16 Mar 2000


On the Elevation of Idiocy

I was reading this week's Houston Press -- being a fan of alternative publications for many reasons, including their coverage of local music -- when I ran across the feature story for the week and was a little shocked.  Only a little, because I've become somewhat numb to our culture's increasing elevation of the mediocre, the pitiable, the idiotic.  While we've always been a culture that enjoys the underdog (and I would contend that this notion is proper when the underdog is heroic in some objective fashion), I would say that ever since the movie Forrest Gump, which glorified an idiot, there has been an all-out rush in this direction.  It's disturbing.

The feature story this week is entitled Mommy's Little Angel.   I encourage people to read it and think about it.  It is about a 13 year-old Austin boy who was born with a condition that renders him unable to speak, walk, or communicate (aside from the use of a letterboard -- more on this below).  Indeed, one part of the story elaborates on the young man's difficulties: 

Marshall Ball has been removed from his wheelchair and perched on a soft couch. . . .   His limbs are thin from disuse, and he likes to chew on his hands, putting all four fingers into his mouth at once.  He makes sporadic vocalizations -- not recognizable words, but undulating moans -- and arcs his neck in haphazard patterns.  His green eyes loll from one place to another without betraying recognition, and his mother crosses the room calmly and frequently to right him when he tips onto his side, or to pull his hand from his mouth. (Houston Press, 16-22 March 2000, 22)

A compassionate person's reaction to this might be to feel pity for the young man, and the life he is doomed to lead.  However, we learn that the young man has written (!) a book!  Yes, a book entitled Kiss of God:  The Wisdom of a Silent Child.   Except we learn that he didn't quite write it.  It seems that his parents have helped him in a process they call "augmented communication" in which they hold his elbow and respond to his motions by placing letters for him.   Now, scientific studies have long discredited this "facilitated communication."  Imagine playing with a Ouija board and you get the idea.   Nonetheless, in this manner, the young boy, his parents, perhaps even "God" if we are to believe the young boy's publicists (yes, publicists) have written a book that has proven wildly popular. 

If that were whole of the story -- a young man overcoming a handicap to write a popular book -- then kudos might be in order.  The writer of the feature article, one Brad Tyer, obviously is an admirer of the boy:  "He calls himself an angel and a teacher and a thinker.  Those who feel themselves touched by his writings call him a prodigy and a messenger and a prophet."  With that buildup, I was expecting to read something compelling, even for a handicapped thirteen-year-old child.  So Mr. Tyer reproduces snippets of the young man's "writing":  "A good feeling begins with God."  "Going to God gives good answers."   "Begin to feel God today." "Tame teach grow/Tame talk matters/Teach tame/Tame Teach [sorry, but is anyone reminded of Lois Cook and the Gallant Gallstone?]" "Marshall has been here for millions of lifetimes." And then we get a poem:

Even though my individuality finds sweet
knowing perfection I listen for the
Answers to wishes from above.  I listen to
Good thoughts like something cloudy over
mountain tops.  Fine messages clearly
govern my thinking.  Feeling grow
harmoniously making Love possible.
Harmony might justify every marvelous
Idea given to Love.  The seeing Marshall
Hopes to free the hopeless.  Dear harmony
Needs progress governing fine thinking
That I feel.  I see harmony as the final
Known answer. 

I will refrain from insulting any reader's intelligence by writing anything other than:   this is not the stuff of a genius, a child prodigy, or someone who has anything to offer any rational, thinking person.  But what is interesting, from a cultural and philosophical perspective, is that THIS GARBAGE NOT ONLY HAS AN AUDIENCE, IT IS BEING CELEBRATED!  And not as the triumph of a young handicapped boy who, by all rights, wouldn't be expected ever to write a book -- but instead as the wisdom -- THE WISDOM -- of a young man in touch with "God" no less!  And just in case we can't understand the wisdom -- and I'll readily admit a certain difficulty finding it -- we are told that the young man's mother "has taken it as her role to share her gift, her son with the world, and since Marshall's own words are so often elliptical and questioning and vague, the world comes to [her] for specific answers."  Indeed, the elliptical, vague, and shall we even say dyspeptic prose should keep mom busy for a while.

What does it say about the culture that writing like this, movies like Forrest Gump, and art that celebrates the banal and hideous (on a recent trip to London, I saw artist-in-residence Ana-Maria Pacheco's work displayed in the National Gallery;  Miss Pacheco is a highly acclaimed artist whose work vilifies men and women, portraying them as grotesque) are all celebrated?  Does this not represent an attack on greatness itself (for, as Ellsworth Toohey points out, isn't the best way to drive out the greatness of Shakespeare not to attack the bard directly, but to elevate Lois Cook, Lancelot Clokey, and the like)?  Is the culture so far gone that THIS is its prevailing esthetics?

I hope not.

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  Copyright (c) 2000, Kevin L. Whited