It is often said that a little knowledge can go a long way, but I have not found this to be true.
In many cases, a little knowledge won’t go anywhere. Frequently, when conversing with people who know a lot more about a subject than I do—whether the subject is jai-alai, exchange-traded funds, or contemporary Estonian choral music—I find that it is better to keep any knowledge I have under wraps. Because whenever I exhibit even a slight familiarity with the topic being discussed, the experts slap me down. In the presence of a Keeper of the Flame, it is better to pretend that I know nothing. Otherwise, I get treated like an idiot.
Last year, at a screening of a very fine film about Alice Cooper, I got into a conversation with one of the filmmakers on the subject of fame. I said admiringly that Alice Cooper had managed to remain a household name for around 40 years—“household name” meaning someone everyone had heard of—while fleetingly ubiquitous stars like Marilyn Manson and Paris Hilton and Boy George and Miley Cyrus commanded the spotlight for a couple of years, then vanished from the general public’s consciousness.
It did not mean that they disappeared. It only meant that, unlike Elvis or Madonna or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra, who kept a stranglehold on the public’s attention for their entire careers, these second-tier superstars eventually ceased to command center stage. Once the media lost interest in them, they went back to being renowned and revered inside their chosen fields of endeavor, but not outside it. Head bangers still talked about Marilyn Manson, sure; but the guy who takes care of my car didn’t. My kids didn’t. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Vanilla Icing.
The director said that my take on Marilyn Manson’s career was hopelessly wrong; his status as a colossus lasted for years. He added: “You should stick to being a sportswriter, because you can’t get your facts straight.” Neither could he; I am not a sportswriter. In my defense, I denied saying that Manson’s career had flamed out after a couple of years; I merely said that his status as an object of global media fascination only lasted around that long. Unlike Mick Jagger or the Beatles—or, for that matter, Alice Cooper—Marilyn Manson never got to the point where my mother had heard of him. Manson strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage and then started appearing in Sons of Anarchy.
A lot of people reading this have never heard of Marilyn Manson. There is no shame in that. We are not talking about Marilyn Monroe here, much less Charles Manson. Still, I would have thought that my being 63 years old, and even vaguely aware of the arc of the macabre rock star’s career, should have won me a few points with my heavy-metal filmmaker interlocutor. But it did not. The fact that I knew something about Marilyn Manson, but not everything about Marilyn Manson, made me seem like a clueless hick, a buffoon, a clown—a sportswriter.
Cognoscente condescension is a phenomenon I have encountered again and again in my life. This is the situation that obtains when a person who knows an enormous amount about a subject will go out of his way to make a person who knows a little bit about the subject feel poorly informed, perhaps even stupid.
You would think specialists in an area that is not universally appreciated—like contemporary Estonian choral music—or universally respected—like heavy metal—would welcome a kindred spirit who knows a reasonable amount about the art form they adore. But usually the opposite is true: Athletes treat the media with contempt; artists think the public is stupid; jazz musicians look down their noses at everybody.
Cultists are the worst. I once attended a Dave Davies concert in a small club where virtually the entire audience was made up of people who had come to see Davies not because he was the lead guitarist in the Kinks, but because they were hardcore Dave-Davies-in-his-own-right fans. As soon as it became clear to the people sitting around me that I did not own all of Dave’s solo L Ps, that I had not read his autobiography, that I had not attended his legendary July 22, 1995, concert at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut, they sneered at me. In their view, I knew nothing about Dave, nothing about music. I was a dolt, a nitwit, a rank amateur, a parvenu, a poser. I might as well have been wearing a Billy Joel T-shirt. That I even dared attend a Dave Davies concert displayed an arrogance beyond belief.