Some years ago, I performed in an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (I’ve mentioned it before). One night, a number of friends of mine came to see the show, and we met up afterwards for drinks. Another friend of ours was working as a bartender at a midtown hotel at the time, so we ensconced ourselves in the lounge, ordered our drinks, and proceeded to hold court. We discussed the show; we talked about how we’d achieved the stage violence, the kinds of belief systems we’d ascribed to the witches, what exactly the play drew from Scottish history. We discussed how the story related to political figures of the time. It was at the height of the Iraq War, and another friend of ours had been deployed as a supply sergeant in the early months of that conflict, so we discussed that as well. Me being me, I also likely had to explain to them why I wasn’t referring to the play they’d just seen by name. (Not in a theater? Call it The Scottish Play, darn it!) The sort of happy, wide-ranging bull session that I’d imagine most of enjoy when our friends come to see our show.
Apparently, I’m mistaken.
There was a pair of gentlemen in the hotel bar that night. Father and son, I believe, from Ohio or Pennsylvania if memory serves. I could feel them staring at us for a few minutes before one of the two of them came up to us and said, “excuse me, are all New Yorkers like this?”
I winced – I was sure we were about to be accused of being loud, or overbearing, or what have you, and be subjected to yet another tirade about Rude New Yorkers. But my friends, not as apprehensive as myself, asked the two strangers what they meant. The two then spoke admiringly of the wide-ranging conversation we’d been having (and which they thought nothing of eavesdropping upon, apparently), and said, “New Yorkers, you all, you know things.”
Now, I’d love to say that this conversation we’d been having was so profoundly intellectual, so suffused with arcana and esoterica, as to warrant this admiration. And I went to a fancy college, I know plenty of intellectual types – I could easily have been having such a conversation. But this was not such a conversation. I was hanging out with my geek buddies, you see, hardcore gamers and fantasy nerds who’d just enjoyed ninety minutes of me swinging a broadsword. The part of the discussion I mentioned above, about achieving the stage violence? It focused on how LARPers and cosplayers might get the same results. Don’t get me wrong – my friends are quite bright, but buddies drinking and geeking out is not the height of intellectual achievement.
Unless you’re these two strangers, who were convinced they were sitting in on Plato’s Symposium.
We spoke to them a while, and it became clear that, wherever it was there were from, people focused on the particulars of their own livelihoods, and little or nothing else. All that a man was expected to know was his own business. The notion of having informed opinions on multiple topics, of having any sort of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, was completely new to them, and they were looking at me and my gamer buddies as if we were unicorns or the like.
I find myself thinking of this encounter often. More and more these days.
I was especially reminded of this encounter this past Friday. As you might recall, our nation’s current president was visiting Paris this weekend, at a joint press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron, he stated the following: “France is America’s first and oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that.” As this is one of those things you typically find out in grade school, when you’re first learning about America’s fight for independence, many of us came to the conclusion that Trump was speaking about himself when he referred to “a lot of people.” And lots of us laughed heartily at that thought – since it’s one of the few things you can laugh about these days without feeling deep pangs of dread immediately afterwards.
But I wonder. And I think back to that long-ago encounter. And as much as it terrifies me to write the words, it may well be that Trump is right – “a lot of people” may very well not know. And it’s not because they’re unintelligent, or because they were taught poorly in school. No, they may very well believe, as those two strangers did, that if it’s not part of their immediate lives, there’s no reason for them to know about it.
This. Is. Bullcrap.
I say this as an arts professional – if we don’t have at least a smattering of knowledge on a broad range of topics, it’s impossible for us to do our jobs. But more importantly, I say this as an American – a nation built on an ideal of an informed public making intelligent decisions for itself. And in order for that to happen, we not only need to have that information, but we have to want to have it in the first place. Once we stop wanting it, we leave ourselves vulnerable to demagogues and scoundrels of every possible variety.
So please, in these difficult times, don’t follow the example of our current president. Please find better Americans to emulate. Like my drunken gamer buddies.