Genetically-Determined Cognitive Ruling Elite

I occasionally read articles from Mauldin Economics, a financial website. That is because my dad sends me them. Much of the economics has a neoliberal bent with that slight edge of right-wing libertarianism. But there is also a large helping of the cynical realpolitik of game theory and geopolitics (George Friedman is partnered with Mauldin Economics). Some of the pieces are better than others, occasionally venturing into more socio-cultural territory such as generations theory. I read them partly out of curiosity.

The last piece my dad sent me is Geek Squad by Jared Dillian. I totally get why my dad liked it, as he is a social and fiscal conservative. Dillian brings up Charles Murray’s infamous take on intelligence, which is the kind of thing that resonates for my dad. Older white male middle class conservatives (specifically of the Silent Generation) have much in common beyond just demographics, as the period of their youth was highly conformist — although that same generation, on the other side of the aisle, produced some of the most radical leaders of the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and civil rights movements; e.g., Martin Luther King, jr.

I’ve written about Jared Dillian before (Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????) and I can’t say that I’m overly impressed. He is of my generation, maybe a few years older than me (see the About page on his website). That generational detail does seem relevant.

Certain kind of older white conservatives have more of a paternalistic undertone that can soften their ideological stances, such as Murray’s paleolibertarianism that leads him to both condescendingly criticize the poor and argue for a basic income to take care of those who are genetically or culturally inferior, an interesting mix. It’s for similar reasons that my dad donates money and volunteers his time to help the those in need, even as he argues that they don’t deserve his tax money — unless it is to either put them in prison or send them off to war (my dad hasn’t yet quite been convinced by Murray’s far greater paternalism). It’s a concern of moral accounting that is of less of a priority to the the more neoliberal Republicans of Generation X who came of age under the Reagan administration. Someone like Dillian represents more of what the conservative movement has become in recent decades.

Here is the main thing that caught my attention in Dillian’s piece, a point where he finds agreement with Murray, despite other conflicts between the worldviews of neoliberalism and paleolibertarianism:

“Years ago, Murray predicted that society would become stratified by intelligence, and that we would be ruled by a “cognitive elite.” All of this has come to pass.”

It’s sad that people still believe that. Intelligence hasn’t been stratified, at least not in the way that is being implied. Rather the class-based and race-based conditions that promote and suppress neurocognitive development have been stratified. This is not even up for debate and very little speculation is required. We have the historical record to explain what happened and the social science research to explain its implications (research has proven that poverty, especially in a society of high inequality and segregation, stunts/alters brain development and functioning; because of social stress, lack of learning resources, nutritional deficiencies, lead toxicity, limited healthcare, etc).

Speaking of a “cognitive elite” is pseudo-meritocracy on steroids. Conservatives are always blaming liberals for wanting an intelligentsia to rule the world, but some conservatives not so secretly fantasize about an intellectual elite, even if they imagine these inellectually superior people coming from the business sector.

Here is more of Dillian’s wisdom:

“Rewind to a few decades ago. Colleges suddenly became more meritocratic, admitting people on the basis of grades and test scores, instead of other criteria. So the smartest people got into the smartest schools, the less smart people got into the less smart schools, and dumb people didn’t get into schools at all. The results of that sociology experiment are fascinating: the smart people in smart schools started marrying each other and having smart children…”

Tell that to the vast majority who aren’t legacies into ivy league schools, no matter how smart they are. Tell that to the vast majority of kids with immense genetic and neruocognitive potential but were forced to struggle against poverty, racism, segregation, oppression, violence, school-to-prison pipeline, heavy metal toxicity, etc. I’m sure that Dillian considers himself as part of the “cognitive elite” and so that makes his ignorance all the more inexcusable and morally reprehensible. As one commenter put it (Garret Batten):

“Jared – I really enjoy The 10th Man. You have excellent insights into the markets and related issues. However, as a trained sociologist, I must object to your analysis of class, college selection, elties, and intelligence. You extrapolate from a claim about education being more meritocratic (more maybe at the college level but not even close to meritocratic and what about high school and middle school), but the increasing lack of mobility in the United States cannot be explained by smart people marying other smart people. As with Murray, these are highly problematic claims with the implication being that the very wealthy deserve as well as the poor derve their lots in life. I would urge you to stick with markets etc.”

To continue with the article:

“People don’t talk about this. We are obsessed with racism, but people of differing socioeconomic status just do not mix.”

He maybe should actually read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and put it in context by reading Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Then put both of those books in an even larger context of info. But the point is that both Murray and Putnam grew up in small factory towns where the poor and wealthy lived together as neighbors — going to the same stores and churches, sending their kids to the same schools, and having the same access to cheap higher education. Is it surprising that socioeconomic mobility was higher at that time? No. Is it surprising that so many poor kids of low IQ, uneducated parents got high school degrees and went off to college? No.

I’ve explained all of this before:
Who Are the American Religious? (comment)

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Stranger Danger and Our Kids

Writing about Putnam, Richard Reeves stated that,

“The concatenation of advantages and disadvantages is visible in economic sorting at the neighbourhood level, leading to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. Putnam writes: “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid”.”

That’s a different perspective. Putnam is making the point that this stratification didn’t happen by divine decree or according to the laws of physics. These are social results of social causes. Not all societies have seen such stratification. In fact, the high levels of stratification in the US are extremely unusual, one might even say abnormal. Using the word ‘apartheid’ is not hyperbole, as a permanent underclass (or undercaste) is forming. We don’t yet have eugenics-level of stratification. But if this trend is allowed to continue over centuries, eventually there would be ever more genetically distinct populations. The eugenics vision of a cognitive elite is not a description of reality but more of a rationalization and an aspiration. It doesn’t seem like a direction we would want to head toward as a society.

Sara D. Sparks articulates Putnam’s central point:

“Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.””

It’s a bit of a chicken or egg dilemma. Did the increasing inequality/stratification and segregation/apartheid cause our society to become a culture of mistrust that no longer had a shared vision of public good, as once was seen in functioning communities of neighbors who cared about each other’s children? Or did changing values in our society cause the worsening divides and divisiveness?

I’d argue that it is both, as part of a vicious cycle. American society was built on a problematic social order of genocide, indentured servitude, slavery, etc and so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the long term consequences. American history has had a clear trajectory of ever greater concentration of wealth and power, with a momentary blip of equalization because of two world wars and a major depression. It’s not like the colonial aristocracy wielded so much power in the early federal government because they earned their social position through meritocracy nor that Africans were enslaved because they didn’t go the best schools with other smart kids. School tracking is probably not a useful metaphor for understanding the worsening stratification that began during the colonial era.

More from the article:

“This all came to a head in the 2016 election, where we threw out the smart people in academia and journalism and finance and technology and politics—the so-called “experts.””

One thing research shows is that smart people aren’t smart in all ways. For example, high IQ people are worse about certain areas of personal finance. They tend to overspend. This also relates to the smart idiot effect, which is called that because smarter people are more prone to this bias. I’d also throw in how upper class people have less cognitive capacity for certain basic skills, such as being able to accurately discern and empathize with what others experience.

So, smart upper class people are like Trump in that they tend toward being sociopaths that lack many basic practical and social skills, as they are used to others taking care of their problems for them. Those aren’t the kind of people that should be ruling a society. It’s important to note that most Americans didn’t vote for either choice of plutocrat, Clinton or Trump.

Here are some commenters to the article who made similar points:

funderbj@riflemag.com: “I am a physician, graduated MIT in 1966, Ohio State Med school in 1970. My observation about the smartest of the smart, insofar as medicine is concerned, is that being too smart can be a serious handicap. The uber performers often missed the common ailments while exploring the more esoteric diagnoses. We called it “thinking zebras, when hearing hoof beats.” I agree wholeheartedly that the next months and years will be interesting, but I doubt that the elite will be any more successful in the long run.”

ciaran.keogh@xtra.co.nz: “interesting post – however there is one shortcoming with the most “intelligent” will rule effect (which I agree is definitely happening) is that being learned and being wise are two entirely different things. Also it is my observation that the ability to learn comes at the expense of the ability to think. The more “learned” people (and systems) there are running the planet seems to result in less sensible (and moral) people running it. If you said that higher tendency for sociopathy was becoming stratified at the top I think you would need to look no further than Washington or Wall St for convincing proof”

Back to the article:

“Mark Zuckerberg, who is probably going to run for president, made a splash in his Harvard commencement speech when he called for a universal basic income. But I don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors when you give them free money to sit at home and play Xbox.”

Yet more ignorance. This is actually a good example of smart idiot effect. Dillian thinks he is so smart that he perceives his opinion as so worthy as not to require informing himself about the topic before coming to a conclusion. He just knows, because he is smart and educated. He is one of the “cognitive elite,” after all.

But if he were to inform himself, he’d find out that universal basic income experiments have shown that it doesn’t increase unemployment. That is because most people want more than barely surviving and making ends meet while sitting on the couch picking their nose. This is the problem of rich people who actually believe this is an accurate view of poor people. It demonstrates how disconnected from reality they are.

He goes on:

“Cognitive stratification is not stopping any time soon. Cities will get richer, towns will get poorer, a handful of companies will get even more powerful. If you feel like you don’t have a say in any of this… that will probably continue. I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.”

Dillian admits that our response to this problem matters. Yet he acts as if fatalistically there is nothing we can do about it.

About stratification of intelligence, you’d think smart people talking about such a topic would at least know some basic info that is relevant to the opinions they offer. Consider the following bit from a book I was reading yesterday, although the research mentioned is something I’ve come across many times before (by the way, do I have well informed opinions because I’m smart or because I read books to inform myself before opinionating?).

The book is Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett (he is the son of the infamous Daniel Everett, the family having spent several influential years among the Pirahã). The book is specifically about linguistics and the quoted passage is discussing culture, but what is being pointed to are the complex web of causal and contributing factors within the larger environmental conditions. Here is the relevant part (p. 44):

“As a final example of cross-population variation in cognition, consider the example of IQ heritability. There is a strong assumption among some that measures of IQ are primarily determined by genetic factors rather than those associated with family environment. Even within American society, however, socioeconomic status appears to play a significant role in the extent to which IQ is heritable. Turkheimer et al. (2003) present data on twins representing divergent socioeconomic statuses, and these data suggest convincingly that genetic factors play a much more prominent role in IQ variation among members of higher socioeconomic status, whereas factors associated with family environment play a comparatively greater role in those of lower status. The influence of socioeconomic status on heritability of IQ suggest that even cognitive processes with clear genetic influences remain susceptible to contextual influences and, more specifically, that IQ is affected by environmental factors with a western culture. The latter point is perhaps unsurprising but nevertheless worth stressing. If something like IQ, which is associated with an assortment of cognitive processes, can be affected by contextual factors within a given culture, it seems fair to assume that the cognitive processes in question would vary in accordance with the even-wider range of contextual factors evident in multiple cultures. After all, the differences between the childhoods of Americans from lower and higher socieconomic statuses, respectively, pale in comparison to those between childhoods in western industrialized societies and, for example indigenous societies.”

This would be wisely framed within another point made by the author, in quoting from “Beyond Human Nature” by Jesse Prinz (the quote is on p. 48 of Everett’s book). Prinz states that, “Human beings are genetically more homogenous than chimps, but behaviorally more diverse than any other species.” That is to say that the vast social and individual differences seen within human populations can’t be solely or primarily blamed on genetic variation. The just-so stories of arrogant elitists, race realists, and human biodiversity advocates don’t offer any real understanding — just more dogmatic ideology to obfuscate public debate and undermine political action.

It is hard for me to understand how articles like Jared Dillian’s are still being written and taken seriously. Yet hundreds of such articles pop up on the internet on a daily basis. Considering Mauldin Economics is apparently operated as a business, obviously there is profit to be had from pushing genetic determinism. Rationalization as it is, these just-so stories are simply too compelling in how they explain away the oppression and injustices of our society. It might not be so bad if all such genetic determinists were paternalistic enough as Charles Murray to promote basic policies of social democracy and a social safety net, such as a basic income. But most people who are attracted to Murray’s argument aren’t willing to follow it to his conclusion.

I’m not sure how to read Dillian’s conclusion: “I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.” Does that express doubt about a world dominated by genetic determinists or an earnest sense of curiosity to see such a world play out? Is he feeling uncertainty or anticipation about his role as one of the potential ruling elite who has won the genetic lottery?

* * *

If you’re interested in Eric Turkheimer, I’ll share some previous posts of mine where he is discussed. I’ll also include an article by him and some relevant passages from two books.

The IQ Conundrum
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
Using Intelligence to Assess Intelligence

Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ
by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, & Richard E. Nisbett

Murray takes the heritability of intelligence as evidence that it is an essential inborn quality, passed in the genes from parents to children with little modification by environmental factors. This interpretation is much too strong — a gross oversimplification. Heritability is not a special property of certain traits that have turned out to be genetic; it is a description of the human condition, according to which we are born with certain biological realities that play out in complex ways in concert with environmental factors, and are affected by chance events throughout our lives.

Today we can also study genes and behavior more directly by analyzing people’s DNA. These methods have given scientists a new way to compute heritability: Studies that measure DNA sequence variation directly have shown that pairs of people who are not relatives, but who are slightly more similar genetically, also have more similar IQs than other pairs of people who happen to be more different genetically. These “DNA-based” heritability studies don’t tell you much more than the classical twin studies did, but they put to bed many of the lingering suspicions that twin studies were fundamentally flawed in some way. Like the validity of intelligence testing, the heritability of intelligence is no longer scientifically contentious.

The new DNA-based science has also led to an ironic discovery: Virtually none of the complex human qualities that have been shown to be heritable are associated with a single determinative gene! There are no “genes for” IQ in any but the very weakest sense. Murray’s assertion in the podcast that we are only a few years away from a thorough understanding of IQ at the level of individual genes is scientifically unserious. Modern DNA science has found hundreds of genetic variants that each have a very, very tiny association with intelligence, but even if you add them all together they predict only a small fraction of someone’s IQ score. The ability to add together genetic variants to predict an IQ score is a useful tool in the social sciences, but it has not produced a purely biological understanding of why some people have more cognitive ability than others.

Most crucially, heritability, whether low or high, implies nothing about modifiability. The classic example is height, which is strongly heritable (80 to 90 percent), yet the average height of 11-year-old boys in Japan has increased by more than 5 inches in the past 50 years. A similar historical change is occurring for intelligence: Average IQ scores are increasing across birth cohorts, such that Americans experienced an 18-point gain in average IQ from 1948 to 2002. And the most decisive and permanent environmental intervention that an individual can experience, adoption from a poor family into a better-off one, is associated with IQ gains of 12 to 18 points.

These observations do not undermine the conclusion that intelligence is heritable, but rather the naive assumption that heritable traits cannot be changed via environmental mechanisms. (Murray flatly tells Harris that this is the case.)

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
by Scott Barry Kaufman
pp. 6-9

In 1990 the behavioral geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota published a striking finding: about 70 percent of the differences in IQ found among twins and triplets living apart were associated with genetic variation. 8 What’s more, the identical twins (whose genes were assumed to be 100 percent identical * ) were remarkably similar to identical twins reared together on various measures of personality, occupational and leisure-time interests, and social attitudes, despite spending most of their lives apart.

This study, and the hundreds of twin and adoption studies that have been conducted since then, have painted a consistent picture: genetic variation matters. 9 The studies say nothing about how they matter, or which genes matter, but they show quite convincingly that biological variation does matter. Genes vary within any group of people (even among the inhabitants of middle-class Western society), and this variation contributes to variations in these people’s behaviors. The twin findings shouldn’t be understated; it counters many a prevailing belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of external forces. 10

The most important lesson researchers have learned from over twenty-five years’ worth of twin studies is that virtually every single psychological trait you can measure— including IQ, personality, artistic ability, mathematical ability, musical ability, writing, humor styles, creative dancing, sports, happiness, persistence, marital status, television viewing, female orgasm rates, aggression, empathy, altruism, leadership, risk taking, novelty seeking, political preferences, television viewing, and even rates of Australian teens talking on their cell phones— has a heritable basis. * Because our psychological characteristics reflect the physical structures of our brains and because our genes contribute to those physical structures, it is unlikely that there are any psychological characteristics that are completely unaffected by our DNA. 11

Unfortunately there is frequent confusion about the meaning of heritability. The most frequent misunderstanding is the purpose of twin studies. Heritability estimates are about understanding sources of similarities and differences in traits between members of a particular population. The results apply only to that population. The purpose is not to determine how much any particular individual’s traits are due to his or her genes or his or her environment. Behavioral geneticists are well aware that all of our traits develop through a combination of both nature and nurture. Heritability estimates are about explaining differences among people, not explaining individual development. The question on the table for them is this: In a particular population of individuals, what factors make those individuals the same as each other, and which factors make them different?

Therefore, twin studies aren’t designed to investigate human development. In recent years developmental psychologists, including L. Todd Rose, Kurt Fischer, Peter Molenaar, and Cynthia Campbell, have been developing exciting new techniques to study intraindividual variation. 12 Intraindividual variation focuses on a single person and looks at how an integrated dynamic system of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and other psychological processes change across time and situations. New intraindividual techniques allow researchers to focus on a single twin pair and see how nature and nurture interact in nonlinear ways to explain both their similarities and their differences. 13 Both levels of analysis— twin studies and developmental analysis— are informative, but the results from the one do not apply to the other. 14

Many people also confuse heritability with immutability. They hear the word “heritable” and immediately think of “genes,” which then conjures up pictures of a fixed trait that can’t be altered by external forces. In contrast, many people hear the word “environment” and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the trait is easily modifiable. This requires quite a strong faith in social engineering!

Just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychological traits are heritable) doesn’t necessarily mean that the trait is fixed or can’t be developed. Virtually all of our traits are substantially genetically influenced and are influenced by environmental conditions. Even though television viewing has a heritable basis, 15 most people don’t think of the activity as being outside our personal control. Indeed, parents frequently control (or try to control) the length of time their children spend sitting in front of the tube.

Another source of confusion is the role of parenting in the development of traits. A common finding in twin studies is that the environments experienced by twins (or any two siblings) do little to create differences in intelligence and personality as adults. In other words, the heritability of traits tends to increase as one ages and escapes the influence of parents. 16 Judith Rich Harris showed that peers exert a greater influence in creating differences in personality among adolescents than parents. 17 But do these findings mean that parents cannot effectively help their child develop their unique traits? Absolutely not. That’s like saying that water has no influence on a fish’s development because all fish live in water. A nurturing family environment is a necessity to help the child flourish, just as a fish needs water to swim and survive.

Just because a variable doesn’t vary doesn’t mean it has no causal impact on a particular outcome. Genes could “account for” 100 percent of the variability in a trait in a particular twin study, but this does not mean that environmental factors, including parental quality, are therefore unimportant in the development of the trait. Instead it turns out that parenting matters in a way that is different from what was originally assumed: Parents matter to the extent that they affect the expression of genes. Parents can exert important influence in the child’s development by nurturing productive interests and helping the child channel destructive inclinations into more productive outlets.

The importance of parenting becomes more salient when we look at a wider range of environments. Only a few of the twins in Bouchard’s original study were reared in real poverty or were raised by illiterate parents, and none were mentally disabled. This matters. Consider a recent study by Eric Turkheimer and colleagues. They looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability when they were 10 months old and again when they were 2 years. 18 When looking at the group of kids aged just 10 months, the home environment appeared to be the key variable across different levels of socioeconomic status. The story changed considerably as the children got a bit older and differences in education became more pronounced. For the 2-year-olds living in poorer households, the home environment mattered the most, accounting for about 80 percent of the variation in mental ability. For these kids, genetics played little role in explaining differences in cognitive ability. In wealthy households, on the other hand, genetics explained more of the differences in performance, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all the variation in mental ability.

Prominent behavioral geneticists, including Bouchard, eventually realized that it was time to move on from simply calculating heritability estimates . In a 2009 paper entitled “Beyond Heritability,” researchers Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Bouchard concluded that “given that genetic influences are routinely involved in behavior,” “little can be gleaned from any particular heritability estimate and there is little need for further twin studies investigating the presence and magnitude of genetic influences on behavior.” 19

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ
by David Shenk
Kindle Locations 1003-1031

But the nature of that genetic influence is easily— and perilously— misinterpreted. If we are to take the word “heritability” at face value, genetic influence is a powerful direct force that leaves individuals rather little wiggle room. Through the lens of this word, twin studies reveal that intelligence is 60 percent “heritable,” which implies that 60 percent of each person’s intelligence comes preset from genes while the remaining 40 percent gets shaped by the environment. This appears to prove that our genes control much of our intelligence; there’s no escaping it.

In fact, that’s not what these studies are saying at all.

Instead, twin studies report, on average, a statistically detectable genetic influence of 60 percent. Some studies report more, some a lot less . In 2003, examining only poor families, University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer found that intelligence was not 60 percent heritable, nor 40 percent, nor 20 percent, but near 0 percent —demonstrating once and for all that there is no set portion of genetic influence on intelligence. “These findings,” wrote Turkheimer , “suggest that a model of [genes plus environment] is too simple for the dynamic interaction of genes and real-world environments during development.”

How could the number vary so much from group to group? This is how statistics work. Every group is different; every heritability study is a snapshot from a specific time and place, and reflects only the limited data being measured (and how it is measured).

More important, though, is that all of these numbers pertain only to groups— not to individuals. Heritability, explains author Matt Ridley , “is a population average, meaningless for any individual person : you cannot say that Hermia has more heritable intelligence than Helena. When somebody says that heritability of height is 90 percent, he does not and cannot mean that 90 percent of my inches come from genes and 10 percent from my food. He means that variation in a particular sample is attributable to 90 percent genes and 10 percent environment . There is no heritability in height for the individual.”

This distinction between group and individual is night and day. No marathon runner would calculate her own race time by averaging the race times of ten thousand other runners; knowing the average lifespan doesn’t tell me how long my life will be; no one can know how many kids you will have based on the national average. Averages are averages— they are very useful in some ways and utterly useless in others. It’s useful to know that genes matter, but it’s just as important to realize that twin studies tell us nothing about you and your individual potential. No group average will ever offer any guidance about individual capability.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the twin studies themselves. What’s wrong is associating them with the word “heritability,” which, as Patrick Bateson says, conveys “the extraordinary assumption that genetic and environmental influences are independent of one another and do not interact. That assumption is clearly wrong.” In the end, by parroting a strict “nature vs. nurture” sensibility, heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology. It’s as if someone tried to determine what percentage of the brilliance of King Lear comes from adjectives. Just because there are fancy methods available for inferring distinct numbers doesn’t mean that those numbers have the meaning that some would wish for.

Kindle Locations 3551-3554

“The models suggest,” Turkheimer wrote, “that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contributions of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.” (Italics mine.) (Turkheimer et al., “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children,” p. 632.)

On Conflict and Stupidity

There was a sad conflict that I came across the other day. I read about it as told by one of those involved, Kayla Renee Parker (Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing).

It was between Parker who is a black college student and the white lady who was her professor. Both are avowed anti-racists and it apparently became a holier-than-thou fight between two social justice warriors. The student was probably being an immature antagonistic asshole. And the professor was acting less than professional and civility went out the window once she began venting on social media.

I’m not sure that in the end it actually had much to do with racism itself, as both sides had problematic understandings. No doubt the professor’s less than clear quiz question was to blame for the initial confrontation. And Parker in the original version of her article dismissed a black scholar because she thought he was white, as if the value of his scholarship was determined by the color of his skin. It maybe had more to do with two people with personality issues, although the professor in a position of authority had less excuse for her misbehavior.

My initial response was to side with the student, even with her immaturity. She is young and so it is expected that she would be immature. The professor did come off as arrogant, the kind of liberal class intellectual that irritates me. And her Facebook posts were the complete opposite of what a professor should be saying in public, although she probably didn’t understand privacy settings and so possibly didn’t realize that she wasn’t just privately venting. Anyway, it’s hard for me to feel too bad about her career being destroyed, even if the student shouldn’t take pride in having helped. That professor (now former professor, I assume) has serious issues and maybe should seek a different career or at least counseling.

On the other hand, after reading the comments section, I saw some of the criticisms of Parker’s account of the situation. It made me realize that I’d want to hear the professor’s side of the story before making any final judgment. But in the end, I don’t really care. People fight all the time, especially those looking for a fight. Both people involved seem to have wanted a fight and so I guess they both got what they wanted. It’s not my concern.

There was one thing that I noticed that was of interest to me, as it connected to other thoughts I’ve had recently. In a discussion about this heated altercation, some social media postings by the professor were shared in the comments section (I forget where I saw this). One was an old tweet maybe from last year where the professor quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” As I recall, it was in reference to Trump voters and so she was basically calling them stupid. This is standard partisan posturing. It’s how many in the liberal class always perceive those on the political right, and it is true that the average Republican IQ is lower than the average Democratic IQ, for whatever that is worth (I might argue that this makes the ignorant stupidity seen among too many Democrats to be even more inexcusable, as it can’t be blamed on mere lack of intellectual ability).

No matter who is involved, conflict can have a way of making people stupid. And we are a society riven by conflict. I was just discussing this in terms of inequality, stating that: “People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.” A central point I made is that this negatively affects everyone, including the middle-to-upper classes. In that post, I quoted from Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder:

“Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.”

This is directly related to Bonhoeffer’s “On Stupidity.” He was talking about Germans under the Nazis, but his writings are directed toward a greater understanding of our shared humanity. Bonhoeffer is a useful case to study, as he took seriously what it meant to be a good person in a not-so-good world. The United States is a divided society, even if not as violently and oppressively divided as Nazi Germany. The one way in which this country is more divided is in terms of inequality, as it is the greatest degree of inequality the world has ever before seen. Even though we don’t have concentration camps (yet), this kind of economic division and segregation has severe consequences.

This goes to a point that Bonhoeffer was making. It’s not just about stupidity on an individual level but about stupidity as an oppressive atmosphere. Accordingly, he wrote that stupidity “is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one… And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.” He is basically referring to what some would call groupthink and tribal politics, the conditions under which people lose the capacity for independent thought. People get caught up in conflict without understanding what is really dividing them. Ignorance and fear is a bad combination.

This ‘stupidity’ might better be thought of in terms of psychological dissociation and cognitive dissonance. As is made clear, it isn’t mere intellectual inadequacy. More than anything, it is a failure of awareness and imagination. The mind is constrained and so, no matter how smart people are in terms of IQ tests, they end up expressing a kind of stupidity. Their full cognitive resources aren’t being used to a degree that would be most optimal. Their minds are shackled and their vision has blinders.

For some reason, this kind of ‘stupidity’ wasn’t as apparent to me when I was younger. Something seemed wrong with the world, of course. Still, I didn’t entirely appreciate how a particular culture and social order could shape how people think and even how they are able to perceive the world around them. It was only after spending more time on the internet in the early 2000s that the human mind was more obviously laid bare for my viewing pleasure. It was a shock to my system. Maybe I was naive, but I had a basic faith in humans back then. I assumed that most ignorance was passive, not willful. That the problem was a lack of access, not a lack of curiosity. It turns out that I was horribly wrong.

I remember one of the early incidents that was incomprehensible to me. The local newspaper, the Iowa City Press Citizen, created a comment section for their online articles. This was used mostly as a local forum. I was attracted to this because this is a highly educated town and I expected high quality discussion, but I ended up being disappointed.

There was one situation where I was trying to make a factual-based argument and so I linked to the source of the relevant piece of data. I was utterly shocked that these well educated people wouldn’t look at or acknowledge facts that didn’t support their preconceived opinions. That didn’t fit my apparently idealized view of what it meant to be well educated. It was a weird experience because it literally would have only taken a minute to look at the evidence. It never occurred to me that, besides a few dogmatic cranks, so many people would be disinterested in informed debate. I’ve come to realize, all these years later, that it is a rare person who is all that curious to learn anything new.

A woman that was involved in that online discussion seemed like a nice person and a good liberal. She was college educated and had worked as a social worker. Her views were in many ways progressive and she probably was a partisan Democrat. She was a more or less typical example of a liberal class professional. I had talked to her in many discussions and in private messages. I genuinely liked her, but she was completely stuck in her opinions. As someone who has changed views over my lifetime, I always assumed that changing one’s views was a normal human ability and not a rare, exceptional heroic act. When I see new info, I rethink my beliefs and conclusions, occasionally even coming to question my biases and assumptions. I appreciate new info that forces me into new views. It’s a pleasurable, not traumatic, experience. Why would anyone resist new info? I will never understand that.

I was intrigued to come across this woman’s name in a book about local race issues, A Transplanted Chicago by Robert E. Gutsche Jr. I don’t feel like stating her name, but I’ll give you her initials (M.H.C.) which would allow you to quickly figure out her name if you looked at the back section of the book, in the List of Names and Terms. Gutsche uses her as an example because she became one of the select members of the newspaper’s “Writers Group.” Using her experience and authority as having been a social worker, she wrote a racist/racialist article that was published (Kindle Locations 1820-1825):

“While this piece was not written by a newspaper staff writer, it was selected by an editor and commissioned by the opinion page editor; in fact, after this story appeared in 2010, I spoke with both the author and the editor about what I considered its incendiary language (i.e., “inner-city refugees”), broad characterizations (i.e., “perpetrators of urban decay”), and how this particular story contributed to overall coverage of the Southeast Side. Both the article’s author and the editor said that the language was provocative, but said that, in fact, that is what they wanted. Indeed, [M.H.C.] told me that her opinion page editor encouraged her to “stir up” the opinion page and blogs through her writing.”.

So, she was stirring up the pot of shit when racial tensions are already high in a city known for its institutional racism (the county has one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country). This was at a time when violent crime had been steadily declining for a couple of decades. As the percentage of minorities increased in town, the rate of violent crime had simultaneously gone down. Yet the local media obsessed over racializing issues and scapegoating the small number of blacks that moved here. Now consider the fact that this is a highly liberal college town, as Solid Blue as they come and filled with Hillary Clinton supporters — you might remember her as the first lady of a sitting president who called black youth super-predators that had to be brought to heel, in a speech she gave in support of the racialized crime bill her husband signed into law (and her husband, by the way, a few years earlier campaigned by standing in front of shackled black prisoners with the infamous Klan site of Stone Mountain in the background).

This is the kind of dark-hearted, cynical stupidity that America is so well known for. The reason it is stupid is because the very privileged liberals who attack right-wingers as bigots will shamelessly spin dog-whistle rhetoric or else support those who do so. They can’t even see it in themselves, as it isn’t part of their conscious identity and worldview. It’s the same basic psychology that allowed so many Germans to not know what was happening under the Nazis. People simply don’t want to know what makes them uncomfortable. This is made possible because of the social conditions when inequality takes hold — leading to divisiveness, isolation, partisanship, fear, and anxiety. The collective mind shuts down. This is a mass stupidity that spreads like a shadow upon populations, from local communities to entire nations. All the individual has to do is fall in line and not question, not think too deeply.

Bonhoeffer’s short piece on stupidity should be read in full. I offer it below. But I wanted to frame it. In Letters and Papers From Prison, “On Stupidity” is directly between two other pieces — before it is “On Success” and following it is “Contempt for Humanity?”. Looking at these other pieces gives a larger perspective of his thought. From “On Success,” he begins with these words:

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.”

That is what I so often see as a moral justification, success. Partisan politics always is about how to win or how to maintain power. It isn’t about doing what is right or rather what is right is determined by those who control the narrative. Even the most popular of candidates holding majority positions like Bernie Sanders are dismissed out of a bizarre logic that the lesser evil, no matter how weak of a candidate, is the only practical option and only moral choice. This ends up being self-defeating, which is to say stupid, because Sanders had a better chance of defeating the greater evil of Trump than did the lesser evil option of Clinton. Not much of a lesser evil, it turns out.

It goes far beyond partisan politics, of course. The most obvious form it takes is the realpolitik of geopolitics, unsurprisingly supported by the likes of the Clinton New Democrats. The US government constantly acts in ways that worsens the problems that we are facing, such as supposedly fighting terrorism by harming vast numbers of innocent people and the inevitable result is to radicalize those populations into even greater support for terrorism against the US. It’s a stupidity that dominates our entire society. Yet it always presents itself as pragmatic and realistic, often fueled by an ignorant righteousness along with fear-mongering patriotism. Might makes right. No one can doubt that the US is successful in terms of material wealth and military power. But success to what end?

This brings us to the other piece, “Contempt for Humans?”. Human stupidity easily turns one’s own mind toward dark thoughts. But Bonhoeffer didn’t give into despair, seeing it as his moral duty and compassionate opportunity to hold the world in a vision of love. He was a Christian, after all, and more than willing to die for his faith. Here is the heart of his message:

“Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us. How often do we expect more of the other than what we ourselves are willing to accomplish. Why is it that we have hitherto thought with so little sobriety about the temptability and frailty of human beings? We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings— particularly to the weak among them— is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them.”

That would be why he focuses on the social underpinning of stupidity. To his Christian worldview, relationship with God and through God to humanity is always an individual act. That is where he found himself, sitting in that prison cell and waiting for his fate to come calling. He was just a lone voice speaking out during troubled times. He did what he could, what he felt he must, but in the end there was nothing left for him to do other than speak the truth as he understood it. There was no time left for excuses and pity. He pointed out these human failings and yet did so with what kindness he had, not to strike out in hatred at those who had condemned him.

This post started with an incident of conflict. Two people, in their sense of hurt and defensiveness, felt compelled to attack each other. It’s an all too human thing to do. Yes, it’s stupid and pointless, but we’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another. It’s so easy to get pulled into such melodrama, as if winning or rather making the other lose will somehow bring us satisfaction. Even as I write these words, I find myself in a pointless online debate. Assuming that the other person is the stupid one and not oneself, it still doesn’t serve any purpose or rarely does so. The stupidity of this society that we are immersed in wasn’t created through rational argument and won’t be undone through victorious debate or intellectual persuasion.

The only answer is to look beyond the darkness that surrounds us, hoping to find some light to guide us. For Bonhoeffer, the light he sought was love itself, grounded in faith. That is certainly a better option than a hatred that slowly consumes you. It’s hard living in a society like this where trust seems rare and divisiveness is everywhere. We each have to find our own light in the darkness, whatever helps us to see more clearly, even if just enough light to stumble along. Or failing that, we will get lost along the way.

On a personal level, it makes feel tired. I don’t have Bonhoeffer’s faith. But I can appreciate his wisdom, whether or not I’m up to the task of following his example. I’ve had my fair share of stupid conflicts and I suspect that I haven’t seen the end of it. My mother used to play a song for me as a child and in it there was a line stating that, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Ain’t that the truth! All of humanity is an ongoing project and we seem to have misplaced the plans.

* * *

“On Stupidity”
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

“Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in must cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

“But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.”

So why doesn’t the United States fly apart at the seams?

Nation Builders
Simon Winchester’s ‘Men Who United the States’
By Stephen Mihm
The New York Times

“So why doesn’t the United States fly apart at the seams? James Madison may have had it right when he argued that a large, decentralized republic spread over a vast territory was more likely to survive than one confined to a much smaller landmass. A sprawling, diverse nation like the United States would necessarily encompass so vast a variety of people that no single group could consistently impose its will on the others. In Madison’s pragmatic if paradoxical vision, our very differences would keep us together. The nation would remain united because no bloc or faction can command sufficient political power to divide it and destroy the union.

“Of course, Madison couldn’t foresee the conflict over slavery, when two distinct sections of the country went to war over their differences. But this has been the exception, not the rule. Today, the nation is rarely, if ever, united on any single political issue. Our loyalties are too divided, too fractured and too unpredictable. Our diversity divides us, but in the process, guarantees that the larger union endures.”