Democratic Underground  
It's Not Intelligence, Stupid
October 21, 2003
By David Stellfox

My 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 divorced too.

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 merely human.

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 and argument.

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.

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