George Pyle: Ask the candidates what books they have read

(Courtesy | BBC America) The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) stars in the "Doctor Who" Christmas special, "Last Christmas."

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Bertrand Russell

I’m not so certain about that.

An alternative explanation is that the main problem with the world is that there are too many toys and too few books.

Those of you who loyally follow this space will have seen the anti-toy argument before. Some people are so devoted to their precious playthings — guns, cars, trucks, off-road vehicles, smartphones — that they lose sight of what is good, both for themselves and for the whole of society.

Meanwhile, the books — fiction and nonfiction — we need to teach us our history, our humanity, our empathy are neglected by too many.

Once upon a time, that flaw was largely mitigated by two phenomena. One is movies and TV.

Yes, maybe 90 percent of that is crud. But, as science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said, 90 percent of everything is crud.

Before he was lured into creating his own series of TV documentaries about the history of science for the BBC, “The Ascent of Man,” noted scientist and humanist Jacob Brownowski expressed the view that the potential power of that medium had been wasted. “It is as if the printing press had been used exclusively to print comic strips.”

Well, maybe. But recent history would support the idea that comic strips — or, at least comic books, and the films that are made about their characters — have some humane value. Even people who don’t read Twain or Tolstoy can pick up some heroism, personal growth, self-sacrifice and loss from Wonder Woman and Iron Man.

The other saving grace was that, even if a great many of us don’t read, the people who lead us — politically, morally and artistically — always have.

“Only a generation of readers," said Steven Spielberg, "will spawn a generation of writers.”

But, as has been leaked and reported and confirmed by his behavior and functionally illiteracy, the Current Occupant of the Oval Office doesn’t read, to the detriment of the entire world. We don’t know if he cannot read or just doesn’t. But he doesn’t. If he did, he might display at least some feigned compassion for people who aren’t his servants, enablers and followers.

Perhaps we should excuse this president, and future ones, from releasing their tax returns if they will instead tell us what books they have read. And pass a rudimentary quiz just to screen out the poseurs. If “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Invisible Man” (Ellison, not Wells) are on the list, the campaign may proceed.

Or a simpler, more middle-brow, test might serve the same purpose. Our would-be leaders might claim to qualify if they have, over the years, watched enough science fiction. Specifically shows such as “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who,” in which many of the characters — good and bad — are clearly not humans.

A burden on all world cultures today is that too many people fear and resent, in the sense of wishing to exclude them from civil society and public benefits, people who do not “look like me.” It’s true of right-wing populist politicians, from MAGA to Brexit.

And it is also, sadly, true of many innocent young people who look at the rest of popular culture and feel left out because nobody there has their color of skin or texture of hair.

When Whoopi Goldberg burst onto the scene 35 years ago, it was with a one-woman show in which she told some tender, sometimes heart-breaking, stories in the persona of several different characters. One was a young, black girl who liked to wear a white shirt on her head and describe it as her, “long, luxurious blond hair.” She was unhappy that nobody she saw on TV looked like her. “Not even on the Super Friends. Not even on the Smurfs.” (Adding, “My Grandma says she don’t wanna look like no damn Smurf.”)

That image is enough to support multi-culturalist efforts to put more blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Vietnamese, Hindus, etc., etc., on TV and in the movies so as to make them appear as “normal” as they really are.

Or we could direct more attention to a parade of science fiction movies and TV series, where they should find that someone who may look like just another old white guy may really be from a far-off world. And that, in comparison to all those Sontarans, Klingons, Ood, Ferengi and Silurians, all Earthlings basically do “look like me.”

Because it takes a very narrow lens to think otherwise.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is president of the Utah chapter of the Salman Rushdie Decoy Society.


Twitter, @debatestate