Sarah Vowell and the Nerd Voice

by J.D. Roth

I don’t know much about Sarah Vowell. To me, she’s the female David Sedaris on This American Life. She’s a funny writer with a funny voice.

But then Craig went and picked Vowell’s new book The Wordy Shipmates for our February book group discussion. Although I should be reading January’s book (the tedious Main Street by Sinclair Lewis), I’m actually further along in Vowell’s. (This is mostly, however, because I have Vowell’s book in audio form, which lets me listen to it as I drive hither and yon.)

It turns out that Sarah Vowell is a self-professed history nerd. She seems to be particularly obsessed with American history. She reads about it. She talks about it. She spends her vacations visiting historical sites. The Wordy Shipmates is her book about the Puritans coming to North America in the early 17th century. It’s educational, insightful — and hilarious.

As always when I find an author I like, I did some research on Vowell and her other books. Many reviewers seem to think that her best work is an essay called “The Nerd Voice” from The Partly Cloudy Patriot. So I bought the book.

“The Nerd Voice” is a prolonged meditation on the 2000 U.S. presidential election. It contrasts Al Gore and George W. Bush. The former, says Vowell, is a profoundly intelligent man — a nerd. The latter isn’t just dumb, but actively dislikes intelligence — he’s a jock. She doesn’t seem to hate Bush (the book was written in early 2001, however), but she does like Gore. After all, like Vowell, he is a nerd.

Vowell writes that Gore lacks one important characteristic that allows nerds to be accepted by society at large: the capability to be self-deprecating. She equates this with the ability to use the stereotypical “nerd voice” to make fun of oneself, to practice “preemptive mockery”. By mocking yourself before others can, you become a less threatening nerd.

Anyhow, all of this is set up. What I really want to share are the last two pages of Vowell’s essay. (And really, it’s the last paragraph I want to highlight, because I read that and say, “Amen!” But to get to the last paragraph, I need the three paragraphs before…)

While the preemptive mockery software is automatically included in most nerd brains under the age of forty, it still needs to be installed in Gore. Self-deprecation is not standard baby boomer operating procedure — they were the most aggressive self-aggrandizing generation of the twentieth century and aren’t particularly good at making fun of themselves.

Any politician tricky enough to get elected to the House, not to mention the vice presidency, must necessarily have the kind of postmodern mind which thinks simultaneously about both what he is saying and the way he is saying it. As a national Democrat, Gore has had to frame his arguments about, say, energy policy, remembering that his support base includes both the United Auto Workers and the members of the Sierra Club. So he already has the cerebral capability required to give a proper name-heavy speech about the China conundrum followed by an icebreaking wisecrack about not going to the prom. It’s silly, demeaning, and time-consuming, for sure, but for a nerd, what part of driving a tank or pulling on cowboy boots is not?

Any person who wants any job, who knows he would be good at the job, knows he has to fake his way through the dumb job interview before he’s actually allowed to roll up his sleeves. I asked [my friend] Doug what he thought would have happened in the campaign if, instead of donning khakis and cowboy boots and French-kissing his wife on TV, Gore had been truer to himself and said what he thought and knew and believed using the nerd voice. Doug didn’t hesitate: “Oh my God, he’d be president for life.”

I wish it were different. I wish that we privileged knowledge in politicians, that the ones who know things didn’t have to hide it behind brown pants, and that the know-not-enoughs were laughed all the way to the Main border on their first New Hampshire meet and greet. I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickenson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People”, Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising”, and “You Got the Silver” by the Rolling Stones. After all, the United States is the greatest country on earth dealing with the most complicated problems in the history of the world — poverty, pollution, justice, Jerusalem. What we need is a president who is at least twelve kinds of nerd, a nerd messiah to come along every four years, acquire the Secret Service code name Poindexter, install a Revenge of the Nerds screen saver on the Oval Office computer, and one by one decrypt our woes.

Have I mentioned that Obama reads comic books?

Updated: 08 January 2009

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
Copyright © 1994 - 2022 by J.D. Roth