16 November 2008

Petunia: A Cautionary Tale for the Modern Jackass

Author/Illustrator: Roger Duvoisin

Modern Jackass (n.): a person that talks expertly about something he/she actually knows very little or nothing about.

Modern Jackass is a term that was recently made popular by nasally heartthrob and king of geeks, Ira Glass. It gained traction with a This American Life episode dedicated to the modern condition of speaking at length and with confidence on topics that you are not qualified talk about, let alone pontificate on.

(Disclosure: I didn't listen to that particular show, so my talking about the show without actually listening to it is in itself an example of Modern Jackass-ism. Does that blow your mind?)

This phenomenon seems somewhat unavoidable in today's society due to two pervasive issues:

1) The overwhelming availability of information and the constant barrage of stimulus has rendered the modern mind virtually paralyzed by Attention Deficit Disorder. (Seriously, there are times when I can barely read a paragraph without a commercial break.) As a society populated by minds that flutter and flit about like hummingbirds on crack, it's a minor miracle that any of us know anything.

2) Information flows so quickly and the news cycle spins at such a furious pace that it takes an obsessive nature of almost maniacal proportions just to keep up with the ever shifting nuances of any issue. This was most obvious during the presidential campaign, when breaking news in the morning was already yesterday's news by lunchtime (which was bad for the real yesterday's news which had already become ancient history). Given the speed at which we operate nowadays, you get the feeling that just blinking means you've fallen behind... and possibly into jackass territory.

While these conditions make Modern Jackass-ism seem like a new phenomenon, we all know that talking out of line has been around since the beginning of time. It was captured perfectly by Roger Duvoisin in seminal work on the matter: Petunia.

First published in 1950 (well before Ira Glass was born and waaaay before he ever donned his first pair of hipster-intellectual glasses), Petunia is the story of a silly goose who gets her wings on a book and thinks that automatically makes her wise. The other barnyard animals, seeing her walk around with her proud head held high in the air and a book in her arms, also think that she must be wise... so they ask her for advice. Petunia gladly gives her ill-advice, and eventually Petunia's pride and false wisdom ends up blowing up in all their faces (quite literally).

As this classic children's book shows, speaking out when you don't know what you're talking about is nothing particularly new. Whether you call it Modern Jackass or the Petunia Syndrome, at the end of the day we're all just a bunch of old-fashioned dumbasses.


Sam said...

You mean Petunia is an old book? All this time I thought it was a dead-on parody of the Bush administration ... complete with weapons of mass destruction.

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Saints and Spinners said...

Hey you, so many months later...
Have you read A for the Ark, by Duvoisin? I recommend getting ahold of a copy. I think you'll get a kick out of it. My favorite is U... for Bears ("We prefer to go by our Latin names, if you please").

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