my top 2016 moment: “What is Aleppo?”

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and in a sense deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate – one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance – not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

As Glenn Greenwald Robert Mackey demonstrated, many of those mocking Johnson’s response showed that they themselves were uninformed about the very topic that they felt it was absurd for Johnson to be ignorant of. That led, to pick an example, to these amazing corrections in the New York Times.

If Johnson’s ignorance was typical, then, what was his real failing? It wasn’t that he didn’t know where or what Aleppo was. It was that he hadn’t deployed the techniques that a lot of people spend their adolescence developing, the ability to cover oneself in a patina of presumed smarts when you lack the actual foundation of knowledge that would help you to genuinely understand that topic at hand. Indeed, it’s a profoundly marketable skill, to be able to display the markers of being informed without possessing the actual information. You can build a career that way.

I can be quite adept at it myself.

It’s my observation that the smart kids that write our culture – not at all restricted to the media or academia, but the larger mass of people who were the high achievers in high school, the people who were in the top reading group and who got National Merit Scholarships, and who now do so much to define our shared cultural assumptions and conventional wisdom – have developed a strange and unhealthy relationship to being smart and having knowledge. Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence. It is disdainful of the idea that being an intelligent person requires spending hours reading books, slowly absorbing complex ideas, waging war on your own ignorance through attrition. It presumes that you should be well-read but is distrustful of the bookish. (It produces a micro-genre of listicles about the books “everyone” has claimed to have read but hasn’t/has started but never finished.) It places a premium on being smart but is skeptical, even contemptuous, of public displays of the work of getting smart. You want to be the kind of cultured person who knows great books intimately, but if you have Proust on your knee on the subway people will roll their eyes at you. That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

This isn’t an argument for “epistocracy,” a paean to expertise, or an endorsement of wonkery. Perfectly amateur people can be fantastically informed on complex issues. And the fantastically informed can be spectacularly wrong on important issues. Instead I mean only to argue that the palpable anxiety that attends contemporary intellectual life has consequences, that our schizophrenic attitudes towards being informed leads us to places like Gary Johnson on Aleppo and the media on Gary Johnson on Aleppo. This is not a problem caused by fecklessness or a lack of personal character. It is an artifact of the sickness within American “meritocracy.” Though I am frequently a harsh critic of the coastal striving class, this condition is not something that they’ve done. It’s something that was done to them. This condition was inflicted on them by a socioeconomic system that harms and degrades people and then tells them it’s their fault. It’s the fault of an economy that compels large groups of people to try and climb up a narrower and narrower ladder together until they have no choice but to push others off. And it’s the fault of a culture of smart kids that use blank sarcasm and savvy posturing to mask the grinding, joy-destroying anxiety in their hearts, inculcated there through decades of manic effort in the face of fears of being left behind, fears they were forced to live with since before they could read. They can be a cruel people but this is only a reflection of a cruelty done to them when they were defenseless.

Such a perfect trap, a contest that has so many ways to be a loser and so few to be a winner, and which leaves the winners so bereft of feeling in doing what it takes to win.

I am no defender of Gary Johnson. Libertarianism is a callous ideology that is diametrically opposed to some things that I hold most dearly. A presidential candidate should know where Aleppo is, and what Aleppo is. But in being roasted not for his ignorance but for his inability to hide that ignorance, Johnson pulled back the curtain, a little bit, to show the special kind of empty that can fill a whole culture of American exceptionalism, which like a balloon waits only for the smallest tear in its fabric to expel its ephemeral contents and show the world the nothing that lies within.