Not Intelligence, Stupid
By David Stellfox
sister, who, on her third husband, has newly discovered the
sanctity of marriage and all things "family," told me recently
that all her past problems in life - and by extension, our
four other siblings' problems - stem from the simple fact
that our parents divorced. And that it took her until age
40 to sort that all out, find the right man, the perfect marriage,
the perfect child (don't ask about the previous ones) and
the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh all at once.
Family is the most important thing, she says, in that true-believer
tone of the newly converted. Then, just to drive the point
home, she tells me that she truly "believes" that I wouldn't
be gay if our parents hadn't divorced. It doesn't occur to
her, apparently, that my brothers aren't gay and their parents
This was the beginning of a several week exchange of emails
in which my sister also told me that she thought I was extremely
intelligent. I mention this, not to boast, as I don't think
I am particularly intelligent, but because in reading through
the DU Hate Mailbag,
I discovered that this characteristic of intelligence is something
that ordinary conservatives often ascribe to liberals, either
because they do believe it, or because they were told that
it is a characteristic which we assert for ourselves and they're
only to happy to shoot us down when we show ourselves to be
In my sister's case, and I guess in the case of many "down-home"
conservatives - i.e. the vast majority of people who fall
somewhere in between the rabid religious fundamentalists and
the right-wing corporate junta that governs our world - I
think they truly believe us liberals are "intelligent."
This raises an interesting paradox, and my exchange with
my newly quasi-fundamentalist sister highlighted the problem
for me in a highly personal, and yet, enlightening way: if
we're so damn smart, why the hell doesn't anybody listen to
us? (Aside from fact that the so-called "liberal media," you
know, like Fox News, keeps grinding out right-wing propaganda.)
As the only one of six children to get a university degree,
I have always struggled with and been uncomfortable with this
idea that I am somehow particularly intelligent. It goes against
everything I believe in as an anti-elitist, democratic, anybody-can-become-president,
American-Dream kind of liberal.
It's not that I'm smarter than the rest of my family. Perhaps
I've just tried harder not to be stupid. Like so many first-generation
college students, I suffered from the very real separation
that occurs when one comes from a working class background
and then goes off to college and the big city waiting beyond.
Education will separate you from your roots and suddenly you
find you can't go home again.
But, of course, it's discomfiting not to fit in, not to
be able to go home again, especially when you have a family
as big as mine. And so, you try, and you try and you try.
And, of course, you fail and you fail and you fail. There's
no way around it. But it's your family and so you keep trying.
It was an article of faith for me that I was not/am not
smarter than anyone else in my family, just more educated
(and educated does not necessarily equate with a college degree
- the current occupant of the White House being proof enough).
And so I believed that with patience and time, I could educate
them myself. I could help raise them to "intelligent" people,
through sharing my own life experiences, through gentle persuasion
Let's say 20 years later or so, I'm still trying and still
failing and I have to ask myself what is going on here. My
recent exchange with my sister over my homosexuality and its
roots in our parents' divorce was instructive.
Whenever I tried to argue the logic of her thoughts, she
became very defensive, aggressive and ultimately accused me
of trying to force my (deviant) beliefs on her. It became
clear to me that this is the line in the sand. My intelligence,
which I don't claim, but which is ascribed to me by my family,
is used to shut off communication. Sometimes, I get an "argument"
that goes something like this: "Well, maybe I'm just
not smart enough to understand what you're saying." Baloney!
You're just too scared to see what I'm saying. It might force
you to change.
And when I assure my family that they're not too stupid
to see what I'm saying and try more gentle arguments to bring
them to the point, that's when I'm told I'm trying to force
my (deviant) "beliefs" on them.
This is the cut-off point. The line in the sand. When my
family disagrees with me, if I push them enough, this is always
the fallback: "Well, this is what I believe and I'm entitled
to my beliefs." There the discussion stops. Belief doesn't
require support. They know it. I know it. And they remain
forever cosseted in their cozy "beliefs," which don't require
them to think or challenge themselves or be uncomfortable.
Don't get me wrong, I love my family. They're 100% working/middle
class, red-blooded Americans - all the more reason why I drive
myself nuts trying to get them to see through the unholy alliance
between religious fundamentalism and corporate greed that
has taken over our country.
I haven't gotten there yet, but at least this exchange with
my sister, has resolved one thing in my own mind. I am not
smarter than them, just more courageous, more open, less scared.
I think it's a lesson for liberals everywhere. As long as
religious fundamentalists (and the corporate junta that uses
them) can offer Americans comforting ideology and canned ideas,
both religious and patriotic/statist/fascist, that absolve
them of the responsibility of thinking for themselves, liberals
can argue until we're blue in the face. We will get nowhere.
The answer probably lies elsewhere. I've discovered that
I've gotten farther with my family by simply being a good
human being, trying, but not always succeeding, to live and
model tolerance, justice, forgiveness, equality, etc. than
I ever have by argument. It's a much slower process and requires
infinite patience, but it works. I can't argue them into submission,
but I can still show them the way.