Friday, November 25, 2011

Act Now; Think Later

I don't know, but I think as answers go, "I don't know" doesn't get much respect. This is strange in an age when "straight talk" is said to be greatly admired. Yet it is the people who spout nonsense with conviction who are esteemed for their straightforward manner, while those who offer a humble but absolutely truthful "I don't know," are thought to be devious and untrustworthy.

Whether this is the human condition or something uniquely American is hard to say. Certainly the insufferable know-it-all hero has been a mainstay of American entertainment. There was the tall, handsome, arrogant stranger who walked into the saloon. Standing at the bar, he systematically examined the souls of the patrons. By the time he had finished his whiskey - which did not affect his gait or his judgment - the stranger knew who was rustling cattle. This was surprising, since the locals weren't aware that cattle were being rustled.

The stranger pushed the empty bottle toward the bartender and left. Outside, he tipped his hat and said "Howdy, ma'am," to the town's old maid schoolmarm. He stepped off the sidewalk and, with steely determination, walked down the middle of the dusty street, while the honest citizens scurried into the barbershop and general store. Then he stopped, spun around, drew his gun, and fired at the solitary figure standing outside the livery stable, sending the rustler-in-chief to his great reward. Although the stranger had been in town for about an hour and had spent most that time in the saloon, the person on the receiving end of his bullet was always an evildoer, never the minister, or stable boy, or the man on his way to the station to meet his wife and kids who were coming in from Abilene on the 12:57.

The stranger's ability to hone in on the bad guy and rid the community of him with a single shot might seem miraculous, but with the help of a seasoned screenwriter it was just another day in the cow town. The miracle is how the hero in the 21st Century has managed to deduce so much more, more quickly and with less thought. Not that he's had much choice. In a ninety-minute movie, the strong, silent hero had a few moments to look pensive. On television, where the function of the story is to give the viewer a momentary break from commercials, the hero hardly has time to react and no time to ponder, no time to think. Fortunately, the hero, usually a cop, has an array of state-of-the-art forensic tools. All he needs is a sneaking suspicion that there is a vital piece of evidence somewhere and a couple lackeys to fetch it. Within seconds of arriving at the crime scene, one of the cops will spot a single strand of hair in a shag carpet twenty feet away. The hair is rushed to police headquarters and run through a battery of tests, which inevitably prove the hero's suspicion was in fact correct. On television, one of the telltale signs of a heroic person is that he knows when he is correct he is not merely correct, he is in fact correct.

Those of us on the couch do not have the benefit of a screenwriter and can't always be sure that what we think is in fact brilliant and incisive. The truth is, what we think is more likely foolish. And if we do have a brilliant notion, chances are we'll mistake it for foolishness and do something idiotic instead. That never stops us. We blunder on, determined to make our next half-assed decision in half the time.

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