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the anti-genius game

Nobody likes genius, the idea, anymore. I have read more criticisms of the basic idea of genius more times than I can count, in long form and in short. Here’s one, and here’s one, and here’s one. Agnes Callard attacks the concept of genius by saying it’s bad for the geniuses and the people around them. (Coming out against genius is one of those things where the people who make the argument all act as though they are a lone voice crying out in the wilderness when a Google search should quickly disabuse them of that notion.) Certainly anyone still arguing that genius exists is at risk of the accusation that they only believe in genius because they secretly believe they are one.

Here is what I would like people to consider.

I hope everyone would agree that some people are very, very good at things. Some people are in fact so good at things that it amazes us, to the point that the way that they became so good at something takes on a kind of mystical quality, or at least an inscrutable one. If you’re like me, you sometimes feel almost shamed by how good some people are at some things, given your paucity of any special intelligence or skill. And it might be basketball or it might be math or it might be poker.

Now what are the possibilities here? One possibility is that these incredible talents seem preternatural because they are, because they emerge from shadowy origins and bestow themselves onto the few through processes we can’t describe or control. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is the one that Malcolm Gladwell and, well, the entirety of our culture want you to believe: that it’s all just hard work. People who seem incredibly talented simply worked hard and had perseverance. And specifically they worked harder and had more perseverance than you. If individual talent is a hoax and that all that is required to excel is the expression of will, that may be a more just world in some useless Platonic sense, and a world of more open possibility. But God, it is also a bleak world, one where all of us ordinary people are not just punished through our lack of access to supreme talent, but where we deserve it, where we not only fail to accrue the tangible benefits and psychic rewards of genius, we are presumptuous to ask for them thanks to our failures of will. Is this better?

Well, there’s no need to be consequentialist: I think some people are just good at things for reasons we can’t comprehend, that they have won a cosmic lottery and enjoy the fruits. I don’t think we live in a tidy moral universe where cause follows effect so simply or with such moral convenience. The people I’m critiquing would no doubt agree that our lives are everywhere buffeted by chance, but they can’t take that last crucial step. They can’t see that we get lucky and unlucky literally as we are being made.

This is at the core of everything, certainly a central idea of my book, and it’s why some people, such as Nathan Robinson, react so violently against it: they are unable to countenance the idea that we are not in control of our own lives, most certainly including our own selves. The idea of genius intrudes on a culture that insists again and again and again that our life outcomes are purely a function of our will, an idea beloved by right and left alike, and says: no. No, you do not control your destiny, and being lucky is as arbitrary and fickle as being unlucky. You never had a chance. Almost none of us did.

It’s a harsh world to believe in. But, you know. Life’s not fair.

I am not afraid of Jordan Peterson

It seems that there has been a revolt at Penguin Press over the publication of a new book by Jordan Peterson. Staff members apparently cried. This is, I think, indicative of some really deep problems in how progressives approach politics.

The first thing that I think when I hear about people freaking out about publishing a new Jordan Peterson book is, why allow that guy – that guy – to disturb you in this way? The man is a grifter; he is one of the most shameless and obvious con men in the conservative sphere today, and that’s really saying something. I am not afraid of Jordan Peterson or his army of losers following his collection of deepities. I am especially not scared of him because Peterson wants to be feared. It is his brand to inspire fear in the hearts of progressives. So why give that to him? I fear Donald Trump because Trump marries destructive thinking to immense material power. I fear Mitch McConnel because he is the apotheosis of a certain vision of obstructionist resistance to the healthy functioning of government. I don’t fear Jordan Peterson, and I ask: what is the strategic political purpose of treating Peterson as dangerous in exactly the way that he wants you to?

Now of course the immediate and inevitable response is : you don’t fear him because you are a white man and are secure in the protections of your privilege. If you were black or a woman or trans you would have reason to fear him. Well, of course members of these marginalized groups have special vulnerabilities and reasons for concern, and all decent people have a duty to protect them. But my question is, why is this always the strategy? Why is the reflexive practice of progressives always to emphasize the weakness and vulnerability of marginalized groups, rather than their strength? It’s a nearly universal practice and I have never seen a single compelling argument for why always highlighting vulnerability rather than strength is the way to go. What is the strategic political purpose of treating members of marginalized groups as existentially vulnerable?

When I was growing up the tactic was always to emphasize the strength of marginalized groups. Now, to assert that strength is seen as a betrayal of the progressive cause, as if acknowledging strength is somehow to undermine the cause for equality and justice. In the case of Jordan Peterson vs the marginalized peoples of the world, I cannot fathom the argument that asserting his utter dominance over them is somehow going to work out in their favor.

Someone once wrote that the basic strategy of progressives, in the 21st century, is to work the refs – that is, to make an appeal to authority about the fundamental fairness or unfairness of a given situation and expect authority to correct the problem. You can see this clearly in the constant focus on identifying inequalities or disparities. Progressives endlessly point out how things are unequal along racial or gender lines, usually correctly. But they often have nowhere to go after that; they seem to think that just identifying disparity is somehow a way to change it. They work the refs; they appeal to some nameless authority who, they seem to believe, will establish justice just for having been asked.

The progressive takeover of (ostensibly) neutral institutions is bound up with this broad strategy. The undeniable evolution of the New York Times from an officially politically neutral institution to one that is frankly and unapologetically a progressive advocacy organization clearly reflects this manner of thinking. The Times is precisely the kind of organization a naïve liberal might see as an authority that should be appealed to for justice. And so too with Penguin employees seeing their employer as the kind of benevolent authority that might fight their battles for them. So much of what left-leaning people ask for today is, at heart, a nurturing mother who might congeal out of the morning dew and take their problems away from them.

There are two problems and two questions that we might identify. The first is the clear sense in which this serves Peterson’s interests. Peterson has made his money by presenting himself as a dangerous thinker, to the kinds of people who are not moved by the disapproval of the media, the publishing industry, or the people who make them up. It seems very likely to me that this mini-controversy is precisely the sort of thing that Peterson has dined out on for years. Somebody’s going to buy this book because “it’s the book liberals don’t want you to see!” Someone is going to publish this book; maybe ignoring it will be more damaging to its sales than attacking it? I see absolutely no awareness among contemporary progressives that they live in an oppositional system where their resistance to specific members of the opposition strengthens their hand. Indeed a key part of the conservative grift is precisely the ability to attract the enmity of progressives.

The second problem is this: what if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to. The alternative might be boring and, I’m afraid, quite old school: you make the case for a vision of politics and of life that is antithetical to Jordan Peterson’s vision, and you make it so well that more people agree with you than with Peterson. I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble. But what’s the alternative? Investing all of your political hopes in the likes of Penguin Press? That does not seem like a formula for an effective long term political strategy to me. There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.

Sometimes when you tell the universe, “this isn’t fair,” the universe opens wide and says, “so what?”

the only way to save reading is by reading

I do not have any rigorously-assembled and current statistics about what percentage of people read or how much and how often they do. I know I’ve read, sometime in the past, that the median American reads one book a year, which means that a huge portion read none. And of course this is their right.

To me the crisis of books is not that reading them has become a minority activity; to me, reading has always been a lonely activity. I know book stores stay open, although they are suffering terribly under Covid, and I know millions of people read. But tales of the decline of reading never strike me as surprising. I was a very bookish child and while my bookishness never kept me from being popular, books were looked at not with hostility but slightly askance, as an quirky hobby if not an outlandish one. Reading has just always been weird, and so when stories of reading’s decline bubble up I just always think, “yeah, of course.”

What gets me more is the sort of thing symbolized by the image above, I guess. It’s the erosion of reading itself due to the extravagances of “reading culture.” Here the image has eaten the act; the desire to be seen as someone who does something has come entirely unglued from doing the thing. There is a service called Blinkist that sells, quite explicitly, the ability to effectively lie that you’ve read a nonfiction book. That’s not my gloss on things, that’s their whole marketing pitch. This sort of thing would just be another brick in the wall of a world full of posers if not for the fact that there should be no such thing as reader culture. Liking to read is not the same as liking Star Wars or artisanal coffee. There are as many reading cultures as there are readers – indeed, as many reading cultures as there are books. Reading is the act of reading, and reading itself is affectively inert. What people want is for reading to become just another set of clumsy associations, something to be expressible with a few nice gifs on Tumblr.

I think of poor David Foster Wallace. The way that this author, now dead by suicide for over a decade, has become a stand-in for every kind of literary pretension there is – and, much more, for a certain kind of person, largely imagined. All human culture is becoming, with time, a set of markers for which groups we are a part of and, especially especially, which groups we are not. The only thing that matters anymore is association; we either are not the “litbro” at a party talking about Infinite Jest – a situation that I believe has literally never happened – or we are, and so we must dissolve our commitments and beliefs and experiences as readers down to glaring signals that we are the Right Kind of Person, and certainly not one of THOSE. This is human culture now: the white-knuckled avoidance of being seen as an archetype that has been written about in some shitty “culture” website.

Of course, the vast majority of times that David Foster Wallace is now invoked as a trope, no one involved has read him; people will tweet, using DFW as a convenient symbol for the kind of person they don’t want to be, and hundreds of people will like the tweet, and not one of them will have read Infinite Jest. I don’t like Infinite Jest and I don’t like David Foster Wallace (the brand) or David Foster Wallace (the actual writer) and I know this because I fucking read it. The lit bro does not exist and has never existed. People don’t read; they don’t read 1000 page long experimental novels; and they really don’t if they’re bros. Only the signaling remains.

What do we do, those of us who are opposed to the occupation of reader becoming just another bit of culture war bric a brac that orients someone among their social and cultural peers/competitors? That tide cannot be opposed. The manic competition among the overeducated coastal striving classes, the great post-collegiate game of being a better class of person than all those ridiculed archetypes out there, can’t be stopped. The people who write our culture are far too consumed by that need to show each other how cool and insouciant and fuckable they are. They’ll never give it up.

Here I advocate the Eremitic option. Just read. Read alone. Read as a cure for loneliness and read as a way to generate it. Read and any stray desire to make reading a part of your personal brand will become trivial in comparison to the reading. It’s lonely work, and contra Alan Jacobs and Austin Kleon, sometimes it is meant to be work. But it’s also, of course, one of the most basic pleasures that exists, and while our electronics may be rewiring our species to pursue only the most immediate rewards, for now the pleasure’s still there. Make of it what you can while you can.

good Cult of Smart interview

I’ve done more podcasts than I can count at this point and won’t try to round them all up. But I did want to call your attention to this interview in Business Insider, which I think is a good primer on the general themes and ideas in the book, as well as a vehicle for me to clear up my own thinking on an issue or two.

I am also briefly quoted in this Boston Globe piece that reflects many of the broad themes of my book.

Edit: Link fixed.

Edit Two: And here’s a good conversation I had with the EconoTalk podcast.

the wastes

I have recently read a book about depression by the boss. It was transporting. You should read it.

Depression was the first way my brain chemistry got in touch with me. When I was 18, 19, I first got acquainted with it. I had crushing depression, grinding depression when I was a young man. But my family had just disintegrated at that point and I did not have a vocabulary for what I was feeling. I didn’t feel like depression. It just felt like mourning.

I had moved into my own apartment and found myself frequently curled up in the center of the carpet, tensing my muscles on and off. I had a little red car and would drive for hours at night, I mean hundreds and hundreds of miles. The idea was to stave off being alone with my thoughts, and usually the road and the radio helped. I found with depression that there was a kind of perpetual disbelief, one that I think made its way into my interactions with other people and made me seem weird, or weirder – what is this thing, inside of me? And I think I looked to other people for answers even as I said nothing coherent about having depression at all. I would hang out with people to avoid the depression and tell them nothing about my struggles and would leave disappointed that no one had diagnosed me even as I never really interrogated what was going on inside of me myself.

People are really down about the brain chemistry explanation of mental illness, and perhaps with good reason. I do see where they’re coming from. There isn’t too much evidence to support the serotonergic theory of depression. But I would not personally be onboard with those who reject any physical or biochemical visions or whatever of depression. Because depression is a feeling. It is profoundly physical. It expresses itself with your whole body. Just like mania.

Speaking of which, that was the turn – not in my condition, not for a long time, but in my mindset. I ended up in the hospital in 2002 and they asked me questions that I could not wriggle out of. Did I experience feelings of worthlessness and guilt? Yes. Did I experience feelings of extreme fatigue? Yes. Did I sleep too much? I did. Had I experienced a loss of interest in things that used to interest me? I had. And so it came to pass that conversations I would never have initiated in a million years had been initiated by my emergency, and that was the beginning of my first brief period of being medicated for depression. The depression had seemed like a sideshow at the time, as it was not the depression that had gotten me there in the first place. But one way or the other I was on my first round of SSRIS. That lasted maybe three months, and then I was in the wind again, untreated and seesawing back and forth again. You’re probably bored of this story.

And then, somehow, the depression began to get better. Sometime in my late twenties and early thirties things got easier. I had never noticed the cyclicality of my moods before I was diagnosed, but afterwards, with the frequency of my manic periods, it was had to miss. But as I grew older, wandering in and out of treatment, I found the depressions came less intensely if not less frequently. I tend to find that people assume that those of us with bipolar have more intuitive tracking of our mood cycles than we do. The whole problem is that you can’t tell what’s your mind and what’s your brain, right? But I found myself expecting to pass into deep depressions that didn’t come. And the best I can make out, I just aged out of it.

Don’t misunderstand me: I still get depressed. I still have depressive cycles. And I am on two antidepressants right now. But I don’t lie in the center of room in the fetal position anymore. I don’t live with that kind of fear, fear of coming into contact once again with the basic question of whether it was worth carrying on. For that I’m incredibly grateful.

But I do miss the clarity of depression. As vulgar as it is to say that I miss any of it, I do. Maybe others who suffer would get offended by that, I don’t know. But there’s something clarifying about depression, something singular. It focuses the mind to an impossible extent – focuses it, that is, on the darkest and the deepest hole in the human condition.

immigration rhetoric and the Cult of Smart

If you doubt my contention that the Cult of Smart exists, consider immigration. Immigration discussions are where the Cult of Smart is often most direct and explicit, as supporters typically defend immigration as a way to get more smart and talented people into our country. This pro-immigration rhetoric is well-meaning, and as I am a Marxist I am necessarily an internationalist and believe everyone who wants to come should come. 1 But it’s a bad argument that hurts more than it helps.

Take this piece from August from Alfred Chuang, who himself immigrated to the United States on an H1-B visa. He lays the case out starkly:

Many notable founders and executives in Silicon Valley followed a similar path as me. This includes Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and others who worked in the United States as part of the H1-B visa program. If these restrictions existed at the time, we could have been living in a world where many of these companies either would not exist, would not have been founded in America, or in the case of Zoom and Microsoft, would have lacked the leadership of these great CEOs…. America needs to embrace the role of visas in bringing brilliant people to our country…. We must support the visa programs and strive to keep all of the incredibly talented individuals here.

OK. But what about all the non-brilliant people? The thing about “incredibly talented” people are that they are by definition low in number. What about the average Joe or Jane? Forget for a moment about the smokescreen of people with criminal records, which is typically a talking point to derail the broader argument. Why should the American people welcome only those who have the skills, mindset, and motivation to become tech company CEOs? Unlike many progressive people, I don’t think everyone has that potential. But I do think that all people have human potential, the ability to flourish as kind, deserving, fulfilled people. To think of a person’s potential as being synonymous with their intellectual prowess – and intellectual prowess being defined in the incredibly limited sense as prescribed by neoliberal capitalism – is, well, it’s the Cult of Smart. It’s a blinkered and myopic perspective on human flourishing.

As long as we flog the argument that we’re increasing immigration specifically to get more techies into Silicon Valley, or more smarties generally, we’re hamstringing ourselves when we fight for mass immigration. (And will forever favor the interests of the already-affluent among potential immigrants.) The masses cannot be exceptional, by definition. What they are is human, and our argument should be that this is enough – that it’s enough for someone to want to come and try and flourish here. Let them in.

Incidentally: when tech companies cry out for more visas for highly-skilled workers, they claim it’s because of a dearth of good candidates here. It’s far more likely that they’re simply trying to import more workers to drive down the cost of wages, which they’d prefer not to pay. After all, they already engaged in an illegal conspiracy to do so.