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December 1, 2008 - Ray Hall (Archive)
What product was so necessary to those assembled at the doors of a Wal-Mart store on Long Island that two hundred would be shoppers burst through the doors and trampled a 34 years old employee to death? Did the people standing in front of the Long Island Wal-Mart really believe there was a scarcity of cheap products, or had they even thought about it? But, then again, why did nearly a thousand followers of Jim Jones drink poisoned kool-aid and die in Guyana? Why did the FBI so precipitously hasten the deaths of more than 80 innocent children in the care of a nut case in Waco? Practitioners with professional credentials have and will continue to explain with precision why moments of mass hysteria compelled seemingly ordinary people to engage in acts of madness, but may I suggest those same credentialed professionals consider ignorance?

Our nation is awash in ignorance—a lack of critical thinking—an obvious lack of awareness that remains dangerously unchallenged. Much of our nation has bought into the stupidity that since everyone is entitled to an opinion that everything people opine is important—it isn’t, and nowhere is that ignorance more obvious than in the world of politics. Ideologues rant that government must be made smaller, but can’t define smaller while listeners parrot radical radio and pass around e-mails about prominent politicians that even the most casual thinker must assume bogus. Despite a two-year presidential campaign a writer in this newspaper recently wrote a commentary of pure political ignorance. The writer made the claim that Barack Obama is an illegal immigrant and quotes the constitution as authority to prevent Hillary Clinton from being appointed Secretary of State. The writer is at once incorrect and ignorant of that commonly known about Barack Obama and embraces an absurd notion of the Constitution.

In the absence of hard evidence there are repeated criticisms that our educational system has failed—that students have been “dumbed down.” Our high school graduates may not lead the world in math and science, but empirical studies show that our students are competitive especially at the college level. That’s pretty good despite efforts by religious zealots to institutionalize ignorance by altering textbooks and compelling the teaching of creationism as science.

It remains a myth that ignorance is exclusive to the poor and uneducated. Last week the manager of a posh, upscale store in Manhattan pointed to a woman’s purse made from horsehide that routinely sold for more than $3000 but was “temporarily offered” (not marked down) at $1500 for the discriminating buyer. I understand and accept that people with discretionary money often purchase more expensive products, but it is ignorance to believe a $3000 purse is somehow more elegant or utilitarian than a more modestly priced Stone Mountain leather purse. But, you say—it’s the designer label that sets the purse apart. True, but the purse was still mass produced and cutting the price in half speaks to the designer’s lack of artistic draft in the market place.

Though I am unable to plumb the depths of moments of madness I can suggest a partial remedy for ignorance. One of the easier ways to become a critical thinker is acquired by reading—not just the Classics or historical tomes or even newspapers, but fiction—novels and especially short stories. Mark Twain invented Huck Finn to make the reader confront his or her own views of religion, racism and bigotry. Flannery O’Connor’s short story GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE lets us see us how an intelligent, highly educated young woman with a wooden leg feels superior to those around her who cling to a simple religion and limited world view. Bernard Malamud’s IDIOTS FIRST is a compelling short story about a Rabbi’s efforts to raise money to transport the young ward of a dying man to a relative on the west coast. The story allows us to see people with less than ordinary means struggle to be charitable to someone that is not a relative or even a close friend.

THE SHORT HAPPY LIFE OF FRANCIS MACOMBER by Ernest Hemmingway was published in 1936 and tells the story of a married couple on a big-game hunt in Africa. The woman who married for money constantly belittles her husband and was particularly critical when her husband “bolted like a rabbit” when charged by a wounded lion. Hemmingway lets us eavesdrop into the privacy of a lengthy married relationship and the tragic results.

The latter may not expand your worldview, but it is one of Hemmingway’s more important works and worth reading just for entertainment value and its political incorrectness for current readers. Explore your favorite bookstore or library for favored authors and collections of short stories or essays. Improve your critical thinking. Short stories are a thing of value.


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Flannery O'Connor 1925-1964