What a feeble thing
intelligence is, with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and
forth, its disastrous retreats! Intelligence is a mere instrument of
circumstances. There are people who say that intelligence must have built the
universe — why, intelligence never built a steam engine! Circumstances built a
steam engine. Intelligence is little more than a short foot-rule by which we
measure the infinite achievements of Circumstances.
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Beautiful and Damned (1922)
The most problematic aspect of the EU referendum
debate was the shallow nature of so many arguments. It was an important and high
profile debate, but for some reason shallow was the preferred depth. Intelligence was not
required - but why?
To begin with, intelligence is obviously a useful notion for elite classes to
maintain their ascendancy. Nobody wants to be ruled by Mr Stupid or preached at
by Bishop Dork even though we often are. So we have to pretend and elites usually attempt to appear passably intelligent even when they are not. Many struggle to keep up the charade, but they try, they do try.
To help the charade along, a superior type of education is used to make the whole idea of elite intelligence more plausible. The natural intelligence of good breeding is supposed
to be nurtured by deluxe educational methods. This costs more money than most
people have which is no great surprise because that’s the whole point. Intelligence
has to be somewhat exclusive.
Yet imagine if you will, a politician who says something so obviously
stupid that even the mainstream media have to take note. Imagine that same politician
having to back down at some later date when the stupidity becomes politically embarrassing. Not uncommon is it? I’m thinking of Naseem Shah as a fairly recent
example, but there are many, many more and will be many, many more in future.
Unintelligent behaviour seems to be remarkably common even
in political life where one might assume that maintaining the charade is one of the most basic requirements. Yet a lack of intelligence is particularly easy to spot if the political party you
don’t support happens to be in office. We know their lot can’t be intelligent
because the intelligence is mostly on our side isn’t it?
It won’t do though will it? Unless one has the hide of a
rhinoceros the bias is just too obvious. Loop back to our politician who says
something stupid. If he or she is also seen as a crafty political operator,
then the stupidity becomes either a political slip or a cunning facade hiding devious
intentions. The notion of elite intelligence is preserved.
But that won’t do either. A simpler explanation is that stupid
behaviour is a sign of stupidity. Occam’s Razor don’t you know.
Perhaps so, but
an even simpler explanation is that there is no such thing as intelligence. Behaviour,
learned or imitated is either effective or ineffective but we don’t find out
which until we launch it onto the public domain. Trial and error with its short steps, its waverings, its
pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats!
Hence all that political backtracking we enjoy so much and
this is the key point, the glaringly obvious clue, the reason why political
classes fly kites. They can’t foresee public reaction where there is no good
precedent. They have to experiment on a small scale and learn from the outcome.
Naseem Shah’s observation about Israel was one such experiment. A naive one,
but still an experiment. She did not foresee the outcome because she couldn’t
foresee it because she didn’t have the intelligence to foresee it because there is
no such thing as independent intelligence.
Intelligence is another aspect of our tendency to focus on
the individual rather than the individual’s controlling environment.
Intelligence is mainly a feature of those controlling environments, not so much individuals.
We use imitation and cooperation to engineer intelligent environments without
needing to be intelligent ourselves because we can’t be intelligent in a
vacuum, without sounding boards, without feedback, without the environment.
This is what political types foster and rely
on. This is why they make so many obvious blunders. They are not intelligent outside their controlling environment.
Nobody is. We engineer intelligent environments by trial and error and by
modifying our behaviour accordingly but we don’t need much individual intelligence to do it. Trial and error does it for us.
Except when we deny the errors. That's when hard landings take over.
“There’s a note I’d like
to strike. It’s about impotence. Have you noticed, going along the streets,
that all of the people you see are tired out, impotent?” he asked. “What is a
newspaper—the most impotent thing in the world. What is the theater? Have you
gone much lately? They give you such a weariness that your back aches, and the
movies, God, the movies are ten times worse, and if this war isn’t a sign of
universal impotence, sweeping over the world like a disease, then I don’t know
Sherwood Anderson – Dark Laughter (1925)
If Anderson’s character was right about universal impotence,
then here in the UK we would still be caught up in wars and conflicts and all
kinds of unplanned consequences would infest our lives –
Okay that’s one box ticked so let us imagine a few other possibilities.
If we were really impotent we’d do ridiculous things such as
allowing rapists into the country, or preachers of religious hatred. Or we
would become entangled in monstrous bureaucracies and beat ourselves up with impossibly
complex regulations. Or maybe we would find it impossible to build affordable
houses for young people, control an apparently inexorable growth in our
population or choose only the best from those who want to move here.
Even wilder possibilities come to mind if we really are
impotent. We might find ourselves unable to criticise malign social trends in robust language without isolating ourselves. We might freely elect unworthy people to high
office. We may even try to control global weather patterns by building giant
No that’s going too far. We can’t be that impotent can we?
Do not always be
Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere
wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things. They
resemble liars in that men never believe either, always expecting a lie in one,
a joke in the other. One never knows when you speak with judgment, which is the
same as if you had none. A continual jest soon loses all zest. Many get the
repute of being witty, but thereby lose the credit of being sensible. Jest has
its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
Baltasar Gracian - The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647)
As we know, Boris Johnson has a gravitas problem, much the
same problem Baltasar Gracian highlighted over three and a half centuries ago.
Currently Boris leads the betting for our next Prime Minister yet his public persona is hardly
statesmanlike. Even Jeremy Corbyn has more gravitas than Boris. What are we to
make of that if Boris is so smart? Perhaps it suggests he isn’t because the alternative is a little hard to swallow.