Two great pieces of writing about the limits of our intelligence, and how decorum and being an “insider” who knows what is going on can make you, um completely fricking blind as to what is actually going on.
The first is a personal reflection by Antonio Dias, over at Horizons of Significance.
In part it involves a monkey at a zoo that will eat what he is thrown. One day he gets thrown a large coin…
Now, the old Portuguese coins had a nomenclature all their own. Not quite of a complexity to British standards, but certainly not straightforward and rationally metric as might be expected at first glance. Old terms were still in use from before the days of Salazar’s “Republic,” a nostalgia for the pomp of royalty then displaced by dictatorial “efficiencies.” An escudo was likely to be referred to as un Rei – a king. A large sum of money would generically be termed un Conte de Reis. Nominally, a thousand escudos, an enormous sum before the turn of the twentieth century. Yet another way to hold onto past glories, the national pastime in Portugal.
Right now I can’t remember exactly the term for an escudo in coin. Something Rei…. Anyway, this was what was tossed to the monkey.
He did as he was wont and as soon as he had caught it it went straight into his mouth and he swallowed hard with satisfaction at a job well done, ready for the next thing tossed his way.
The problem was, this coin was not digestible and it was too big to pass on its own. The poor monkey was deathly ill and had to be operated on to remove it.
No fool this monkey! They never are in the end, in such stories. Except that invariably they remain objects of ridicule.
Once he had recuperated and was back at his normal post on the end of a dead branch in his enclosure right up by the tall metal bars at the front of his cage; he returned to his old business, begging for peanuts.
It’s just that there was something new he added to his routine. Whenever anyone threw him a nut – or any item at all – he would first hold it up to his ass and “See if it fit!”
This would always bring forth a round of hilarity from everyone at the table. Tio (uncle) Lionel would beam in the glow of our approval as he would raise up one “cheek” from his chair and mime the monkey’s deliberations on whether this gift was a “keeper.”
So it goes with our cost/benefit. We take whatever comes our way and we shove it at our assholes to see if it will fit.
There’s the humor of the story: Foolish monkey/foolish us!
But this story, its setting; all the paraphernalia of its embeddedness in “civilized life;” provides a prime example of how we are conditioned. At the heart of all such stories, from Aesop on down, has been this need to make light of and embarrass us out of our “naive” reactions; to instil in their place a “knowing” archness. A gloss of sophistication that will inoculate us to the “necessity” that even when we see the futility or the danger inherent in the “way things are,” we will smoothly shrug and laugh it off, and get back to what we “know…”
the second, (and hat-tip to the wonderful Sam Gunsch) is about “savviness” in political reporting. Jay Rosen, over at his “Press Think: the ghost of democracy in the media machine”;
Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.
Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.