Saturday, July 26, 2008


There's an opinion peice in the recent issue of conservative magazine The National Review by John Derbyshire entitled "Talking to the Plumber: The IQ Gap," in which Derbyshire argues that Americans are uneasy with the "inequality of smarts" in this country... and even more uneasy with the way that inequality in intelligence corresponds with other inequalities, like wealth, opportunity, and privilege. Derbyshire takes the title of his peice from a personal anecdote recounted by William Deresiewicz, in which Ivy-educated Deresiewicz bemoaned his inability to have a "regular conversation" with his plumber, despite the fact that he could easily carry on conversations "with people from other coutries, in other languages." (An aside: I wrote about Deresiewicz's excellent treatment of eros in the classroom a while ago on this blog.) Deresiewicz chalked up his can't-talk-to-the-plumber-predicament to "Ivy retardation" and counted it among "the disadvantages of an elite education." Derbyshire, on the other hand, sees this anecdote as evidence of a mostly meritorious American "smartocracy," and he doesn't seem to understand why the plumbers among us want to begrudge Smartocrats their due.

I'm really surprised that some editor didn't catch this essay before it made its way out of the chute, because it is littered with dubious (and unverifiable) generalizations and proceeds by way of some pretty specious logic. Derbyshire believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of what he calls America's "very nearly pure meritocracy"-- one in which "smarts" is the primus inter pares "merit"-- and he views the social and economic inequalities that exist in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy as best explained through reference to inequalities in innate intellectual ability. Now, that may not sound like a completely objectionable argument, but for Derbyshire it basically breaks down like this: Economic inequality corresponds, justifiably, to intellectual inequality. In other words, poor people are poor, largely, because they're also dumb. He writes:

Seek out the rich man in his castle: It is far more likely the case in the U.S.A. than anywhere else, and far more likely the case in the U.S.A. of today than at any past time, that he is from modest origins, and won his wealth fairly in the fields of business, finance, or the high professions. Seek out the poor man at his gate: It is likewise probable, if you track back through his life, that it will be one of lackluster ability and effort, compounded perhaps perhaps with some serious personality defect. I have two kids in school, eighth grade and tenth. I know several of their classmates. There are some fuzzy cases, but for the most part it is easy to see who is destined for the castle, who for the gate.

Of the deciding factors, by far the largest is intelligence. There are of course smart people who squander their lives, and dumb people who get lucky. If you pluck a hundred rich men from their castles and put them in a room together, though, you will notice a high level of general intelligence. Contrariwise, a hundred poor men taken from their gates will, if put all in one place, convey a general impression of slow dullness. That’s the meritocracy.

On Derbyshire's argument, the wealthiest among us are also the smartest, and we ought not begrudge them the spoils of their merit. But, putting aside his prescriptive claim, is this description really true? As happy as it may make me to (finally!) see conservatives railing against the anti-intellectualism that reigns supreme among them, I'm disheartened to see that it comes in a package like this. Far be it from me to question the scientific rigor of Derbyshire's assessment of his kids' eigth- and tenth-grade classmates... but I'm guessing that there are better places to look if one is questioning the corresponsence between wealth and intelligence.

Let's try another sampling. According to Forbes' list of "The 400 Richest Americans," 5 out of the top 10 richest Americans' wealth comes to them by way of the mega-retail-chain-store Wal-Mart. Now, I imagine that it did take some "smarts" to think up the idea of Wal-Mart, and perhaps a good deal more to develop it into the capital behemoth that it is today. But none of those 5 on Forbes' list is Sam Walton, the founder of Wal Mart! So, it seems safe to assume that of the very richest rich folks in our (very nearly pure) meritocracy, we can say that their chief "merit" is to be found in their surname, and not between their ears.

I've done my fair share of laps around the Academy's block, and I still fail understand how Derbyshire can justifiably conflate "wealth" and "intelligence." I also wonder, for the record, whether or not Derbyshire is capable of breaking down the etymology of his neologism "smartocracy," which would imply that the "smart" actually rule (from the ancient Greek "krátos" or κράτος). I suppose that Derbyshire would say that the "generally dull" plebians who continue to resent their lords-- and to resent the gross economic and social disparity that exists in thier fiefdom-- do so because they don't have the innate intelligence to comprehend the merits of our smartocracy. Alas, would that it were so simple and dull...


DOCTOR J said...

I know that friends of this blog are probably wondering why in the world I'm reading The National Review. So, for the record, I came across this article because it was one of the stories listed on Arts and Letters Daily.

anotherpanacea said...

Actually, Dr. J, given the infection throughout the ALD of conservative outrage pieces designed to offend and provoke, I'd suggest you switch to reading for your entertaining academic internet purposes. Or if you're looking for community, too.

Booga Face said...

Though I too have suffered brain damage from an Ivy-league education, I have never had trouble talking to my plumber or whatever guy happens to be sitting next to me at the bar about stuff. (To be sure, I don't start quoting Keats or Foucault... but duh... I don't do that with my sister either, and she has a Ph.D. from Berkeley...)

Anyway, the National Review also published not just one, but two articles on the 50 top conservative songs, in which they argued that certain songs by The Who, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bob Dylan, etc. were actually conservative.

In other words, the people who write for and read The National Review are frequent smokers of crack. I'm not wondering why you are reading stuff from there, because I think as scholars and as teachers we have an ethical -- not to mention a strategic -- obligation to read widely, but I am curious as to why you are taking anything published in that pretentious shit-for-brains propaganda rag seriously?

DOCTOR J said...

AnPan and Booga:

Fair enough. Clearly, I was having a moment of weakness (and not the "weakness" that I've been advocating) in which beating up on a straw man seemed worthwhile.

DOCTOR J said...

But, seriously, I'm with Booga. That is, I don't have problems talking to my plumber either (who is almost certainly more wealthy than me). I don't think that's a complaint that only conservatives put forth, by the way... though it bothers me more, of course, when folks I know say stuff like that. Not being able to have a conversation with your plumber is not a fault of one's education, it's a fault of one's totally inadequate social skills.

And The Clash? Conservative? Really?

anotherpanacea said...

Well, remember that the musical and artistic ideal for the National Review is a kind of value-monistic libertarianism. So rock songs that criticize revolution, taxation, the state, and progressive group-think, or celebrate traditional mores, simple country life, and masculine hard work are all potentially up-for-grabs, at least when it comes to pushing the aesthetic simplifications of a classic conservatism. Here's the complete list with justifications:

For The Clash (Rock the Casbah) they simply write: "After 9/11, American radio stations were urged not to play this 1982 song, one of the biggest hits by a seminal punk band, because it was seen as too provocative. Meanwhile, British Forces Broadcasting Service (the radio station for British troops serving in Iraq) has said that this is one of its most requested tunes."

There's got to be a few good blog posts in there.... :-)