“It’s a dangerous world out there, Pops,” my son said as he munched a burrito.
“Playing chicken with a madman is never wise,” I looked up from my book. “I’ll warn Kim Jong-un after I finish this section of Walden.”
“Nice, but not that,” he said.
“Charlottesville? Like Gomer Pyle said, ‘Surprise-Surprise-Surprise.’ We have a birther in the Oval Office. Are we surprised? Or do you mean the naïve belief of some liberal activists that real violence is an abstraction? That they’re engaged in some sort of symbolic struggle with screaming, red-faced angry, heavily armed but otherwise perfectly reasonable counterparts that wouldn’t commit a mythical micro-aggression?”
“Sadly, not that, either. Three for a quarter?” he smiled.
“Erin Brockovich in Wilmington? GenX and Cape Fear River clean-up? The place of monuments to a failed 19th century rebellion in a 21st century United States? The Phillies? Who dies next in ‘Game of Thrones’?”
My son shook his head. “None of the above.”
“I could go on,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “You’ve made my point.” He shrugged. “It’s dangerous because of Google, social media, and a caffeinated world that never sleeps. Any ‘fact’ in a nanosecond. Everybody is expected to know about everything and to defend opinion about it. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, ‘I don’t know.’”
“That is dangerous,” I said. “Nobody says, ‘I don’t care’ anymore either.”
“Exactly,” he nodded. “You don’t even watch ‘Game of Thrones.’ Why go there?”
“I didn’t want to seem old or stupid,” I said sheepishly. “It makes me nervous.”
“You are old. And you don’t care about it.”
“Not knowing makes me nervous and not caring makes me seem insensitive,” I said.
“Life’s complicated. Nerve-wracking. Nothing wrong with authenticity,” he finished his burrito. “And, nothing wrong with a useful ignorance either—ask Thoreau.” He smiled. “I Googled him.”
My son disappeared to another rehearsal and I sat back to ponder Thoreau’s words:
“A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly.”
Perhaps harkening to Thoreau, conservative commentator David Brooks opined that modesty is a way to roll back dangerous fanaticism (NYTIMES “How to Roll Back Fanatacism,” Aug. 15). Maybe there’s something to be gained from my son’s observations of the relentless pressure to appear knowledgeable and take sides, Thoreau’s useful ignorance, and Brooks’ notes on modesty. Events occur so quickly and there seems to be pressure to take sides on so many issues, but maybe “I don’t know” is still a reasonable response. Maybe “I don’t care,” at least in some instances, isn’t insensitive. Fanaticism is only one route through the inherent complexity and anxiety of our social milieu. There are safer, saner routes.
Conspiracy movements like the birther movement and today’s version of fascist white supremacists are built on passionately caring, “knowing” facts others refuse to see and, of course, blindness to contradictory evidence. White supremacist militias are armed with AR-15s and facts that they alone “know” to be true and fanatical passion for truth of “blood and soil.” This POTUS presents himself as a man who knows and cares about so many things even he doesn’t know how many things he knows and cares about. (He’s probably more afraid of looking old and stupid than I am.) Bible-thumping folks in our heartland and Sharia Law folks in the Middle East “know” their scripture “facts” to be true and possess a fanatical devotion to serving their god, their “truth.” So much knowing and caring motivates so much unwise action. Seems to me when we marry our own opinions we divorce reality.
Upon the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary there’s been a lot of ugly so-called knowledge and caring contributing to a lot of hate and harm. As we struggle to survive together, maybe it’s time some of us, particularly those who know enough and care enough to kill—yes, that even includes presidents and other well-armed fascist, deep-state conspiracy white dudes among us—to slow down and swim in the vast sea of uncertainty with the rest of us. Perhaps that will allow us to tolerate each other more gracefully and construct a safer, saner society.
I don’t know.