The Tangled History of Illness and IdiocyBreaking News
tags: literature, American exceptionalism, COVID-19
Opining in public on things you don’t really understand is a form of idiocy in which Americans, in particular, are known to indulge. In early March, after suggesting that Covid-19 is milder than the flu, Trump told the CDC that he was as knowledgeable about the virus as any medical professional. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” he reported. “Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” Indeed! Maybe Kushner should have joined him.
On an individual level, the hubris of asserting our opinions over experts’ makes us ignoramuses. On a national level, it may be our sole stroke of genius. To incorporate the opinions of those who exist outside the establishment is a fundamentally democratic impulse. When everyone is given the right to claim expertise, anyone can punch up the social hierarchy.
Ralph Ellison personified this inherent “orneriness” of the American public in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” He attributes the idea of the Little Man to a music instructor he once had at the Tuskegee Institute. There is something “more involved,” that teacher told him, in performing classical music in this country than there is elsewhere. In America, she says, “you must always play your best, even if it’s only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove…and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship.” He’ll criticize you, and in that critique there will be some authority and truth—an unlikely connoisseurship; he understands the cultural landscape so well because he isn’t reflected in it. This Little Man is, Ellison argues, at once a product of our lack of “serious cultural introspection” and an agent of progressivism, urging us “toward a perfection of our revolutionary ideals.” He insists that those at the margins have a right to speak, making good on the (often false) promises of meritocracy and keeping the powerful in check. It is the antiauthoritarian spirit of the Little Man that disrupts established social order. He is too iconoclastic for 24-karat fascism, too individualistic for solidarity or effective mass action. This is to say that whatever might spur us to extraordinariness also makes us idiots, especially in the time of Covid-19.