One of the greatest things in this universe is discovering that there are other people — lots of other people — who are just as smart as you are, or even (if you can believe it) smarter.
As a teacher, I’ve often been inspired by what I’ve seen other people doing in the classroom. “How did they think of that?” I ask myself, futilely. As a writer, I’ve spent many of the best moments of my life marveling at the accomplishments of people who were much more intelligent than I. Emily Dickinson, are you listening? J.F. Powers, can you hear me? Even writers who, I think, were not particularly bright (in my way of being bright) have earned my admiration by being smart enough (in their way) to do things I could never dream of doing. Hemingway and Whitman, I salute you.
But it’s not just in my own work that I rejoice to lose the competition. The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me. I have a friend who has mastered virtually all the skills of the construction trade. That’s real intelligence, of a kind that I don’t have. When I’m disgusted with the world, I’m consoled by the knowledge that I’m surrounded by so many people who can do things so much better than I.
The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me.
An economist would say I was recognizing the importance of the division of labor. I prefer to call it the division of intelligence. According to James Madison, writing in the tenth Federalist paper, this is what our system of government is all about. It’s about protecting the division of intelligence, and the superior degrees of intelligence:
The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is . . . an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.
It is not only the rights of property that derive from the division of intelligence; it’s property itself in any significant form. If everyone had one form and degree of intelligence, everyone would be a teacher, with no one to teach; everyone would be a writer of the same kind of stuff; everyone would be a mediocre cook, with no one to produce the food or pay for it.
Recently I bought a new heating and air conditioning unit. At the moment when the superbly intelligent and adroit technician finished installing it and presented me with the bill, social hierarchy did not exist; I was happy to reward the superior intelligence he showed in his craft, and he was happy to receive some of the money that I had been paid for exercising an appropriate degree of intelligence in mine. The best thing is that such moments are constantly occurring. They are the real story of human life.
But there is a class of people — let’s call it the governing class — that does not think in this way, that apparently lacks the capacity to think in this way. Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do. Alexander Pope remarked that
Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.
The meaning of such comments is lost on the hierarchs of the governing class. They don’t command a province of human endeavor; they command human beings. They will not stoop; there is never any reason for them to stoop. They were born with an understanding of existence and their superior role in it, and if they weren’t, they soon learned it from their four years at Harvard, Brown, or Wellesley. They’re smarter than all the rest of us, which gives them the right to push us all around.
Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do.
In the early republic, such people were rare, and scorned. If you wanted to be esteemed for your intelligence, you had to show that you actually were smart at doing something. It might be reading good literature, understanding its meaning, and using it in effective argument, especially on questions of political principle and fundamental law. This is the substantial intelligence that until the 20th century gained the highest rewards in America’s political life. But no one thought there was only one way to demonstrate intelligence. You might do it by showing your grasp of military affairs, or financial investments. You might construct great works of engineering or great industrial combinations. You might invent the electric light. You might build houses that people really wanted to live in or operate a hotel that would really make them comfortable. But you had to do something to show you were smart.
This obligation has been superseded by the modern, all-encompassing state, which inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees, teams, and task forces — most of them useless or harmful, but that’s all right: the state is made to command and not to please. The state grants prestige even to people whose sole job is to spin — that is, to lie to other people, using methods that are openly discussed and admired among the governing class but are presumed to operate unnoticed by those targeted for bamboozlement. In other words, the state gives special rewards to people who lack sufficient intelligence to respect the intelligence of others.
Civilized people — and our society is still, in most ways, civilized — are trained, and properly so, to respect other people’s intelligence and the achievements that are a sign of intelligence. But here’s the problem. They are trained to respect even the appearance of achievement. When I call a plumber and a man shows up with TONY on his chest and a set of plumber’s tools in his hand, I assume that he’s a plumber, and probably a decent one, or he wouldn’t still be in business. I’m inclined to respect him as such. Who am I to say that he’s not a real plumber? I’m not smart enough to judge that.
The modern, all-encompassing state inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees.
But in the same way, when a gang of people stride into a room in $2,000 suits, step to the microphone, and make statements about the welfare of the nation or some other governing-class topic, their air of assurance tempts otherwise intelligent men and women to wonder whether these impressive figures could possibly have attained their power unless they were, in fact, more intelligent than anyone else in the room. So large, and so important, is our respect for accomplishment that we imagine that anyone who has attained some distinguished position must have the mental qualities that merit it — must be, in a word, smart.
We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs. Imagine asking a good carpenter whether he would like a more prestigious job. “Doing what?” he says. “Oh,” you say, “going to meetings to decide which of the proposed revisions to the current memorandum regarding the department’s recommendation to the undersecretary should be revisited. You’ll look very impressive doing that.” The plumber would say, in franker words than these, that he wouldn’t consider it. But some people do more than consider it. They make it their life’s work. They often say that they didn’t even wonder about whether it was. They recognized it, right away, as their mission in life. And that’s true. They were just dumb enough to want it. Go read the parable of the trees in Judges 9:8–15.
This brings us at last (but you could see where we were going) to James Comey, late director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey has published a book about how much he hates President Trump, who fired him from his job. Comey has apparently governed his life in accordance with the idea that he is smarter than everyone else. He has tried to demonstrate the truth of that idea by snooping on other people and sending them to jail, even when their only crime was lying about something that wasn’t a crime. This is the man who imprisoned Martha Stewart, host of a television cooking show, for committing lèse majesté against Comey’s government agency.
We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs.
You might wonder how anyone could have led such a dumb life as Comey, and I suppose the answer is simply that dumb people do dumb things. Puffing his book in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, a fellow member of the governing class, Comey was asked one of those dumb questions that dumb people think are so clever when they’re conducting a job interview: “What is your worst quality?” Stephanopoulos put it in an even dumber way: “What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?” The answer was:
Yeah. My rap on myself is that — is that ego focus. That I — since I was a kid, I've had a sense of confidence. That I know I'm good at certain things. And there's a danger that that will bleed over into pride.
Few people will dispute this answer: Comey strikes nearly everyone as an insufferable egotist. But notice the idea that Comey thinks is not in dispute — the assumption that he is “good at certain things.” We have his own word for it: “I know I’m good.” It does not occur to him that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything. What is it, exactly, that Comey is good at?
He’s certainly not good at speaking like an adult. If the fractured syntax of the “rap on myself” answer isn’t enough to convince you, consider his childish answer to another childish question from Stephanopoulos, who wanted to know “what did it feel like to be James Comey” during the last ten days of the presidential campaign of 2016. That’s the period when Comey blunderingly announced that he was reinvestigating the “matter” of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then blunderingly announced that he’d stopped investigating them. Comey replied:
It sucked. Yeah, it was — it was a very painful period. Again, my whole life has been dedicated to institutions that work not to have an involvement in an election. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt, when I went to the White House — I don't want to spoil it for people, but there's a movie called The Sixth Sense that I talk about in the book where Bruce Willis doesn't realize he's dead.
That's the way I felt. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn't a way out because it really was the right thing to do. And that — that, in a way, I'm ruined. But that's what I have to do. I had to do it the way [sic].
Ah, the reflections of a sage and statesman! The penetrating self-analysis of a man who understands that most mysterious of all things, the human heart! The battle-wrought wisdom of a Churchillian leader!
It does not occur to Comey that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything.
Leader and leadership — Comey mentioned those words 47 times during his wee interview with Georgie. The subtitle of Comey’s book is “Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Explaining to Stephanopoulos why he wrote a spiteful volume about how he was always telling the truth and President Trump was always telling lies, and that’s why Trump fired him from his leadership role, Comey cited young people’s need for education in leadership:
It occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values.
I can’t tell how many young people (or any people) will actually read his book, but Comey is not a very challenging teacher. He’s the kind of teacher who is dumb enough to pander to his students. Kids say “it sucked,” so Comey says “it sucked.” (Lofty phrase! Especially when you remember what it literally means.) Kids feel emotions that make them lose all perspective, so Comey describes his bad day at the office by saying that it made him feel vaguely sick to his stomach, beaten down, totally alone. Kids have a desperate desire to be part of a group, so Comey tells them that when some people didn’t want him on their team anymore, he felt that everybody hated him. This is leadership!
When someone at this intellectual level strives for a literary or artistic allusion, he reaches out to . . . Washington? Lincoln? Dante? Nope. It’s Bruce Willis who’s on his mind. But he can’t fix his thoughts on Bruce. He’s got to keep coming back to . . . James Comey. “I’m ruined,” he thinks. And he keeps thinking that, and he has to tell other people that he’s thinking that. As is natural for a traumatized kid of 57.
Comey’s absence of intelligence, and his inability to conceive that his audience might have some, are painfully displayed when Stephanopoulos takes him through the absurd scene in which Comey informed Trump that he had a secret to tell him. The secret had to do with a dossier (that’s a foreign word, but I think you may be old enough to hear it) purporting to show that several years before, Trump had hired Russian prostitutes to piss on a bed that had once been occupied by President Obama. Master sleuth that he is, Comey is still unable, by his account, to determine whether to believe Trump’s outraged denial of this ridiculous and unsupported allegation.
I don't — I don't know. I don't — the nature of an investigator is you don't believe or disbelieve. [Really? That’s not what they taught me in Investigator School.] You ask, "What's my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me [Huh? Is this English?] whether someone's telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation—" I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the — the — current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.
As any person of normal intelligence can see, Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it. But, one might ask, what does he know? He knows how he feels about things. He knows that in great detail.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?
JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I — it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.
What teenager could have said it better? “How weird was that briefing, Jimmy?” “Like, it was really weird.” Just thinking about icky things sent Comey’s brain rushing to the Pop Psych ward, where selves see themselves floating above themselves, and the voices (and eyebrows) of authority figures keep banging around in your head. Dude! How grody was that!
Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it.
Please remember that it was Comey who started this weirdness. And why? Because he felt it was his duty to tell Trump that somebody had written something that claimed that Trump had done something bad. Not bad, as in illegal, but bad, as in embarrassing. And embarrassing, to a teenager, is worse than illegal. It was so embarrassing — to Comey! — that he couldn’t tell the president precisely what it was. He preferred to leave some things to Trump’s imagination (which, we have reason to believe, is much more fertile than Comey’s).
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?
JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about — people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I'd given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.
It was all too weird — for Comey, who was apparently so weirded out that he couldn’t bring himself to mention where the gossip came from.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?
JAMES COMEY: No. I didn't — I didn't think I used the term "Steele Dossier," I just talked about additional material.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he — but did he have a right to know that?
JAMES COMEY: That it'd been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. I — it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it's true or not, it's important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.
Well, well. What shall we make of this? Suppose somebody wants to meet with you and tell you something bad about you. Suppose that person is a cop. Or an employee. Or, as in this case, both. The guy could make a lot of trouble for you, because he’s a collector of secret information. And in this case, he happens to be a person who is trying to keep you from firing him. The information he wants to share with you is this: there is a secret dossier, alleging that you went to a foreign country, which is claimed to be an enemy country, and spent a night having dirty fun with prostitutes. He tells you that, without mentioning that the dossier was sponsored and financed by your political opponents. He just tells you that he has this thing. This secret thing. “I got this information, see, an’ I jus’ wanted youse to know it, see? That I had it, see? Me, I jus’ don’ know what to think of it. But spose it gits out. We don’t want that to happen. Do we . . . boss?” Even if, as the rightwing media theorize, Comey’s goal was to use his chat with Trump as a convoluted means of leaking the dossier, the obvious effect would be to make Trump wonder, “What else does this guy think he has on me?”
But suppose my impression of Comey’s intent is wrong. What type of mind would fail to recognize that it is the impression other minds would form? How stupid do you have to be to think that everybody else is just that stupid?
The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.
This is not the only mess that Comey has gotten himself into while expecting that no one would notice, and perhaps not even noticing himself. Here, have some links. And, as you’ll see, Comey has not acted alone. The nice thing about his present, tremendous mess is that few members of the governing class are emerging from it with their reputations intact. Since those reputations were largely created by a constant merry-go-round of praise from the governing class itself, it’s only fair that they should all get off the ride together.
As a literary critic, I keep wondering how anyone could read or listen to these people without realizing how dumb they are. The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways. Often they were very smart, and needed to be; their class privilege, if any, wasn’t strong enough to keep them going by itself. The contrast with the current political class appears to be lost on even some of its foes. They persist in saying such things as Laura Ingraham said of Comey on April 19: “He’s a very smart guy. University of Chicago Law School. He’s a smart guy.”
Laura, can’t you read anything besides your teleprompter?