The Smart People Crowd
December 19, 2009 51 Comments
An aspect of our political landscape that goes underreported is the role and influence of the faction I have taken to calling ‘Smart People’.
Even if you don’t know what I mean by that, you probably already instinctively know who I’m talking about. Smart People are the people for whom the most important thing of all is that politicians, leaders, bureaucrats, celebrities, etc. – basically anyone given a prominent public role in society – all be Smart. In addition, Smart People think that all those Smart People must be listened to and obeyed on every aspect of life, big and small, without constraint; in particular, listened to/obeyed by anyone who is not Smart. The driving motive behind how Smart People think and vote is to make sure that Smart People are in power, are respected, are given prominent and honorable roles in society, and have no constraints or limits on putting their Smart ideas into practice.
If Smart were a race, of course, then the ‘Smart People’ faction would just be another run of the mill nationalist-supremacist party. But Smart is not a race, it’s a…well what is it?
The odd thing about Smart People is that they all seem to know who they are. They recognize each other, instinctively. Actually, usually even non-Smart People (like me) can recognize them. The odder thing about the Smart People faction is that objectively they’re not always all that smart (although certainly some of them are), and there are some very smart people who don’t belong to it.
Barack Obama, for example, has obviously been crowned a Smart Person virtually from the moment he entered the national scene. Now, there is zero (0) evidence i can see that Barack Obama is all that smart, at least not any more so than tens of millions of other folks. But he is definitely a Smart Person. Even I can see that. Just look at how he…um…talks in soft tones while wearing a suit, raising his eyebrows in concerned ways, and being skinny (?). Well okay, it’s not clear how or why I or anyone else knows or thinks that he’s Smart, what is clear is that we just do.
Another example came in the 2004 Bush v. Kerry campaign. Everyone, including Kerry, knows that Kerry was the Smart Person candidate and that Bush was a Dummy. So dumb! Not like Kerry. Lanky, graying, concerned-eyebrow, pronouncing-Genghis-like-”Jenjis” John Kerry. So Smart! Obviously, the Smart People all wanted Kerry to win on account of how Smart Kerry was. But again, objectively, there is zero evidence that John Kerry is one whit smarter than George W. Bush. None. In fact if anything there may be evidence to the contrary. But again, it’s clear that Kerry is ‘Smarter’ than Bush, even today, and again, even I can see that.
This leads naturally to discussion of another Smart People obsession, which is that they can’t stand Dumb People. Nothing offends a Smart Person more than a Dumb Person being in any sort of position of power, prominence, happiness, comfort, or respect. The Smart Person nation went on an eight-year hissy fit about how Dumb George W. Bush was. Books were written about it, plays were performed about it, double albums were released about it, benefit concerts were given about it, people launched into deep depressions about it. There are probably at least some Smart People who expended 90% of their waking moments from 2000-08 having little more than variations and permutations of the single thought ‘George W. Bush is Dumb’ in their head. (And isn’t that oh so Smart to be fixated on that single idea for eight years? Sure seems Smart to me.)
And of course, this Dumbness obsession has recently been fully transferred to Sarah Palin. Indeed an accurate test for whether you’re in the presence of a Smart Person is to say the word “Palin”, step back, and see what happens. If that person says something normal like “Huh?”, “You mean Sarah Palin?”, or “What about her?”, that person may be normal or even Dumb. But if the person throws a hissy fit and starts talking about how Dumb Sarah Palin is, you know then and there that you’re talking to a Very Smart Person.
Once again, there is a strange disconnect because actual, genuine smartness and this Smartness thing we now have. Which is not to say they are opposites or even contradictory. Some Smart People are indeed genuinely smart people. There’s no doubt that Paul Krugman is smart, for example. There is overlap between smartness and Smartness, to be sure. But they are not the same.
Actually, a large contingent of Smart People consists of the very dumb people who merely want to latch onto Smart People so that they, too, can be considered Smart. Consider the Dixie Chicks sounding off about Iraq, or Sean Penn writing travelogue pieces from this or that third-world dictatorship. These are not smart people. But they have clearly figured out that by echoing the opinions of Smart People, they too can easily join their ranks – get articles about how ‘politically active’ and ‘outspoken’ they are. Articles that are not written about Dumb People.
This ease with which someone, however dumb, can sign up for being Smart and advertising their Smartness to others may also explain the sort of issue that Smart People are attracted to. Smart People are attracted to Smart issues like Global Warming/Climate Change. It’s very very Smart (even if it’s not that smart) to be concerned to an almost hysterical degree about the prospect of runaway Global Warming and oceans rising by twenty feet. Yes, that is so Smart. This issue has it all: by deciding to believe in it, without even looking at the evidence or reading anything yourself thus with very little in the way of upfront costs/investment, you instantly get to be on the side of Scientists (who are Smart), and Al Gore (who is Smart), and you get to make fun of Dumb people who are Anti-Science. And again, making fun of Dumb people is one of Smart Peoples’ favorite activities. It is extremely Smart.
Climate Change also illustrates the Smart Peoples’ fondness for arguing in favor of the autocratic, near-dictatorial control over everyone elses’ lives (of Smart People). To a Smart Person, the concept that there can or should be limits on the sorts of things that Smart People in power should be able to do, regulate, decide, and dictate, would make no sense. Smart People are annoyed by the Constitution, for example (if they even think about it at all). Mention the Constitution to a Smart Person, suggest that it restricts government power to do this or that, and you’ll get blank stares (if they don’t just start talking about how Dumb you are for saying it). Sure, they’ll agree that the Constitution restricts the power of Dumb people in government, like George W. Bush, but we’ve got a Smart government now – so what’s the Constitution got to do with anything? They’ve got Smart stuff to do, like nationalize health care, bypass Congress to sign climate treaties, and set up international taxation so Americans’ money can be taken from them and sent overseas. All of that is very Smart stuff to do. What’s the Constitution got to do with any of it?
I have only scratched the surface here because I must admit: I don’t really feel like I have a handle on the whole Smart People phenomenon myself. I don’t understand where it came from, I don’t understand why it persists, and I can’t even really define it. The Smart People faction has an ineffable, liquid quality about it; every time I think I begin to understand it, it slips through my fingers. Clearly it shares some of the properties of a high school clique – a continuation of “the In Crowd”. It’s true that sometimes those who are in the In Crowd are there because they are genuinely better-looking and richer and more charismatic; but sometimes, as with Smart People, to a large extent the only thing that objectively separates the In Crowd from those who are ‘uncool’ is that: the In Crowd can recognize each other and knows who they are and knows that they are cool – and they know that the ‘uncool’ aren’t them.
And the one thing that Smart People know for sure is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is Dumb. In the final analysis this, above all else, may be the defining property of being Smart.