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?
A powerful misanthropy came over me last week, and I wanted to do justice. It came over me in the street. I was walking up Higgins Avenue toward the Pie Hole, where I might nervously eat pizza before the comedy show. A drunk man leaned in the doorway of an empty storefront. I passed him at the same time a woman in business casual negotiated the space between us.
“Hey,” he said to her, “can I ask you a question?”
“Nope,” she said and kept walking.
“Well I already did, so ha ha, bitch!” he shouted after her.
I turned and told him not to fuck with women on the street. I did so loudly, in the voice I use to command strange dogs. I walked toward him in a game fashion. As soon as he started to speak, I repeated myself.
“Don’t fuck with women on the street,” I said. We were close now. He stepped back and said all right, all right. I turned and walked away, feeling tall and jumpy.
“Jesus,” he said, “call the cops or something.”
I turned and walked back to him, swiftly. He put his palms up and shrank into the doorway.
“Don’t hit me,” he said.
Reader, I realized what a heel I am. I had been feeling pretty good to that point, expressing my values through bystander intervention and all. I had never thought to hit him. I only thought, I realized, to correct him publicly, before my god and that woman. I wanted to be good: the kind of good that bosses up on a drunk. Today is Friday, and it’s a fine line between bullying and justice done. Won’t you stand athwart it with me?