Too Smart To Be So Dumb
The moral tyranny of IQ.
by Joel Engel
05/27/2003 12:00:00 AM
"THE RELEVANCE OF INTELLIGENCE" is a phrase from former journalist/political attack dog Sidney Blumenthal's just-published memoir of the Clinton administration, in which he writes that the ex-president was usually the smartest guy in the room, knowing more about any particular policy than the policy experts themselves.
Reading that phrase in a book review the other day reminded me (for reasons you'll soon understand) of a car accident my wife and daughter were lucky to walk away from three years ago. A 16-year-old driving a new Lincoln coupe hit them at 70 mph--twice the speed limit--after careening off a hillside. Later that night the kid's mother told me how shocked she was by the witness reports of his reckless driving. "But he got 1550 on his SAT," she cried.
"What do you do for a living?" I asked.
It was no surprise to hear that she's a college professor.
Like millions of intellectual elites and wannabes, this woman presumes an inherent connection between intelligence and goodness, and between intelligence and wisdom, as though there exists some objective domain of ethicality to which Mensa members are automatically admitted.
The presumption is of course wrong--demonstrably so--but it does begin to explain why so many academics and pundits and other affiliates of the intelligentsia ridicule George W. Bush's purported lack of gray matter. That he doesn't see the truths they consider self-evident means he must be stupid; and because he is, he can be neither good nor wise--as his policies confirm. In this tautology, the man's staircase ends three steps shy of the second floor.
Googling "Bush" and "stupid" yields about 90,000 hits, the first several hundred of which (I got bored and stopped clicking) are the usual jokes and articles about the president's challenged cranium. Among them you'll see Photoshop composites of him in a dunce cap and as Alfred E. Neumann; a prominent columnist's observation that he suffers from "bovine incomprehension"; an article titled "Is Bush Just Too Stupid For Words?"; and several parody song lyrics like "Stupid Bush has to lie" (sung to the tune of "Cupid").
You may also stumble across Cher's opinion that Bush is "stupid" and "lazy"; actor David Clennon's explanation for why the president is no Hitler: "Because George Bush . . . is not as smart as Adolf Hitler"; Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins's verdict that "Bush isn't quite as stupid as he sounds, and heaven knows he can't be as stupid as he looks"; and Fidel Castro's stated hope that the president not be "as stupid as he seems."
Not surprisingly, many of the same millions who call Bush dumb consider Bill Clinton the White House's most brilliant occupant. Googling "Clinton" and "stupid" (for an apples-to-apples comparison) generates mostly variations on the 1992 campaign's signature slogan, "It's the economy, stupid"--nuggets like "It's the education, stupid" and "It's the lying, stupid." No one, or at least no one in the first several hundred hits, regards the impeached president as thick.
Indeed, the zeitgeist was not surprised when the Lovenstein Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania, led by Dr. Werner R. Lovenstein and Professor Patricia F. Dilliams, released its study ranking the IQs of every president over the last 50 years and found that first among them, with a 182, was Bill Clinton. He was followed, in order, by Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Franklin Roosevelt (so much for 50 years).
As for the dumbest chief executives, they were, in descending order, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and--brace yourself--his son, the current president, whose 91 charts in at exactly half of Clinton's.
The results were so alarming--ohmygod, our president is a complete doofus!--they were forwarded via e-mail tens of millions of times, from one concerned citizen to another, and impelled Garry Trudeau to compose a Doonesbury strip around Bush's low "intelligence quota."
Just one problem. There is no Lovenstein Institute, no Dr. Lovenstein, no Professor Dilliams. That the Internet ruse spread so quickly, without anyone bothering to immediately verify the results (it was "a fact too good to check," as they say at the New York Times), frankly explains more about our culture than it does about our president.
We live in an age when pure intelligence is valued and honored beyond all bounds of reason. There's almost a cult of worship around it, particularly among intellectual elites on the left--those who set the agenda for schools and media. By their books, syllabi, tenure-track options, class lectures, guest speakers, op-ed prominence, public pronouncements, and snarky criticisms, they have split the world into neat hemispheres: the intelligent and the unintelligent. The intelligent (and their offspring) now comprise the group that used to be called "our kind of people" in the time when Northeastern WASPs from "the right" families had first dibs on Harvard and Yale. But it is not an equal-opportunity, meritocratic club; not all highly intelligent people are "our kind." Ralph Reed, say, and George Will, need not apply, nor anyone who thinks character is as important as intelligence. They belong in the other hemisphere, with the rest of us.
In fact, the "right" kind of intelligence--call it Upper West Side smarts--is in some ways more tyrannical than the old Upper East Side, world-at-their-feet arrogance bred in "the best" prep schools three generations ago. While the Andover kids were at least taught manners and noblesse oblige, today's aspiring intelligentsia (especially in the bigger cities) too often learn that bright makes right. To wit: A jeweler I know brags that his 9-year-old son, away at overnight camp, mouths off to the counselors--"because he's so much smarter than they are." A friend can't decide whether he'd prefer his brilliant but tortured son to be happy or accomplished. A colleague's sister watches with pride and nods approvingly as her 7-year-old daughter calls me stupid for disagreeing with her memorized contention that the president has more important things to worry about--"like the economy, duh"--than Iraq.
Our next generation of intellectual elites may not be smarter than the last one, but they're likely to be ruder and more ruthless, given that they're being raised, in many cases, by new-money parents who turned nursery schools into "pre-schools" that are harder to get into and cost more than a four-year college, and who threaten lawsuits when the school deems junior not smart enough for the gifted-and-talented program. Intelligence, it seems, is the new Gucci.
THE QUESTION no one ever seems to ask is this: Intelligence in the service of what?
Answering that question brings us back to the president. Well, President Carter, anyway. As the fictitious Lovenstein Institute reminded us, Jimmy Carter's stellar intellect has become an article of faith. This nuclear engineer was also a poet. And yet, he looked Leonid Brezhnev in the eye (perhaps he gazed into his soul, as Senator Barbara Boxer claimed to have done with John Ashcroft), kissed him on both cheeks, proclaimed him a partner in peace--and then watched the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan. A quarter-century later (around the time Carter kissed Kim Jong Il and returned from Pyongyang proclaiming peace for our time), President Clinton, a man who devoured whole libraries on his vacation, did the same with Yasser Arafat--and ever since, Israel has been paying the price for Clinton's belief in the power of his intellect. Rwanda, Somalia, and Srebenica paid similar prices.
Carter and Clinton saw so many sides of every issue that what appeared to their eyes was not a unified image but a view at the sub-atomic level--a pixilated version of the big picture that registers trees instead of forest. But was it helpful? Their considerable intellects persuaded them then, and persuade them still, of their own righteousness; just as Bush's stupidity ipso facto makes him wrong, their intelligence makes them always right. "When I was in office," Clinton declared before the war, "inspections [in Iraq] worked." Carter, meanwhile, continues to write essays indicating he has no idea that North Korea began breaking its pledge to him the moment his plane took off.
By contrast, a case can be made that President Bush's strength as president derives from his lack of sophistication. There are no pixels in his worldview, only solid colors--particularly black and white. He doesn't read Bloom or Sontag, and wouldn't understand a word of Jacques Derrida, which is probably a boon to his leadership skills.
As David Clennon's comparison of Bush to Hitler usefully reminds us, though with unintended irony, intelligence is no substitute for morality; intelligence in the service of immorality produces unspeakable evil, while intelligence in the service of idealism---Woodrow Wilson is another example--may allow evil to fester. Too bad those lessons--and the Talmudic aphorism "Those who are kind to the cruel will be cruel to the kind"--appear in today's curricula less often than Derrida and Chomsky. We will someday pay the price for that.
IF IT WERE TRUE that a high I.Q. in and of itself guaranteed peace and prosperity, then we should appoint Stephen Hawking president right now and be done with it. But I don't want Professor Hawking as president, nor any of the other truly brilliant people I know. Yes, it's thrilling to sit at a dinner table and behold gifted minds interacting with other gifted minds, and to read and watch and listen to their works of genius. But that's not the same as admiring their character, which is often less developed than their ability to slash a Z on someone's chest with their wit. Anyway, for all their verbal eloquence and artistic finger-pointing, which big issues, exactly, have the reigning intelligentsia been correct about in the last 40 years? One would be hard-pressed to compose a short list.
The truth, which Orwell pointed out, is that truly brilliant people and truly talented people often believe truly stupid things: G.B. Shaw believed in Hitler and Stalin. Norman Mailer believed that convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbot deserved to be paroled because he could write well (and that we went to war in Iraq to bolster the white-male ego). Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich believed that the few hundred of us still alive after the ecological holocaust of the '80s and '90s would be living in caves. Steven Spielberg believed that his meeting with Castro were the "eight most important hours" of his life. The academic establishment believed in the efficacy of bilingual education and largely continues to believe that communism spreads prosperity and social justice. Princeton professor of bioethics Peter Singer believes that parents ought to be able to murder their disabled children. And Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta believes that a 70-year-old lady from Vero Beach and a young Arab man chanting Koranic verses are equally likely to hijack a plane.
The best and the brightest, as we learned from JFK's advisers, offer little protection against absolute foolishness--and may, perhaps, be more susceptible to it, given the anecdotal evidence suggesting that brilliance and common sense are inversely correlated. It's no wonder Castro hoped Bush wouldn't be "as stupid as he seems." For 40 years the dictator has been surrounded and visited by brilliant people who swear that he's brilliant and benevolent--and if Bush were indeed a dimwit, he might see right through Castro and conclude that all those people willing to brave sharks, drowning, dehydration, and firing squads to escape from Cuba actually recognize something that the dictator's brilliant admirers do not.
Common sense is both rarer and more important to successful leadership than is genius, a fact true since before Voltaire first noticed it. Harry Truman, a man without a college education, had it; as did FDR, whose second-rate intellect, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes, took orders from a first-class temperament. Ronald Reagan had it, and so does George W. Bush.
What Bush doesn't have is contempt for the average American's intelligence, as the intellectual bullies seem to. Their language may be fortified with concern for the ordinary among us, but it's phony--a paternal concern, not a fraternal one; they're sure they know better what's best for us. And that, ultimately, is what they dislike most about the president. It's not so much that he's stupid. It's that he doesn't think we are.
How dumb is that?
Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.