Aren’t You Just the Smartest Thing?

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“Here I’ve been talking to the most intelligent people in the world, and I never even noticed.”

That’s what Lieutenant Columbo said when he found that the murder he was investigating occurred among the members of a Mensa-like group, consisting of people whose “I.Q.” was in the “top 2%.” (In case you want to know, the Columbo episode in question is “The Bye Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case,” first broadcast on May 22, 1977. It’s one of Columbo’s best.)

I find myself bewildered in the same way, whenever I read or — God forbid — have to listen to this world’s most highly accredited smart people and amazing communicators.

Did you know that only one American president has been a Rhodes scholar, and he was that great intellectual William Jefferson Clinton? Clinton, whose popular nickname is “Slick Willie,” went to Oggsford, where the Rhodes folks sent him, but he didn’t manage to complete his degree. Now consider some of the other names on the Rhodes roll of genius: “Pete” Buttigieg, Susan Rice, Cory Booker, Bobby Jindal, Rachel Maddow, Ronan Farrow. In what sense are these people any brighter than the dude that runs the auto parts store? Or any more worthy of being listened to?

Her logic is daring: we need to tackle two crises at once, because we need to tackle two crises at once.

I’ll continue this theme in another way. One measure of your intelligence is the type of words you regard as intelligent. For her use of words — screaming rants against all adults — Greta Thunberg has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year; she has been made Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Mons; she has been honored by Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals, as one of the “ten people who mattered in science in 2019”; and she has become so popular among very smart, scientific people that a spider, a beetle, and a snail have been named for her. More ugly little creatures will surely follow.

All this because of words, words that have struck a chord among the brainy people of the world. And here is a sample of the words that Dr. (H.C.) Thunberg utters:

Today is Earth Day and that reminds us that the climate and environmental emergency is still ongoing and we need to tackle both the corona pandemic, this crisis, at the same time as we tackle climate and environmental emergency, because we need to be able to tackle two crises at once.

Her logic is daring: we need to tackle two crises at once, because we need to tackle two crises at once.

Celebrating the connection thus discovered between the two crises, the journalistic reporter of these remarks duly tried to describe what it was:

As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, killing nearly 180,000 people, infecting more than 2.59 million, and devastating the world’s economy, climate and environmental activists have called for a global Green New Deal and just recovery that prioritizes a rapid transition to renewable energy and other efforts to reduce planet-heating emissions and pollution more broadly. Recent studies tying poor air quality to COVID-19 deaths have added weight to those demands.

Another daring leap! The virus kills because of “poor air quality,” and poor air quality results from nonrenewable energy. Solution: a global program not just to “devastat[e] the world’s economy” but to destroy it. That’s science for you — always something unexpected. But here’s another scientific discovery: in case you didn’t know it, what has devastated the world’s economy is “the coronavirus,” not the genius political leaders’ responses to it. It was the virus that sat down at its desk and issued decrees that shut down every business on your street. Of course, the virus did its deadly work because of internal combustion engines. If only your hairdresser hadn’t been using fossil fuels! Then she’d still have her job. But that’s just how dumb she was.

Speaking of scientific pronouncements, I want to go back to Nature’s certification of the genius of Greta Thunberg Thought. After all, where are geniuses to be found, if not at Nature? As Heinrich Heine said, “The tips of the mountains see each other.” The great journal of science was pleased to announce that Dr. Thunberg had “brought climate science to the fore as she channeled her generation’s rage.” The more you look at that statement, the stranger it gets. In what sense did a blabby, obnoxious, literally insufferable teenager bring science to any fore? Science, and “climate science” too, had been around for a good long time before Thunberg was injected into the game. And it’s mighty scientific, isn’t it, to say that she channeled (picture a ditch) the rage of her generation. She is certainly enraged, but what’s the evidence that her generation ever was? By the way, why is rage so honorable, from a scientific point of view?

Have you noticed how often science appears to be on the side of orders and controls, and how seldom on the side of freedom?

The corona scare has taught us that many people who don’t have the sense God gave possums assert their supposed intelligence by trying to control other people, which is what Thunberg and other advocates of a Green New Deal, and evidently Nature magazine, in its role as demagogue, are doing — and that’s all they’re doing. People used to call this (rather loosely) leadership; but since leadership is sometimes felt to impose responsibilities, right now they’re calling it science.

The word implies no duties for people who invoke it, not even the duty to be curious about facts. I recently spent a dismal hour reading purportedly scientific news reports about a “spike” in corona cases in my county and state — reports that may, as local health scientists aver, licking their lips in anticipation of this happy outcome, result in a rollback of the region’s opening. Have you noticed how often science appears to be on the side of orders and controls, and how seldom on the side of freedom? And have you noticed that people who thrust themselves at microphones are almost always issuing orders or demanding controls? How else could they prove their superior knowledge and wisdom?

Non-scientist that I am, I suspected, as any moderately intelligent person would, that when you do more testing to see whether people are sick, you discover that more people are sick. They are sick, although they mostly didn’t notice it until some scientific people told their boss that they had to be tested, and now they’re part of the spike. My suspicions were confirmed when I discovered that the death rate was stable and, if you looked beyond the headlines, the deaths were still occurring mainly among old people who started off with some dangerous illness. But it took me an hour to find an article, published by, of all things, a local TV station, that mentioned the matter of tests. Someone even put it in the article’s title and in its teaser: “For the second day in a row, the new cases set a daily high, but accordingly, the number of COVID-19 tests reported Friday also reached a daily high.” Times are pretty tough, intellectually, when the mere reporting of simple facts bursts on you like a miracle.

Take that, American power structure! I’m demanding for the defunding!

I want to return to leadership. Sometimes actual leadership — bad or good, but actual — reveals itself in “small” ways, such as the ability to know where one’s sentences are going. No matter what guff they gave out, American leaders used to have that ability. No longer. I don’t need to instance the president; examples are omnipresent. Here’s one, taken almost at random from among less illustrious pretenders to leadership. It comes from a recent dispute between the Pennsylvania state legislature and the governor of Pennsylvania about whether the legislature can pass a resolution that ends the Democratic governor’s (childish and destructive) virus control measures. The Republican Senate majority leader argued that

People need to have the freedom to return to normalcy and decide for themselves the level of engagement with society that they are comfortable doing.

A Democratic state senator counterargued:

If [the resolution] passes, and whether you believe the governor has no input on it or the governor does something with or does nothing and let it become law, it doesn’t impact the order that was executed by [Pennsylvania Health] Secretary Rachel Levine under her authority. That is where the closures come in. More importantly, the emergency declaration is not a precedent to her being able to make sure that she can do the order.

The Democrat had the more serious struggle with literacy. I dare you to figure out his first sentence, with all of its input and impact. But both the Democrat and the Republican have difficulty thinking of other verbs than do. Hence such strange feats of diction and syntax as doing a “level of engagement” (Republican) and “do the order” (Democratic). Not even Huey Long would have dreamed of doin’ words like that.

This, I suppose, is “political speech,” of the kind that the Supreme Court is always so concerned about, thinking that “political” is the “core” kind of speech defended by the First Amendment. OK, but do we have to put up with headlines like this?

Denver City Council meeting stormed by protesters demanding for the defunding of the police

Take that, American power structure! I’m demanding for the defunding!

And do we have to put up with Fox News reports about “protesters who have advocated against police brutality”?

To advocate means to speak in favor of something. The abuse of this term began when advocacy, like activism, started to be acclaimed as a profession. Advocate was then in all the smart communicators’ mouths, but unfortunately they, unlike smart people in the past, had never read a book, so how would they know what the word meant? They didn’t realize that “advocate” is what my grandmother, who never went to college, or even high school, but taught in a one-room school out in the fields, easily recognized as a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object. In other words, you advocate something. Immersed in their first, really weird, experience with a word of more than two syllables (well, maybe one syllable), they cast around for a way to put this alluring word advocate in a sentence of their own, and they discovered advocate for. So now we don’t advocate sensible policing; we advocate for such things. If we’re still not clear on the concept, we advocate around them. It’s a small step from that to advocate against, which takes us even farther from the basic question: “Exactly what do you want?”

The college “educated” won’t understand you either, but they’ll nod and agree, recognizing the language of their class.

I work for a university, and I get institutional memos every day, informing me of discussions around something. If I were wondering whom to accuse for the illiteracy of the communicative classes, the overwhelming evidence of illiteracy among educators would tell me where to look. But to return to Huey Long. Were he alive today, he would have no trouble seeing how far the political class has fallen. He would have only to read the words of the mayor of Seattle, responding to a fatal shooting in the part of her city that she allowed to be taken and occupied by communists and “anarchists.”

One knew in advance that there was one response she would not consider. She would not dream of saying what every Democratic politician and servile “scholar” was intoning 24/7, just six months ago: “No one is above the law.” To learn what she did say, after much time expended in earnest thought, you can read the report of the Seattle Times:

Sunday evening, making her first public statement on the shooting, Mayor Jenny Durkan said “thousands of peaceful demonstrators gather almost daily” on Capitol Hill, but acknowledged “more dangerous conditions” at night. She said the city “will continue to make changes on Capitol Hill in partnership with Black-led community organizations, demonstrators, small businesses, residents, and trusted messengers who will center deescalation.”

How smart she must have thought she was as she crafted that epistle to the good citizens of Seattle.

It has all the marks of honing and polishing and careful attention to the best practices of public officials in this wonderful year. If these knights of the press release ever published a manual of rhetoric, it would contain the following advice, firmly grounded on Jenny Durkan’s little masterpiece:

First, just leap in and say the opposite of what is true. Maintain that it’s peaceful demonstrators who occupy an important part of your town — as peaceful as I would be if I camped on your doorstep with a gun, keeping police and firefighters and ambulances away, and keeping you away too if I felt like it, and whenever I got bored, spraypainting your walls with obscene slogans.

Second, logic-chop. The neighborhood is only dangerous at night, which is only a third of a summer’s day. (Remember: it takes but a fraction of one’s day to, for instance, murder someone. You see how unimportant the murder is in the grand scheme of things.) And the place isn’t really dangerous at night; it’s just more dangerous than it was during the day, which we’ve already established as peaceful and therefore not dangerous at all.

Third, say things that have no known meaning and create no communicable image that could be examined and criticized. “Messengers who will center deescalation” — what? When you deploy an impenetrable vocabulary as if you expected your victims to understand it, a large number of them will think, “Gee, it’s too bad I’m not as bright as she is! If I were, I’m sure I’d understand what she’s talking about.” The college “educated” won’t understand you either, but they’ll nod and agree, recognizing the language of their class, and they will defend you as violently as ordinary Catholics used to defend every syllable of the Latin Mass.

Fourth, be inclusive. Anyone with any sense will realize that no meaningful consultation can have occurred between the mayor and “small businesses,” “residents,” or even “demonstrators”; and it’s axiomatic that the first two were never involved in any partnership for change. None of them ever asked for anything like this to happen. But go ahead; pretend that they “continue” to be involved. Then anyone who speaks out against your actions will be giving a slap in the face to everyone you mentioned.

Smart, very smart.

They are all so smart.

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