Statistically, the smartest human being who ever lived probably couldn’t read. Anatomically modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago, meaning that for 95% of human history, written language didn’t even exist. The smartest human might easily have been born before spoken language. Perhaps she died of cholera in the 18th century, when the most brilliant minds of the western hemisphere agreed on the miasma theory of disease. Or maybe she lived in Kansas circa 1906, when only 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school. Perhaps she made terrible decisions about her life, routinely burned her hand while cooking, tripped over the threshold on her way out the door each morning and was just preternaturally good at playing the harpsichord. Today is Friday, and “smart” is a term so vague and relative as to bear no meaning. Won’t you look out for what’s dumb with me?
First, the good news: Even though Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election and now hold a smaller share of state and federal power than they have in three generations, they saw through Trump’s cult of personality. The bad news is they went with a different cult. According to an election study published by the Wesleyan Media Project, Hillary Clinton talked about policy less than any major-party candidate in the last four presidential campaigns. Even her campaign slogan, “I’m with her,” expressed no plan. “Make America great again” was apocalyptic and vaguely fascist, but at least it was an imperative. But we all know Donald Trump ran a dumb campaign staffed by stupid people. It’s weird he won, given the massive intellectual superiority of the other side.
You will know the mediocre minds by their insistence on how smart they are. I remember a high school classmate of mine who kept telling us about his 180 IQ, particularly when he was on the verge of failing geometry. Probably the class moved too slowly for him. Once you’re smart, even your failures become evidence of genius. This brand of logic is particularly popular on the alt-right, whose adherents seem for whatever reason obsessed with fixed identity. Example:
Even he couldn’t find that extra quarter inch on his penis. Also, “I seldom date outside my anthropological subrace” is surely the truest sentence in this white supremacist dating profile.
The problem with being smarter than everyone else is that there’s no one to confirm your assessment. Over at The Baffler, Rick Perlstein has written a nuanced, touching essay about the problem of comparative intelligence, and he’s anchored it to an early scene in The Great Gatsby. I assume I need to sell it no further, but I will. Perlstein executes a fine turn a third of the way through, when he shifts from discussing the “reactionary pedant” type embodied by Tom Buchanan and non-fictional rightists of the present day to the ostensibly enlightened liberals who also find a scientific basis for their opponents’ stupidity. Remember all those studies, circa 2010, that demonstrated a connection between low intelligence and conservative views? Those turn out to be about as scientific as The Bell Curve. Perlstein points out that any single-variable quantification of intelligence is almost certainly bullshit. He also diverges into autobiography near the end, which is not my cup of tea but serves his purpose. “Smart,” like “white” or “shy,” is an identity you pick up early and then over-attribute for the rest of your life.
That’s the thing about people: they’re all types of people. Even though the single person is the only quantum of humanity that can be definitively said to exist, we think of the individual as an iteration of the kind. Take the burgeoning sub-genre of internet writing I call This Person Who Angered Me Is a Type of Person. Example: Have You Encountered the Cuckboi? by Alana Hope Levinson. It’s a humor piece, ostensibly, describing a type of “feminist fuckboi, a softboy who grew up going to communist summer camps, a cuck who likes to fuck.” First of all, let us not adopt the alt-right expression “cuck” to refer to…what exactly?1 Men who have the right politics but stopped dating us anyway? Left-leaning assholes? Part of the problem is that the “cuckboi” described in this piece does not seem like a bad person, except insofar as he slept with “you” and then stopped. Another problem is that “you” seem pretty clearly to be the author, and the category of guy she’s describing seems to be just one guy. Neither of these problems would matter, though, if it were just a bit funnier.I couldn’t figure out why I recognized Alana Hope Levinson’s name, but a quick search finds she is the author of another What This Man Did Is What Men Do essay, Men, Please Stop Manthreading. Everybody, please stop everything.