Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forbidden Fruit

According to a recent survey, which doesn't even pretend to be scientific, owners of Apple's iPhone admit to loving gadgets, consuming "adult material," and being willing to end a significant relationship using text messaging somewhat more than owners of other cell phones.

I've owned an iPhone for six months now, and I too love gadgets (especially cameras, bicycles, DVDs, bubblewrap, colanders, MacBooks, and iPhones), consume "adult material" (everything from Proust to porn to pilsener to voting rights), and would rather end a relationship via text messaging than, say, to do it on a reality TV show.

What caught my eye is this bit of information:   "Compared with other cell phone users, iPhone owners are more likely to see themselves as media buffs, extroverts, and intellectuals."  Some 40% of iPhone users called themselves "intellectual," compared to 36% of users of Blackberry.

I find it difficult to believe that 40% of Americans in any consumer bracket would call themselves "intellectual."  If this survey is even roundly accurate, I am encouraged.  By all accounts, though, Americans distrust the word "intellectual."  It's apparently tantamount to calling themselves "European."  Or "adult."  Even some of the press this survey received sees the statement above as a damning indictment of iPhone owners.

What is an intellectual, and why is calling oneself "intellectual" worse than calling oneself "athletic" or "spiritual" or "conservative"?  Are my Apple products some sort of forbidden fruit, enticing me to untoward or illicit knowledge?

My understanding of intellectuality is that it involves using analysis and facts in the process of reaching an opinion, as opposed to ... just guessing.  Or flying off on a whim, such as "Obama is a socialist" or "The free market is inherently good and American," easily memorized and befitting a bumper sticker.  Or falling back on de facto special pleading like "Well, that's just the way I was brought up" or "I know this to be true because my heart tells me so."  Or slavishly submitting to authority.

Being an intellectual does not require haughtiness, wealth, or even an auspicious education.  It simply means you respect thoughts at least as much as feelings and instincts.  Despite a long history of disrepute (chronicled in Richard Hofstadter's 1966 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), intellectuality used to be as American as John Adams, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Jonas Salk, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, and Susan Sontag.

Now many Americans (especially in the media, which value heart, decisiveness, and action over brain-work) pooh-pooh intellectuality.  It's somehow undemocratic, and while it is true that intellect (like beauty, athleticism, and charisma) is not egalitarian in its gifts, intellectuals (like aesthetes, sports enthusiasts, and moviegoers everywhere) can still appreciate and respect gifts they sometimes find somewhat deficient in themselves.

The fact that President Obama is smart is clearly a problem for a sizable number of Americans.  Being smart does not mean he's always right, of course, but it doesn't mean he's necessarily wrong.   Intellectuals are interested in Obama's ideas; non-intellectuals are interested in his choice of a pet and his wife's biceps.

To see oneself as an intellectual (or a media buff or an extrovert) is not at all a bad thing.  To put much stock in a 4 percent difference in self-esteem between owners of iPhone and Blackberry is dumb.  To gain self-esteem because you own a "smart" phone is dumb and assholish.

But, no, nothing wrong in seeing yourself as a lover of ideas and clear reason.  Nothing at all.

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