About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Meaningless (but harmless) contests
But there is something else that always bothered me about spelling bees – besides the fact that I don't see why Americans have to turn everything, including eating hot dogs, into a competition, rather than just enjoy the damn thing for its own sake. What bothers me is that spelling bees are considered “intellectual” competitions, events for nerds. If that's intellectual, I am the king of Prussia, and I also own a large bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you at a very good price.
This morning, however, I found something that beats even the spelling bee as a senseless competition. I was reading the New York Times online while sipping my skim latte at the local coffee house (not a Starbucks!), while I came across an article on the “Dubai International Holy Koran Award.” In this extravagant event, hosted by the richest Arab country in the world, kids compete (for prizes up to $70,000 each) to show that they can recite the Koran more flawlessly and convincingly than anybody else. Some of the competitors don't even speak Arabic, and they simply memorize the text without understanding a word of it. How on earth is this supposed to please the deity is beyond me, but apparently not beyond millions in the Muslim world, who watch this thing as if it were “American Idol.”
In fact, the ultimate irony here is that of a culture that is fighting American imperialism with nails and teeth, then turns out to succumb to precisely the same desperate need for glitz and glamor (and cash) that is despised by Muslim clerics the world over. Then again, maybe that's were we can begin a reconciliation of the two cultures: by finding common ground in meaningless competitions. After all, and unlike holy wars and wars based on false pretense, they actually don't harm anybody.