Technology is the means by which the smartest make society stupider.
That’s all I got for one-line wisdom today. An Ivy League professor of German’s success in the Twitterverse with such short-and-sweet truths has led him to escape the academy for an everyday living as an aphorist. To coin a tweet, “Good luck with that.” When has the medium in which congressmen kill their careers, and rowdy teenage partiers broadcast their lawbreaking to their parents, the cops, and local Ron Burgandys ever lent itself to deep thoughts?
The New Yorker informs that Eric Jarosinski’s inability to fulfill rigorous publish-or-perish requirements — Can you believe those Ivy League troglodytes don’t grant equal status to tweets and scholarly articles? — compelled him to withdraw from tenure consideration at Penn. Instead of finishing a book, the professor tweeted, nearly 30,000 times, beginning in early 2012. His social media pursuits occupy a full paragraph, enough to fill four tweets, in his three-paragraph professional biography, which also mentions that he’s still working on that book.
Outsiders may question the professor’s career change. But his observation that the academy fosters jargon and obscurantism, not clarity, seems much clearer than any paper presented at the Modern Language Association’s recent annual meeting. Twitter, aside from its drawbacks, forces awards-show shut-up music on award-winning chatterboxes. It correctly recognizes that society suffers from collective attention-deficit disorder. For the verbose, there’s still the allure of the classroom’s captive audience and all those blank pages to fill in thick academic journals.
It’s no accident that the thinkers who excelled at condensing complex thoughts into crisp sentences generally did their thinking away from campus. François de La Rochefoucauld found favor in salons and in royal courts; Blaise Pascal toiled in his father’s house; and big ideas in small packages came to Eric Hoffer working on the waterfront, resting in his spartan San Francisco apartment, and walking along Golden Gate Park’s paths.
Many of Eric Hoffer’s most memorable aphorisms, collected in The Passionate State of Mind, measure in at 140 characters or less…
“Add a few drops of venom to a half truth and you have an absolute truth.”
“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”
“The sick in the soul insist that it is humanity that it is sick, and they are the surgeons to operate on it.”
“To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.”
“Facts are counterrevolutionary.”
Though The True Believer author’s wisdom could often fit into a tweet, he never would have attempted to fit in on Twitter. His originality stemmed in part from eschewing technological trends. In his heyday from the 1950s into the 1970s, Hoffer’s apartment contained a table to write but no television to distract or telephone to intrude. He grasped the paradox that modern advancements designed to make living more efficient ultimately serve as timewasters.
The Hoover Institution Archives and San Francisco Public Library, where I encountered Hoffer’s papers while researching Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, present much of his work to us in legible longhand. He didn’t much like typewriters. Sturdy notebooks were his constant companion. As The American Spectator’s Tom Bethell wrote in his illuminating biography Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, “He had the courage to stand alone.”
Hoffer swam against the cultural currents in the 1960s. Twittericans drown in them today.
“Hysterical rendition of ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ goes viral in 24 hours” (talk-show host Mel Robbins). “Let’s change the world together” (pop star Justin Bieber). “This tweet does not kill fascists. But your next one just might” (Ivy League tweeter Eric Jarosinski).
Twitter gets the brevity of aphorisms right. It doesn’t much do the wisdom.
Aphorisms may die as clichés. They weren’t born that way. The old-school tweets of Hoffer, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld hit the reader quickly. They developed glacially after careful thought. The best sound bites go down fast but take a long time to cook.
Before tweets, bumper stickers, sandwich boards, and peanut-gallery chants advertised shallow conformity. Twitter, to borrow from an ancient aphorism, is old wine in a new bottle.
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