Miércoles 22 de Octubre de 2008, Ip nº 251

Opinions are a virus
Por Jay Cantor

Like you, during this election season I shuttle nervously from Internet site to Internet site, looking at the opinions of anyone who has an IP address. This has created in me, as in so many others, clearly, a thirst to offer my opinion, to become a philosopher-king, or better yet, a god, or even a pundit. Then my daughter would stop contradicting me, and my wife would perhaps smile upon me.

The thing is, as for sainthood you need some miracles, for pundit-hood you need an opinion. At that I drew a blank - a very cold mocking sort of blank. Fill me now or admit that you're nobody, the blank said. Look around you - a man without an opinion is less than an infant.

So I did what I usually do when the blanks (unwritten pages, tax forms, empty pet food dishes) stare up at me: I ate salted pistachios and anxiously clicked anywhere that anyone (holy rollers, busboys, Canadians, even Republicans) had anything at all to say about the election. Like a lot of people, I collect these opinions, and I forget where I got them, like head colds. And like viruses, these opinions have taken over all the neurons inside my head, driving out all my ideas and substantial feelings and thoughts, the way Velveeta drove cheese off grocers' shelves. The problem was, I needed an opinion of my own to pundit about. And, I ask you, whoever says, "this is my very own virus"?

Three hours passed in that sick, Portnoy-like haze of catchy online opinions, and before I knew it, I had to go to the university and lecture. Afterward a student wondered, "Doesn't everyone know that what you say is hooey? That Freud was a cocaine-crazed sex fiend responsible for the current permissiveness?" She didn't seem to care much to hear my response; it was more like she felt the way I had, she wanted to have an opinion - even if it were mean, maybe especially if it were mean. On the way back home, I found myself absently thinking, "Mean Girls" was one of my favorite movies. By the way, didn't Tina Fey look just like Sarah Palin? Was that my opinion? But then - it's been like years since I've had an extended thought - the next voice intervened: Sarah Palin listened to the sketch with the sound off - did you hear that? What's up with that?

Later, over snacks, I told my family about the student. "It's the fault of the self-esteem movement," I said. "Nowadays everyone has been taught since kindergarten that every snowflake has its own special something to say."

"I often wonder," my wife said, "how anyone knows they're all different? Do they compare each child before it melts?"

"Thing is," I continued, "they don't really all have different somethings to offer. They're like me, they all just borrow their shtick from the Internet or the radio. Or the newspapers."

Declaring my opinion about the self-esteem movement gave me that dazed pistachio-tasting feeling again, as if I'd maybe borrowed the words about self-esteem (from "The Incredibles"? From Limbaugh? Slate? Wonkette? Chris Matthews?), as if the words on self-esteem or Sarah Palin weren't so much coming from me as through me, the way a sneeze might.

My way forward was now clear to me. I had the theme for my punditry: We must now fight this enemy within. No more opinions.

With all the din inside and out, none of us can know that what we're saying is our own anymore. So we should all just stop having opinions for a while. We have to give these fake virus-opinions a chance to die inside us, for ourselves, so we can think our own thoughts again, and for the good of the planet, so they don't find another carrier. No one should express an opinion again, certainly until the election is over. Or maybe until the next millennium. I'll decide that later.

If you start to emit an opinion, dig a hole, drop it in, cover it up. If someone starts to tell you "their" opinion, put your fingers in your ears, hum "you're the wind beneath my wings," while turning in a circle, until they go away.

The rule for now is: No more opinions on anything. Not on chunky or smooth. Not on whether Sarah Palin is a good mother to her seven polar bears, or even on whether you like this article or not. And yes, I know that's my opinion. A paradox, yes, I get it. So the new rule is: this meta-opinion of mine will be the last one; at the end of this piece it will stab itself in the heart and die, taking all future opinions with it.

Wait. Is that my own opinion on opinions, really? Or did I just hear this somewhere, too? Are opinions what Richard Dawkins calls memes, and am I just repeating a meme about memes?

That anxiety - do I really have nothing to write about of my own - made the blank space open up again. Fortunately my daughter, whose job in life is to contradict me, entered the story and said, "I think opinions make the day more interesting. Like those ads you like, I'm a Mac and you're a PC."

"It's supply and demand, Dad. If we didn't need opinions, there wouldn't be any. They'd disappear, like investment banks. Opinions are useful, like the giant foam fingers at baseball games - they're a quick way to tell others that you're their kind of people, you share their smell, they shouldn't eat you."

"Ditto," my wife said. She borrowed that from Rush Limbaugh, I'm pretty sure.

Unfortunately, these denials made these dear people my opponents now, maybe even my frenemies, like Jane Curtin and Pat Buchanan, or the people who used to play them on CNN. Of course, now that I had opponents I had to hold all the harder to whatever the thing was I'd just hiccuped, because if I didn't mean what I'd just said, then am I the kind of person who just says things? Do I utterly lack integrity? Now I had to repeat my opinion on opinions to show that I wasn't just repeating it, it was my own, I really, really meant it.

I pulled up my full-professor traveling podium. I took a sip from the water glass on the lectern, and continued: "So pictures we'll OK. And charades. Because I think it would be funny if the presidential debates were done as charades. In this way," I said, "after a suitable eon of silence, and occasional games of charades, we might figure out what any of us really think or feel for ourselves, by ourselves. Then we can talk again. Or maybe not talk. Too risky. Maybe just sigh. Did you know that it was by sighing for someone who might know Him, that the Sufis say God created the universe? I just heard that somewhere."

"I like that," they both said. Then they nodded and smiled sympathetically.

"OK," I said. "Thanks. And bye."

"Bye?" my daughter asked. "Are you going somewhere?"

But I didn't say anything - to show that I really meant what I'd just said. So she made the charade symbol for "crazy" to her mother, and went back to her room to do her homework.

"I think you have an interesting opinion there," my wife said.

I nodded, and mutely hugged her for the compliment. Was it a compliment, though, I began to wonder? Then I thought, Oh, God, I think I've seen this gesture somewhere before, in "Friends" or a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks product, the silent hug before the curtain bit. Suddenly I felt anxious and depressed.

So I decided to calm myself and jazz myself at the same time by getting some salted nuts to munch while I checked the Internet. Who knows? Maybe I'd find that someone had linked to my opinion, my opinion about opinions, my very last opinion ever (at least for a while), and maybe tomorrow one of my students would repeat it. That would be cool.


  19/10/2008. Boston.com.


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