My friends and family all know of my deep love for Nancy, the Ernie Bushmiller comic strip. Nor I am alone in this, as the Washington Post noted earlier this year. The best present I got last Christmas was Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s oversized book, How to Read Nancy (Fantagraphics,
2014 2018) which reads and re-reads a single strip from various points of view. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship, and the obsessiveness with which the authors go about their work is off-putting and inspiring at the same time. Sometimes friends who come over the house will pick this book up off the table and get lost in the intricacies of their closely-argued analysis. Others (and this includes my long-suffering wife) look at How to Read Nancy and think, “Um, why would anybody read much less write such a book?” Neither set of friends is wrong, and sometimes I feel the exact same division of opinion about the whole Nancy phenomenon at the exact same time. It’s Genius! It’s Stupid!
Bushmiller knew his comic strip was stupid, and that its stupidity was the reason for its success. His formula was a simple one: think of something funny, and then “dumb it down.” This reductiveness is especially noteworthy in the style of Nancy, which is stripped of all detail down to its barest essence. As the Post says in the article noted above, The authors liken Bushmiller’s studied three-panel minimalism to the “less is more” architect [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe], positing that every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.”
It seems to me that Bushmiller’s Nancy displays a trademark minimalism in its humor and aesthetic that all of us who live our lives amidst clutter and confusion long for, but cannot bring ourselves to commit to. The same people who buy Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up probably also have books like How to Read Nancy lying about the house.
Another book I have lying around the house is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a classic work of popular political history from 1963 (archived in its entirety here). It’s a long and meandering book, the sort you don’t read in a sitting but thumb through profitably in idle moments, but Hofstadter’s thesis is a simple one: there is a tension in the democratic culture of America between egalitarianism on the one hand and elitism, of which education is a primary marker, on the other. Committed as he is to the democratic form of government, Hofstadter has little patience for the resentment of those too lazy to think through life’s problems (p. 42):
As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.
Yet at the same time, he recognizes the maddening tendency of the intellectual to resist the common sense of the common man (p. 39):
Ideally, the pursuit of truth is said to be at the heart of the intellectual’s business, but this credits his business too much and not quite enough. As with the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of truth is itself gratifying whereas consummation often turns out to be elusive. … The meaning of his intellectual life lies not in the possession of truth but in the quest for new uncertainties. Harold Rosenberg summed up this side of the life of the mind supremely well when he said that the intellectual is one who turns answers into questions.
The dynamic is familiar to us today, it seems to me. “We won with poorly educated,” said Donald Trump after his February 2016 primary victory in Nevada. “I love the poorly educated.”
It’s an old story that pits the highbrow against the lowbrow–in fact, it’s one of the oldest and most important in Western culture. In 399 BC, the Athenians put Socrates to death for corrupting the youth. As Plato writes in the Apology (multiple copies of which are also lying around the house), the ultimate reason for the case against Socrates grew out of the rancor arising from his overly-probing inquiries . When the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him the wisest of men, Socrates set out unsuccessfully to prove it wrong and thus started out on the road to his own ruin:
I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.
I don’t know what I’m talking about, huh? That’s a good point, Smartypants. Here, have a cup of hemlock.
My very favorite Nancy strip, though not focused on the search for truth or wisdom, also deals with an offered drink. Here we see the very confrontation Plato and Hofstadter discuss between the questioning intellectual and the resentful anti-intellectual:
I’m not sure which of the statements in the third panel, which is reproduced above, I like better, but it seems to me to capture the entirety of the Nancy experience. Genius? Stupid? Intellectual? Anti-intellectual? This would appear to be the Apollonian-Dionysian divide that animates all of American democratic culture.
A further note on this strip: the dates in the corners of the last two panels indicate that it ran on April 19, 1966, so was drawn sometime in the spring of that year. Is it my imagination, or does “that brainy pest” look like Robert McNamara? If so, he seems to have borrowed Arthur Schlesinger’s “trademark dotted bowtie.” Perhaps he is a figure who represents all of “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson years who started the war in Vietnam.
In October of 1966, McNamara will send a memo to LBJ indicating the war cannot be won; up to that time, though, he was still maintaining the opposite in public. Was there ever better a time than April 1966 for somebody to stand up to the likes of McNamara and say, NO AND SHUT UP?
As many will know, McNamara himself was the subject of a famous documentary by Errol Morris called “Fog of War.” Morris’ final assessment of McNamara in a 2009 New York Times essay touches on the tensions I’ve noted here:
If he failed, it is because he tried to bring his idea of rationality to problems that were bigger and more deeply irrational than he or anyone else could rationally understand. For me, the most telling moment in my film about Mr. McNamara, is when he says, “Perhaps rationality isn’t enough.” His career was built on rational solutions, but in the end he realized it all might be for naught.