The End of the Other N-Word?


With President-elect Barack Obama set to take office in just over a month, everyone is wondering whether this heralds the end of racism.  Here at The 1585, my answer is…  um…  Okay, sure, it means the end of racism.

Unless you count as racist the record numbers of imbeciles all over the country openly threatening to kill him because he’s Black, some of whom are schoolchildren.  And it kind of seems like, you know, you should probably count those people.

So, end of racism?  Not so much, no.  But there is another marginalized group to which Barack Obama belongs and, though this issue has certainly been discussed less than has race in conjunction with the election, society’s view of this other group may be undergoing an even more radical shift.  The dawning of the Age of Obama just might mean the end of that other n-word:  the end of the concept of the Nerd.

So, wait, you’re thinking now, this is just another “Obama is a Nerd” essay?  Didn’t I already read like, three dozen of those the day after the election?  There are practically more essays about Obama being a Nerd on the web than there are video clips of British girls taking showers with their pantyhose on.  Why do we need another?  But this isn’t just another Obama Is A Nerd essay; it’s the only Obama Is A Nerd essay you'll ever need — i.e., no less than you have come to expect from the Genius Factory that is The 1585.

Admit it:  You have never seen this picture before in your life.
It has not been on one single other person’s blog, not ever.

I know you already know that Obama collected Spider-Man comics, and that he once greeted Leonard Nimoy with the Vulcan hand sign, and that some dudes on his transition team play Warcraft or something.  But these things are peripheral.  Really, they say as much about Obama’s age* as they do about his nerdiness.  And in any case, the extent to which Americans are willing to vote for someone who likes science-fiction stuff is not the main issue when it comes to how Nerds are thought of or treated.  This issue is the extent to which Americans are willing to vote for someone who is openly, unapologetically smarter than they are.

    *(Which raises the totally separate question:  Is Obama a member of Generation X?  According to the definition given by Generation X author Douglas Coupland — Americans born under JFK, LBJ, and Nixon — Obama is a member of Generation X, by just under six months.  But according to the “were still in your 20s when Nevermind was released” upper limit, Obama misses by seven weeks.)  

Now, we’ve had smart presidents before, of course.  Most presidents, really, have been more-or-less smart, if not necessarily geniuses.  But the ones with noticeably high IQs have always been obliged to temper this fact with something.  Smart Democrats have had the best luck with “folksy bullshit,” “being from the South,” or “being cute” (in Bill Clinton’s case, all three), whereas smart Republicans utilized the strategy of deploying surrogates to pre-emptively demonize all other Smart People as disingenuous traitors and/or pussies, thereby making themselves seem like trustworthy regular guys and leaving them the only dude in sight with skills — a strategy later adopted by the Sith.

"Spiro, go to the Jedi Temple...
Do what must be done."

Obama, then, is not so much notable for being smart as he is notable for — somehow — not needing to do anything to obscure the fact that he is smart in order to win.  Now, this is inextricably tied up with the race factor for not one, but two reasons.  First of all, as a Black man, Obama didn’t really have the option of pretending not to be smart:  the avowed, conscious racism of the far-Right aside, even the unintentional subconscious racism of potential Obama supporters necessitated his taking every opportunity to demonstrate that, hey, this is one smart guy here.  When a Bill Clinton plays the aw-shucks card, deep down people know it’s a put-on, but the same would not necessarily be true if a person of color acted like that.  But this only explains why Obama had to come out as a Smart Person, not why it worked.

It worked because, as it turns out, the counterspells the Right normally uses against Smart People don’t really work as well on a Black guy.  The Republicans have gotten used to being able to win simply by throwing the issues out the window and going “the other guy’s a fag.”  Not literally gay, necessarily, but a “fag” in the Junior High sense of too intellectual and not macho enough.  Indeed, to a lot of the country, the first thing basically automatically means the second.  In fact, with the exception of Carter ousting Ford (who, being essentially Nixon’s skid mark, was doomed) in 1976, this is the first election in living memory in which the less macho guy has won.

Of course, this begs the question of what we mean by macho.  I’m inclined to think that either John Kerry or Al Gore could technically have beaten George W. Bush in a fight (they are both bigger than him, and are both combat veterans).  But, as we found out in those two elections, macho doesn’t just mean who would win in a fight.  Bush was widely perceived as the “tough guy” in both elections, despite not being even close to being the tougher guy in any demonstrable literal sense of the term.

We have a metaphysical sense of who is supposed to, quote, win a fight, unquote, that does not always correspond to the facts of who would actually win a fight.  When the guy who is “supposed to” win loses, people inevitably find a way to say that the other guy did something “cheap,” even if it was a totally fair fight — and the guy who is “supposed to” win is almost always simply the dumber guy. 

Imagine, for example, that Bill Gates hired some top-notch karate masters to teach him karate, and stuck with it until he became a black belt.  It would thereafter be the case that Bill Gates would be able to beat the vast majority of people in a fight — and yet, he would still be considered less macho than the average person.  He would still not be the guy who is “supposed to” win.

Although this is, when you cast a spotlight on it, clearly unfair, it is actually a consequence of our American obsession with fairness.  We want people to be equal, and for people to be equal, things have to even out.  The smart guy gets to be smart but not tough, and the tough guy gets to be tough but not smart.  It’s the same reason people insist on continuing to believe that beautiful women are dumb, despite the fact that many exceptionally intelligent women are also quite attractive, and the vast majority of stupid women are also ugly. 

Consciously, as good Americans we hate stereotypes because we want every individual to be treated fairly — but subconsciously, we need our stereotypes in order to continue being able to see life itself as fair.

Of course, America has not always been so averse to inequality.  In our shameful past, a combination of racist hatred and the traditional Western mind/body division resulted in a conceptualization of Blacks as unintellectual and “tough” to the point of being animalistic.  And even in this more enlightened age, many perfectly well-intentioned white Americans who genuinely do not hate anybody will still be surprised despite themselves when a Black man is “well-spoken,” and may deep down believe that he is probably at least a little bit better at sports or something.  Call it racism-lite.

And ironically, despite all the concern that conscious racism would lose the election for Barack Obama, it may well have been subconscious racism-lite that won it for him.  

Yes, many McCain supporters were driven by overt, conscious racism, and they failed.  But think about it:  Obama is a skinny ivy-leaguer who has never served in the military.  In a completely non-racist society, the Republicans could have blown him out of the water with the same game plan they used against George McGovern or Michael Dukakis (assuming, of course, that this hypothetical non-racist society was still stupid enough to fall for all that other crap, which seems unlikely).  Had race been a non-issue, the Republicans could simply have called him a Nerd, which has always worked for them in the past.  But it couldn’t work this time.

“A Nerd?!,” the American public would have asked, confusedly.  “Umm…  I don’t know whether you noticed, but he’s a Black Guy.”

In short, stereotypes about Blacks and stereotypes about Nerds ended up canceling each other out and getting a Smart Black Guy elected President of the United States.  Which is awesome.  And along the way, said Smart Black Guy was able to get away with saying awesome stuff like the following:

“I’m not against all wars, I’m against dumb wars.”

    “The other thing is, they’re making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by three to four percent.  It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.  They think it’s funny that they’re making fun of something that is actually true.  They need to do their homework.”

    “So when Brian Williams is asking me about a personal thing you’ve done, and I say, ‘Well, I planted a bunch of trees.’  And he says, ‘I’m talking about personal.’  What I’m thinking in my head is, ‘Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house.  It’s because of something collective.’”

If a white guy said those things, he’d be a Nerd to End All Nerds.  When Obama made that crack about homework, it was barely even a metaphor:  He actually pretty much meant actual homework!  About science!  Obama has come closer than any A-list politico in recent memory to actually coming right out and saying “Conservatives are conservatives because they’re stupid.”  And yet, he is also the coolest politician since Bobby Kennedy.  How the hell does he do that?

The answer is simple:  it is easier for African-Americans to get away with making fun of stupid people than it is for white Nerds.  And this makes perfect sense.

Black people hate stupid people because stupid people have enslaved them, lynched them, dragged their preadolescent children to death behind cars for no reason, made treating them this way the basis for the economy of half of the planet for 500 years, and said it was all fine because supposedly their sweat smelled different or something.  Conversely, white Nerds hate stupid people because when we were 14 they used to throw our hats on the roof.

Frankly, Black people’s reason is better.

Now, in the Black community, it is customary to say “ignorant” rather than “stupid.”  And technically, I guess, ignorance is what we’re really talking about when we make fun of stupid people.  But we say stupid anyway because… well, it’s more fun, because it hurts more.  Many assholes don’t really mind being called ignorant.  They kind of get off on it, actually.

Blacks were denied equal access to education for so long that they were not in a position to use an insult that connoted the simple absence of intellectual training — so they had to make use of a term that sort of meant “stupid” but also implied a lack of fundamental decency.

In the tire-pressure speech, Obama used the traditional Black term — "ignorant" — but Obama is educated to the point of being a Nerd in the modern sense, and when he says it, the term has much more in common with dumbass than bad person.  He can mean it the way Nerds mean it, but people will still hear it the Black way and not call him on it.  For this reason, Obama is the ultimate Nerd — he’s like a vampire who’s immune to crosses and garlic and can come out in the daytime.

Of course, the second I started implying that there’s no such thing as Black Nerds, a bunch of you were probably ready to go “What about Urkel?”  But if you think about it, Urkel actually kind of proves my point — i.e., that’s how nerdy you have to be to count as a Nerd if you’re Black, and no-one is actually that nerdy in real life.

It’s not like Urkel was a nerd simply because he was smart.  As I recall, Whatsherface the main girl on that show was also supposed to be smart — she just didn’t wear rainbow socks jacked up to her eyeballs and couldn’t build robots and shit.  But by the standards of middle-class suburban Anglo culture, she would have been a nerd too.  By the standards of middle-class suburban Anglo culture, pretty much everyone who has ever read a book is a Nerd.  Nerds in a suburban Anglo school are like slaves in ancient Sparta — they are considered inferior, but comprise like 90% of the population.  So basically what you have in a white high school is about eleven people sitting at one table considering the entire rest of the school inferior. 

Seriously?  I used to hate the popular kids, but when I think back on how simultaneously fucking insane and completely unquestioned this system was, now I just think they must have been geniuses.  How the hell else could they have successfully persuaded a mass of people who outnumbered them like 15-to-1 to allow them to treat them this way?  Only in a demographic with no real problems could people be convinced that this makes sense.

In a culture where people actually have real problems, studying isn’t enough to make someone a pariah.  It is only common sense that you study, because you need to in order to get the fuck out of where you live.  On the other hand, in a stratum of society where your parents will be able to bail your ass out of virtually anything you could possibly do short of hold a major American city hostage with a giant laser, anyone who studies must simply have nothing better to do — if they did, then they would do that instead, because there couldn’t possibly be any consequences for it.

Both rich kids and poor kids commit crimes, but the crimes poor kids commit tend towards the pragmatic — they usually involve, you know, making money somehow.  If a poor kid steals something, it’s probably worth something.  Rich suburban kids, however, seem to go out of their way to devise the least pragmatic crimes humanly possible.  When a carload of white kids drives around all night smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat out the car window, for example, there is no conceivable way for this to result in profit.  It’s not like it’s a video game and the mailboxes make a high-pitched ping and turn into spinning gold coins when you smash them.  If you are a Caucasian male who grew up in the suburbs, odds are that by the time you graduated high school you had made off with enough odds and ends from Taco Bell to pretty much assemble your own entire Taco Bell in your room (or, alternately, in “your friend’s back woods”), but how often did you steal anything that was actually, you know, worth any money?

When suburban kids want to break the law, they have to invent crimes.

But as the younger American generations replace the older and the culture becomes increasingly post-racial, all the distinctions just highlighted may not be around much longer.  To people who are old enough to remember the Challenger explosion or to have been traumatized by the fact that they never aired Part Two of the finale of ALF, Nerdism exists, and it is a white thing.  But the Millennials barely know what race is (granted, the Millennials barely know what anything is, but the fact remains).  As Black culture and white culture slowly become simply culture, what will happen to the Nerd?  Will Black culture cure white culture of Nerdism, or will white culture infect Black culture with it?

My guess is that suburban Anglo culture losing its insularity will be a big help, but it also appears to us as if white America is already tending in a post-Nerdist direction anyway.  It is with very cautious optimism that we suggest that America may be on the verge of a new Golden Age for Smart People, of which Obama himself is as much a symptom as a cause. 

I've discussed in an earlier essay how it almost became cool to be smart in the early ’90s, but the sensitive-intellectual thrust of youth culture was checked by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and eventually arrested altogether due to its being associated with Academic P.C. (just as, in the late ’60s, bourgeois backlash against youth counterculture and bourgeois backlash against the civil rights movement quickly melded into the same generalized backlash).  By the dawning of the new millennium, it was cooler to like mindless dance music than rock, reality shows were outcompeting scripted shows faster than the oaks do the maples in that stupid Rush song, and George W. Bush had been (sort of) elected president.  

And all that shit might have been no coincidence.  Youth culture had been betrayed by a genius, the political world had been betrayed by a “slick” president, and the P.C. intelligentsia, led by academic feminism, was decrying the entertainment world and its too-thin actresses even as the bourgeoisie was getting fed up with both the entertainment world and the P.C. intelligentsia themselves.

Ergo, the apotheosis of the “regular guy.”

Apotheoses of the regular guy have happened before, of course.  That’s why, even though they appear to have little else in common, Jimmy Carter coincided with Punk.  And although “regular” people may seem like a good idea at the time, they tend either to turn out not to have any idea what they’re doing (Carter, Bush) or just get boring and repetitive real fast (punk, reality shows). 

Thus, the same pattern happens again backwards (conservative adept schemer replaced by liberal inept Christian replaced by conservative soaring-rhetoric guy… liberal adept schemer replaced by conservative inept Christian replaced by liberal soaring-rhetoric guy), and Obama stands poised to become the liberal Reagan.  This means it’s about to become okay for things to become “big” again — but since Obama is the liberal Reagan, it’s gonna be big brains instead of big business, buildings, and hair.

Not that Obama caused this, although his example will certainly help it along.  Obama is just the most potent symbol of the fact that America has finally become sick of idiots.  Near the beginning of Bush’s presidency, the most popular shows on TV showcased morons falling drunkenly into pools, marrying midgets, and eating horse rectum.  By the end of Bush’s presidency, the most popular show on TV was about a guy who limps around calling people stupid.

…and it’s about time, too.

By the end of the Bush era, America didn’t just want smart people to come back — we wanted smart people to come back and be dicks to us.  We wanted to be punished for electing that fool twice.  Barack Obama is a damn smart guy, but he is also a nice smart guy.  The tire-pressure and light-bulb cracks are more aggressively smart than past politicians have been able to get away with, but still pale in comparison to what is dished out on House every week, and House is a big giant hit, even among people who aren't smart.

Sure, there have been uncommonly smart characters on TV before:  Columbo, for example, a variation on the Sherlock Holmes template, just as House is.  But Columbo was a lovable, unassuming schlub, not a dick (okay, he was a dick in the sense that dick is slang for detective, but you know what we mean).  In any case, what types of character can get away with being uncommonly smart provides us with an insight:  people want doctors and detectives to be smart, because jealousy goes out the window when you desperately need someone to figure out why you’re sweating blood or who murdered the famous cellist.  These smart people are seen as necessary smart people.

In the cases of smart people who do things that people don’t necessarily want them to do, like correct their grammar or prove that their religion is stupid, it’s a different story.  These smart people are also necessary, but are not seen as such, because they are not immediately necessary.

So which type of smart person is a smart president seen as?  Logically, he should be seen as the necessary kind, since the president makes decisions of immediate consequence on a daily basis.  But the conservative makeover of the president into an ideological symbol — a figure who embodies the character of the people, in the manner of a classical European monarch — means he risks being seen as the second.  The Symbolic President doesn’t necessarily need to be smart, just to get photographed doing “normal” things a lot.  So a smart first-term president who wants to become a smart second-term president needs the country to see him as the guy who figures out why they’re sweating blood, not the guy who corrects their grammar. 

But this shouldn’t be too hard to do.  Thanks to stupid people, there actually are a bunch of problems right now that we actually do need a smart person to start fixing right away.  The trick will be keeping up the image of smart people even when we’re no longer in a shitload of immediate trouble.  Is it inevitable that the pendulum will swing back the other way?  Perhaps not.  Throughout most of history, smart people have been at least a little bit cool (even if, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, we are usually not as cool as bullshit mystics).  It was only in the last half of the 20th Century that smart people started to be downright openly despised.  

And Obama has a shot at closing the door on that aberration for good.  Because it’s not just that Obama is both cool and smart.  That has been accomplished before, from time to time.  Clinton was both cool and smart, and so was JFK.  But with Obama, it is much more the case that he is cool because he is smart.  When Obama fans want to see him do something cool, we don’t mean bang Marilyn Monroe or play the saxophone; we mean disprove a Republican talking point in an efficient, accessible manner.

This might not be that surprising if we saw Obama as fundamentally a cool guy who later got smart.  But we don’t.  We see him very much as having been smart the whole time, which has not been the case with other cool/smart presidents.  Try to imagine JFK in college, and you picture him doing kegstands and organizing pantyraids.  With Clinton, you know he got good grades, but it still seems correct somehow to picture him sliding by on charm, or even changing shit over a computer, Ferris Bueller style.  Obama you picture studying his ass off.  And yet he is cool not despite this, but because of it.

Plus he’s married to the hottest First Lady since Jackie Kennedy, and landed her before he was a State Senator or even had any money, just by being an earnest, intense, fascinating guy, even though she reportedly wasn’t interested in him at first…. which makes him less the Black John Kennedy than the Black John Cusack.

"As your President, I will not sell anything,
   buy anything, or process anything..."

As a biracial nice-intellectual liberal-Christian cool nerd, Obama is in a position not to win the Culture War, but simply to make it go away, like Henry VII uniting the houses of York and Lancaster.  Watch for Sarah Palin as the figurehead of a decreasingly relevant minority who want the War to continue, a Bonnie Prince Charlie figure inciting pointless delusional government-in-exile skirmishes from her remote northern lair…*.

    *(I realize that was 300 years later.  They are two separate analogies.)

The de-insularizing of Anglo culture will help close the book on the Culture War (seeing as how it was only ever really the white Culture War anyway).  The concept of the Nerd is fading away.  Religiosity is becoming less literal and less automatically associated with far-Right politics.  The ascendancy of nonwhite sexy pop stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna is making it less politically problematic to be a sexy pop star.  It is going to become increasingly difficult for the traditional Right-wing side of the Culture War to avoid being explicitly associated with white xenophobia, if not actual out-and-out white supremacism.  It’s entirely possible that Sarah Palin will soon post a YouTube video of her crashing through somebody’s fence.

And it’s finally starting to be scripted shows that are outcompeting reality shows faster than the oaks do the maples in the stupid Rush song — which makes a lot more sense, since in the actual stupid Rush song it’s the oaks that represent exceptional people and the maples that represent resentful normal people.  And if you noticed that and were ready to complain about it the first time we used the joke, what’s wrong with you?  Rush sucks.  Why do you know so much about what their terrible songs mean?

This is why people don’t like Nerds.

read more awesome 1585 essays.

like and follow The 1585 on Facebook.

blog comments powered by Disqus