In a fascinating and provocative essay at The Baffler, Rick Perlstein chides liberals for caring more about being (or seeming to be) "smart" than about truly important things:
Even as we moderns spend enormous amounts of our conscious energy making evaluations about who is sophisticated and who is simple, who is well-bred and who is arriviste, and who is smart and who is dumb, these are entirely irrelevant to the only question that ends up mattering: who is decent and who is cruel.
Perlstein begins by ridiculing the penchant of conservatives for flaunting their supposedly superior intellect: the pseudo-science of Charles Murray, the "rebarbative" vocabularies employed by William F. Buckley Jr. and William Safire, Spiro Agnew's denunciations of "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," and salvos by the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh against "stupid" liberals and "low-information voters".
But Perlstein quickly pivots, warning his (almost certainly) left-wing readers against being smug. As an example of liberals' own fixation on intelligence, Perlstein cites the illustrious liberal Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who declared, in Buck v. Bell, that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough" and thereby ushered in, according to Perlstein, "the golden age of American eugenics." Perlstein records Holmes' claimed justification:
Stupidity, Holmes explained, was a threat to national security. And the state had the power, nay the duty, to respond to national security emergencies. For example, the government sometimes compels its citizens to fight and die in wars. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.” 1
We on the Left can hardly deny the obvious: we have repeatedly mocked our political opponents—from Reagan to George W. Bush to Rick Perry to Donald Trump—as "dumb" and "stupid". We claim (though often only in private) that anyone who backs right-wing policies is either ignorant or evil. We believe, against all evidence, that conservatives cannot possibly be as smart as we are. In doing all that, we are not only wrong on the facts, but we are enshrining intelligence (or a certain kind of intelligence) over other equally important and perhaps even more important qualities.
Against all this, Perlstein notes what we might call "the social construction of intelligence":
Who gets to be called “smart” and who gets called “dumb” is not precisely arbitrary. It is, however, frequently ideological, mediated by institutions (like Yale, or Virginia’s State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded) shot through with ideology. Even on the grounds of science, what counts as “intelligence” is more difficult to pull out of the complexities of social experience than we usually think. The most convincing debunking of the science behind The Bell Curve, for example, dismantled the very notion that there is such a thing as “general intelligence,” renderable via the single variable g—the same variable that returned in [a] 2012 paper purporting to prove that conservatives were inherently stupid.
It’s very curious: If there were such a thing as an innate, inborn, inherent quantum of cognitive ability, and we could agree on who possessed it, why should we grant it moral value? After all, every child knows you don’t judge someone’s worth by their appearance. Why should we just because they’re “smart”?
Taking a stand against the common overvaluation of "smart," Perlstein declares:
The experience of history suggests we shouldn’t even grant intelligence much in the way of utilitarian value. In a 2007 Guardian essay, Daniel Davies writes, “as far as I can tell, the career trajectories of nearly everyone commonly regarded as a ‘genius’ seem to be marked by one boneheaded blunder after another.” He cites former Harvard president and economics wizard Lawrence Summers, and observes, “Being extremely intelligent is rather like fucking sheep—once you’ve got a reputation for either, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it.”
What, really, is "smart"? What does it mean and how is it used?
“Smart” is an identity. “Smart” has a politics. “Smart” can be a road to authenticity, or “smart” can be a con...“Smart” carries within it its own logic of domination, resistance, resentment—the logic that produces both reactionary pedants and ferociously winking liberal elites...in American culture and politics, “smart” has become a dangerous stand-in for judgments concerning self-evident moral worth.
Perlstein quotes the late populist William Jennings Bryan:
“I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it.”
To which Perlstein adds:
I can’t think of a more worthy ideal for American society—nor one that America’s subsequent history simultaneously has rendered so moot. I fear the plutocracy of wealth—as do tens of millions of my fellow Americans. I respect the aristocracy of learning—as do tens of millions of my fellow Americans. But who now really believes that we ever possessed in these United States a democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to make the world better for his or her existence in it . . . if they are not “smart”?
Taking aim squarely at his fellow liberals, Perlstein concludes:
“Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich?” David Graeber asked in 2007. “It seems to me the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.” 2
For if you’re not a part of the intelligentsia, well, how can you possibly make the world better for your existence in it? This frustration, however, is precisely what makes perfectly decent people, whose only sin is that a self-arrogated cognitive elite doesn’t consider them particularly useful, such easy pickings for political con men who assure them that they’re actually the smart ones. And that, all in all, is not very smart.
We all know the sardonic adage "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" Rick Perlstein would have us adapt a kinder, gentler adage: "If you're so smart, why aren't you more decent?" Or, to put it somewhat differently: "If you're so smart, why are you such a jerk?" 3 You don't have to be a genius, a rocket scientist, or an impudent intellectual snob to recognize that Perlstein has gotten the priorities absolutely correct, and that "smart," as currently defined, is not all it's cracked up to be.
1 The ethical quagmire of eugenics aside, I don't think anyone can deny that incompetence has prevailed over anyone's efforts to exterminate it.
2 That, I submit, is as good an explanation of recent working-class voting habits as any—especially in the absence of an organized labor movement which for decades tied working-class loyalties to the policies of the Democratic Party.
3 I know: blogger, heal thyself...