The premise by which our bipartisan ruling class has claimed the right to direct ever more of our lives with ever less of our consent is that it is better suited to do so, because it is brighter than the rest of us. In growing diametric conflict with any and all notions of democracy, this class and its attitude have been growing since the Progressive era of a century ago. For many decades it expressed its claim mostly in small venues, without challenging directly the generally accepted notion the governed have every right to grant or withhold the powers of government. Nevertheless, the class and its presumption were so obvious by the 1950s that William F. Buckley’s quip that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone directory than by the Harvard-MIT faculty needed no explanation, except to said faculties. In our time, that class’s claim poses arguably our future’s crucial choice.
That choice’s substance, namely by what right anyone rules anyone else, whose vision of the good is to prevail over whose, and why, what role superior and inferior intellectual capacities play, is all important. This reflection however, is on a topic incidental to it: namely by what means can we consider anyone’s claim of intellectual superiority?
Conventional wisdom about Barack Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s intellects illustrates the question. I have not heard Obama’s opponents describe his intellect as anything other than “high” and him as “smart” or “very smart.” Nor have I heard Sarah Palin’s supporters describe her as bright. What can be the basis for judgments so widespread and stark? Keep in mind that none of those who pronounce themselves on Obama’s and Palin’s intellects have the slightest knowledge of what they may be relative to one another, never mind in absolute terms.
The two minds may or may not be of different quality. Knowing the results of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that both took before college would provide a relative comparison. But neither Obama’s nor Palin’s test scores are public. In fact, it seems that the more any person’s public standing depends on his or her being perceived as bright, the less willing they are to disclose their scholastic record. Obama, specifically has gone to some lengths to block access to his academic records. True, in America, grades don’t tell much, because the quality of courses and the subjectivity of school grades is so great. In other places, such as France, where curricula are standard and grading is objective, they tell a lot and are public, judging leaders’ minds is more possible. In such places also, judgments about people’s intellectual status depends on specific examination of their products. In America, by contrast, the pretense of intellectual worthiness that so many make on behalf of Obama and of others similarly situated is guarded by unwillingness to look, by downright eagerness to assume.
But absent data, on what basis do so many assume that some kinds of people are bright and others so dull as to be disqualified for serious responsibilities? True, the way people present themselves sometimes correlates with underlying qualities. Teachers who have evaluated generations of students do notice that certain types of human beings are more agile and inventive in their use of language than others, that they grasp logical connections more easily than others, etc. At best, it is specific prejudice predicated on general experience. On that basis, I would take odds that Palin and Obama’s SAT’s are within fifty points. But none of this is knowledge. Yet the overwhelming many who treat as knowledge their conclusion about the intellectual capacity of others make no such observations and have no vast bases for comparison.
Their prejudice consists of neither more nor less than preference for, identification with, a certain type of person to whom they then attribute the additional quality “smart.” In other words, the attribution of intelligence proceeds from generalized social preference. People who look sophisticated are supposed to be. Those who are treated deferentially are supposed worthy of that deference. The fact that someone went to a more prestigious school suggests that he studied on a higher level than someone who went to a less prestigious school — though that is often the opposite of the truth. In short, when we attribute intellectual qualities to public figures gratuitously we merely compound conventional wisdom and add one more obstacle to understanding the world around us.