“Ray, pretend for a moment that I don’t understand anything about metallurgy, engineering or physics, and just tell me what the hell is going on.”
Dr. Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters
My idea for this week’s column is to wax poetically about how I really don’t understand anything. I find this fairly troubling because I have a sh*t-ton of education and the student loan debts to prove it.
For example, I don’t really get the nuts and bolts of the health-care legislation, other than that Democrats are supposed to love it, and Republicans are supposed to think it’s a financial weapon of mass destruction. I do know that I haven’t read the 2,000-plus pages that make up the legislation, and I can probably count on one hand the number of people who have – so why should I understand the nuts and bolts of it? My guess is that no one really understands it, even those that have read all 2,000 pages of it, and your opinion of the bill probably hinges on your political leanings. Assuming you even care anymore. Am I smarter for recognizing that I don’t know? Or am I just really that much of a moron?
Another example of my ignorance -- comprehending the underpinnings of the global economic meltdown. I know that a once-obscure little investment called a credit default swap is at least partially responsible, which is like saying Verbal Kint was partially responsible for the boat explosion in The Usual Suspects. For those who don’t know what a credit default swap is, here’s what I was able to gather as I researched this column: it’s sort of like buying insurance on a bunch of houses that you don’t own and then hoping all of the houses catch fire. That being said, even if I am close to understanding what a credit default swap is, I don’t understand how it had us all on the brink of financial apocalypse (not to be confused with the King James-ocalypse).
Awareness of these shortcomings has occasionally made me hesitant to engage in discussions about the issues of the day, which is a bit disheartening. Given my seven years of college and law school, I feel like I should be able to engage in some sort of intellectual discourse about something other than movies involving Will Ferrell. Alas, I’m left to quote Stepbrothers and Old School.
But I’ve started to realize something – I’m becoming more confident that no one else has any idea what’s going on either. See Exhibits A and B. It’s almost impossible to be well-versed in just about anything anymore because everything is so specialized.
Exhibit A: The ideas behind BP’s attempts at stopping the Deepwater Horizon leak seem to originate in Wile E. Coyote’s workshop.
Exhibit B: Many of the traders in the credit default swap markets didn’t really understand long-term implications of these securities until it was too late. Did I mention the swap market was once valued at $45 trillion?
Thus, I’m always fascinated when people have really strong opinions about a particular issue, especially one that’s not their area of expertise. It always reminds me of the scene in Animal House, where Eric Stratton makes the rambling speech to the Greek Council and caps it off with: “We’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-MOUTH the United States of America! Gentlemen!”
Four years ago, I was an expert in appellate court procedure. A year ago, I was an expert in the old legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity (Doesn’t being a lawyer sound awesome? Sometimes I wish I had a Hot Tub Time Machine so I could go back and burn all my law school applications. But I digress). I’m not an expert in many other things (except, as previously discussed on this blog, Nintendo Ice Hockey).
So why do I think I have any standing to have an opinion about whether this country should be fighting a war in Afghanistan? (my opinion – well, we let the Taliban and al-Qaeda grow unchecked in the 1990s, and that didn’t really work out too well for us. We probably need to wipe those jokers out before they detonate a suitcase nuke in Manhattan). Or whether the U.S. should engage in offshore drilling? (doesn’t look like we’re getting off oil anytime soon, so I guess if we can get it without destroying the Gulf of Mexico—whassat? Never mind). How big or small should the government be? Would Democrats be happy if the federal government employed all 300 million of us? Would Republicans be happy if we had no government? Would that be a small enough government?
Even if I read a book about a particular subject, I’m only going to know the author’s particular take on a particular issue, and for all I know, he was the dunce of his Ph.D. program. (You know what they call the guy who finished last in his med school class? Doctor. Love that joke).
Then again, there isn’t a whole lot more American than having an opinion about something, so maybe I should storm ahead with any thought I have about anything, regardless of whether those thoughts are supported by facts. It doesn’t stop Glen Beck or Keith Olbermann, and those guys are all famous! Ain’t I just a piece of work making fun of conservatives and liberals alike? Seriously, I’d like to see those two in a cage match to the death.
So what does it take to be appropriately informed? How many books or articles do I need to read before I safely have an informed opinion on something? Is it even possible to have an informed opinion on something? Am I better off picking the opinion I want to have and then finding the support that undoubtedly exists out there (because no matter how kooky your opinion is, someone else shares it. God, I love the Internet). It’s a never-ending battle between standing up for what you believe in and not making a total ass of yourself.
Then again, no one else really knows if what you’re saying is true or not because they’re all secretly worried that you DO know what you’re talking about.
So suffice it to say, if you feel like an idiot about the issues of the day, you can rest easy in knowing everyone else probably feels like an idiot, too. Even the experts. Makes you feel good about the upcoming attempt to duplicate the Big Bang with that particle accelerator over in Switzerland, huh? If something goes wrong, look on the bright side. Maybe we’ll all end up on the island from Lost.
I do know one thing for certain, and I will rest easy knowing this one thing -- the girls on Bridezillas do not understand the premise of the show.
NEXT WEEK'S COLUMN: Road Trip!