overwhelms medical facilities and supplies, doctors find themselves at the very levers of disease’s tracks. Doctors have reported that they face agonizing decisions about which patients to treat and save, and those not to treat which will result in death. In most, if not all cases, doctors are making utilitarian decisions: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?

The Deadliest Pandemics in History

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs of this writing, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has claimed 7,100 lives around the globe (80 of those have been in the U.S.). There is an estimated 181,000 people who have contracted the virus (4,300 of those are Americans). Unfortunately, COVID-19 is just getting started. As many experts have stated, it is going to get worse before it gets better. So that invites the question, how does COVID-19 stack up against some of the deadliest pandemics in human history?

Before we get to that, let’s clarify the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. An epidemic is the rapid spread of a disease across a specific region or regions. Once that disease spreads from country to country around the globe, it is classified as a pandemic. Thus, all pandemics begin as epidemics; however — and fortunately — not all epidemics become pandemics. In general, pandemics result in more fatalities than epidemics. One notable exception is the Cocoliztli epidemic (also known as “The Great Pestilence”) that occurred in 1545 resulting in 12-15 million deaths in Mexico. The native Aztecs succumbed to the lethal disease brought by the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes. The Aztecs were particularly vulnerable due to a variety of factors: weakened immunity, exacerbated by years of disease after a long drought, on top of a deadly outbreak of smallpox in 1520, also introduced by the Spanish, that resulted in more than 8 million deaths. 

When you review the list of the deadliest pandemics in human history, you realize that the mortality rate of the COVID-19 is relatively low so far — but that can change as quickly as a virus can mutate. Here are the deadliest pandemics in human history, in descending order:

The Black Death (Bubonic Plague; in the Middle Ages it was referred to as “The Great Mortality”) pandemic: 1346-1353
Origin: Central or East Asia
Death toll: 75-200 million

Plague of Justinian: 541-542
Origin: Byzantine Empire (the capital was Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, Turkey) and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea
Death toll: 25-50 million

HIV/AIDS pandemic: 2005-2012
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Death toll: 36 million

Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen): 165-180
Origin: Aisa Minor
Death Toll: 5 million

Asian flu pandemic: 1956-58
Origin: Guizhou, China
Death toll: 2 million

Russian or Asiatic flu pandemic: 1889-1890
Origin: Bukhara, Turkestan (what is now Uzbekistan)
Death toll: 1 million

Hong Kong flu pandemic: 1968
Origin: Hong Kong
Death toll: 1 million

Third cholera pandemic: 1852-1860
Origin: India
Death toll: 1 million

Sixth cholera pandemic: 1910-11
Origin: India
Death toll: 800,000

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Euphemisms for Death
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?
Famous People Who Died on the Same Day

For further reading: The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 by John Aberth
Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla


How Many Hours Does It Take to Make a Friend?

alex atkins bookshelf culture“Friendship is not about whom you know the longest,” observed the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, “It is about who came and never left.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement — and now there is research that confirms it. Psychologist Jeffrey Hall and his colleagues from the University of Kansas recently placed friendship under the microscope, as it were. In his study, titled “How Many Hours Does It Take to Make A Friend” published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (March 15, 2018), Hall reviews some of the fascinating findings from previous studies on friendship:

• Having friends is a key predictor of life satisfaction and happiness.

• The quality and number and of social interactions that occur early in life can predict loneliness, well-being, and depression thirty years later.

• Despite well-documented benefits, people do not always prioritize spending time with friends. Americans only spend about 41 minutes a day socializing — which accounts for one-third of the amount of time spent commuting or watching television. Given significant constraints on free time, especially among working adults and parents, individuals must budget their time wisely in order to make time for friends.

• Factors that promote the development of friendship are proximity, spending time together, and shared activities.

• Due to cognitive and temporal constraints there is a limit to the number of friends that a person can have: research suggests that limit is approximately 150. Sorry, so-called friends on Facebook don’t really count.

• Research has identified five distinct types of friends. In order of decreasing closeness they are (number in parenthesis indicate range of individuals within that category): support clique (1-5 individuals), sympathy group (10-15), friendship group (40-50), clansmen (120-150), and acquaintances. Perhaps we can add to that list a sixth type, Facebook friends, which can be described as “fluctuating, unreliable members of a digital community with a tenuous connection to an individual.”

• Potential friends make fairly rapid assessments of the likability and desirability of a potential friend and subsequently decide to spend time together. This rapid selection process creates a group of similar and liked individuals from which deeper friendships can grow

• Longitudinal studies of friendship development indicate that friendship development happens rather swiftly, usually within three to nine weeks after the initial meeting. It then takes three to four months for close friendships to develop. Thus, while it is possible to know someone for many years, but not become friends, it is possible to become best friends with someone you have known for just six weeks.

• An early study in 1965 found that people become friends after spending about 60 of hours together. A later study in 1988 found that people become friends after three interactions of half an hour plus an initial interaction of less than six hours of close personal interaction.

Hall’s recent study was based on the Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) theory. Hall explains, “[CBB] offers an evolutionary perspective on interpersonal communication that focus on the underlying need to belong in relation to the amount and content of social interactions. CBB theory affirms… that there are limits on human sociability and time. The theory asserts that both the amount of time and the type of activity shared with a partner can be thought of as strategic investments toward satiating long-term belongingness needs. As the need to belong is thought to be ultimately satiated only through the possession of enduring, close relationships, CBB theory asserts that humans must carefully invest their available time and social energy in ways most likely to create promising new relationships or to cement existing ones. Yet, each relationship requires ongoing investments of hours of time and energy, particularly among non-kin. Therefore, time spent together, especially leisure time, can be thought of as an investment toward future returns on belongingness need satiation…. The theory proposes that some types of social interaction are more capable of satiating individuals’ need to belong than others. Certain communication episodes, such as meaningful conversation, catching up, joking around, and affectionate communication, are associated with a higher degree of in-the-moment closeness and well-being than do all other types of everyday talk.”

Hall conducted two studies with two groups of individuals over several months. In the study, a close friendship was measured by three factors: emotional closeness, commitment to relationship, and the perceived uniqueness of the individual. The studies confirmed that time is an important constraint of friendship and that measuring time spent together is predictive of friendship. The following are the specific findings from Hall’s studies:

• Relationships with less than 10 hours of shared time result in acquaintances or “friends of friends.”

• It takes about 30 hours to form a casual friendship.

• It takes about 50 hours to form a friendship.

• It takes about 140 hours to form a good friendship.

• It takes about 300 hours to form a best friend.

• Casual friends become friends between 57 hours over 3 weeks and 164 hours over 3 months.

• Friends become good or best friends after 119 hours over 3 weeks and 219 hours over 3 months.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Doublets: The Importance of Friendships
The Most Important Qualities of a Friend

How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
Life is to be Fortified by Many Friends
What is a False Friend?
Why is it More Important to Have Close Friendships Than to Be Popular in High School?
Can You Fall in Love in 36 Questions?

For further reading:

Blogging by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf cultureTo paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To blog or not to blog: that is the question / Whether tis nobler in the mind to to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or take arms against a sea of troubles / And by writing about them, feeling liberated or validated.” Just ponder this for a moment: what would the Internet be like without blogging? The proliferation of blogs over the last two decades confirms that people truly long for sharing what they think, what they feel. Moreover, they long for connection via meaningful dialog as well as a sense of belonging (the global community of internet. Note how well this aligns with the mid-point of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: need to belong: love, affection friendship, tribes. That is why the comments section is such a vital part of the blogging platform. In a typical social situation, you sit across a friend or two and connect with them by sharing your thoughts; a blog is that scenario multiplied exponentially — now you are sitting across 31.7 million people (those on blogging platforms) and as many as 4.5 billion people (those who use the internet). But, hey, no pressure.

As of this writing, there are 1.75 billion websites on the internet and blogs make up slightly over one quarter of all those. So why do people blog? The five top reasons why people write a blog are: become self-employed, express myself creatively, build an audience, teach what I know, and earn more money. So what are you waiting for? Don’t end up like Hamlet with chronic analysis paralysis — start your blog today and connect with millions of potential readers!

At last, for your enlightenment and inspiration, here’s a look at blogging by the numbers:

Number of blogs on the internet: 500 million

Number of blogs posts published each year: 2 billion

Number of blog posts published each day: 5.7 million

Number of blog posts published each minute: 4,000

Number of active bloggers: 31 million

Percentage of internet users that read blogs: 77%

Percentage of readers who skim posts: 43%

Most popular time to read blogs: 7:00 am to 10:00 am

Number of blogs hosted on Tumbler: 440 million

Number of blogs hosted on WordPress: 60 million

Number of new WordPress posts produced each month: 70 million

Number of WordPress blogs read each month: 21.1 billion

Number of comments made by WordPress users each month: 77 million

Percentage of users who profit from blogging: 10%

Percentage of blog posts written in English: 71%

Number of words in a title that produce highest traffic: 6-13

Percentage of readers who share posts with others: 94%

Percentage of reader who share a post without reading it: 59%

Percentage of traffic created by older blog content: 38%

Percentage of bloggers who update older posts: 38%

Average word count of top-ranking blog posts: 1200 (taking about 6 minutes to read)

Average time it takes to write a blog post: 3.5 hours

Percentage of bloggers who edit their own work: 46%

Percentage of bloggers who write a few times per month: 66%

Height of stack of paper if you printed all those blog posts: 3,277 miles tall

Percentage of websites that have a blog: 25%

Read related posts: What is the Most Popular Blogging Topic?
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Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?
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Best Books for Writers

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

For further reading:

What Makes Facebook So Popular?

alex atkins bookshelf culture“What makes Facebook so popular? What makes Facebook so unique is that it is able to marry two of the most powerful human emotions: narcissism and insecurity. First, Facebook allows you to create a world that centers on you. Then it lets you protect that world by surrounding it with only people you accept as friends. It’s like controlling the guest list to an exclusive party where you are the star. Facebook allows you to feel important and safe — at the same time.”

Brant Pinvidic, from his documentary Why I’m Not on Facebook (2015). The documentary was inspired by Pinvidic’s question: should I or shouldn’t I join Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site with more than 1.6 billion users? To answer that question, Pinvidic interviews dozens of people, including Facebook members, those who hate Facebook, the original founders of Facebook, celebrities, wannabe celebrities, Facebook friends, real friends, and family members. He learns how Facebook can bring out the best in people (families staying in touch, classmates who organize reunions, and sharing hobbies) as well as the worst in people (unfaithful spouses who cheat and destroy their marriages, criminals who learn about their targets and when to rob a home, pick-up artists who set up one-night stands, serial stalkers, and people who are so highly addicted to Facebook that they cannot have a face-to-face conversation — ironic huh?). Even though Facebook is about bringing people together, it also breaks them apart: about 30% of divorces are due to Facebook. Pinvidic also meets with Dr. Drew Pinsky who introduces him to the Dr. Drew Narcissism Test, from his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, that helps assess an individual’s level of narcissism. Incidentally, the score for a typical person is 15; a highly narcissistic person will score 40. Pinvidic took the test and his score was both revelatory and disturbing. He couldn’t leave Dr. Drew’s office fast enough. Ultimately, at the end of his quest for enlightenment of all things Facebook, Pinvidic discovers that the happiest people are the ones who are not on Facebook — so he decides not to join Facebook.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
We’re All Looking for Connection
How Often Do People Check Their Phone?
The Impact of Smartphones on Society

For further reading:

Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you have watched any of the recent impeachment hearings or the President’s recent State of the Union Address, not to mention general coverage of politics over the past few years, one must sadly arrive at the inescapable conclusion that we are living in a post-truth world, where Truth does not matter, where a belief or opinion — no matter how ill-informed or irrational — has trumped (pun intended) objective facts. In short, we are living in an Orwellian world. Indeed, George Orwell’s dystopian novel (written more than seven decades ago) is a magnifying glass that exposes how language and disinformation is used as a powerful political tool to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. Listen to these notable lines from 1984: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it… Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” It’s eerie isn’t it?

But few know that another influential writer and intellectual would mine this same territory thirty years later — as the actual year 1984 approached. For many years, Newsweek magazine contained a feature titled “My Turn” where a notable individual wrote about any issue that they felt was important. For the January 21, 1980 issue, world-renown science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a very thought-provoking essay entitled “A Cult of Ignorance” that is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, the essay was never reprinted in any collection of essays — a disservice to what Asimov saw then and is happening now: the rise of anti-intellectualism. So what does anti-intellectualism mean? Anti-intellectualism, according to Richard Hofstadter, professor of American history at Columbia University, public intellectual, and author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), is defined as “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” In his essay, Asimov argues that there is a cult of anti-intellectualism in America that perpetuates a very flawed concept of democracy: that every person’s opinion, whether ill-informed or well-informed, is considered equal. Stated another way, in a democracy, equality of rights does not necessarily mean equality of knowledge — an opinion formed on the basis of lies does not have the same significance of an opinion based on objective facts. And this is something that politics parties misuse to their advantage: it is in their best interest to disseminate lies, to perpetuate ignorance — indeed, to create a cult of ignorance — to manipulate the masses. And here are some of critical questions: can we ever get back to a world that values Truth? How do we do it? How long will it take?

Here is Asimov’s essay, “A Cult of Ignorance,” for your consideration and discussion:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that wall all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed-professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-head-audience.

Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: “Don’t trust the experts!” Ten years ago, it was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. “Don’t trust the experts!” is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists.” That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “Elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America’s right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America’s right to know involves something we might express vaguely as “what’s going on” in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions — in the seats of the mighty, generally.

Very good. I’m for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

Yes, provided they can read!

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines — but how many non-elitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?

Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons (“Go Slo,” “Xroad”) are steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy-headed professors, can’t read.

Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you’ll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent — or less — of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.

What shall we do about it?

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism.”

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

For further reading: 1984 by George Orwell
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Roving Mind by Isaac Asimov
The Tyrannosaurus Prescription and 100 Other Essays by Isaac Asimov

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