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Knowing Know-It-Alls

The know-it-alls in our lives have read and listened to the entire Western Canon yet still find the time to go to every new restaurant, club and museum exhibit.
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Some years after a humiliated Richard Nixon had resigned the Presidency in 1974 -- but many years before his death -- a friend referred to him as "the late Richard Nixon." When I pointed out that "late" in this context meant "dead," he didn't take it well. "You say it your way, I'll say it mine," he replied, and walked away.

At that moment I realized that my friend had never once admitted he was in error about anything. He was a know-it-all.

The witty Uncyclopedia defines Know-it-allism as "the ability to instinctively know everything about everything at all times."

The know-it-alls in our lives have read and listened to the entire Western Canon yet still find the time to go to every new restaurant, club and museum exhibit. Some possess wonderful qualities that counterbalance the density of their annoying superiority. Ask them for advice on the theater and they'll give you insightful takes on all the current plays -- and then compare them unfavorably to Richard Wagner's middle stage operas. (Just don't expect them to ask what you've seen.) Others are arrant pedants we endure, or -- as famous know-it-all Keith Olberman might say without the irony of the phrase's originator, Winston Churchill -- "up with whom we put" for family, business or purely masochistic reasons.

The worst are the out-and-out frauds. A guy I knew from Latin class impressed me with his ability to translate Caesar -- perhaps history's most famous know-it-all, with the possible exception of God -- until I spotted a translation book on his desk.

Public know-it-alls are on display 24/7 in what media maven Ken Auletta calls the "endless argument"-- talk radio/cable news/blogosphere.

Take the oleaginous Dick Morris, who's wrong so often you're better off believing the opposite of what he says. (Recall his prescient volume "Condi vs. Hillary," published before the 2008 Presidential election campaign.) His idiocy is still given free rein by the Fox-means-never-having-to-say-you're-sorry network, as when he recently delivered this howler to Sean Hannity: "The reason 9/11 happened is that Bill Clinton treated the '93 bombing of the Trade Center as a crime, not as an act of war." Dick Cheney must be irked that he didn't come up with that gem.

CNBC financial guru Jim Cramer embodies the species of know-it-alls who make conflicting predictions, so their brilliance is bound to shine through no matter what the outcome. I asked writer Gregg Easterbrook ("Sonic Boom" is his latest book) -- who deftly took on Cramer's arrogant nonsense last February -- for an update, and here's his response: "On 3-9-09, Cramer said the Dow would fall another 15 percent. It was 6,500 that day, so another 15 percent would have been about 5,500. The stock market began its recovery pretty much to the day Cramer said it would fall more."

Morris and Cramer share the combination of bullying self-confidence, selective memory and shamelessness required of world-class know-it-alls. So how to deal with these people?

First, surrender the desire for a real give-and-take. Second, understand that their bravado is a cover up for a desperate fear they will be exposed as ordinary humans. And finally, take refuge in satire.

Jon Stewart continues to give know-it-alls their comeuppance by exposing their phoniest assertions followed by actual footage proving them -- to use a Nixon era euphemism -- "inoperative." His skewering of Cramer is a classic. More recently, Rachel Maddow has been adding to the fun with her own deft send-ups of the pompous and the bombastic.

Even more sublime, in a way, is Steven Colbert, who inhabits the ultimate narcissistic know-it-all with such relish it might even cause some borderline know-it-alls to see the counter-productiveness -- and silliness -- of their whole enterprise.

Like everything else in our culture, know-it-allness has become commodified. There are books and articles on how to deal with know-it-alls. You can try self hypnosis downloads. And for that special know-it-all in your life, there are novelty items like Know It All Pills/Novelty Gift Fun Present.

Stewart, Maddow and Colbert are brilliant, but let's not forget perhaps the seminal know-it-all experience of the electronic era. I'm talking, of course, about Mr. Know-It-All -- aka Bullwinkle J. Moose -- who gave advice on practical matters like how to get into the movies without buying a ticket, only to have things go wrong, terribly wrong.

Understanding what makes know-it-alls tick might give us mere mortals a glimpse into our own self-righteous tendencies. A close friend used to tell me, in the thick of a disagreement, that my two favorite words were "yes, but..." (I'd argue that this is a symptom of a related disorder -- "last-word-ism" -- but whatever...) Let's face it -- we all enjoy being in the know. But wouldn't it be nice to be free of the need to be right?