Is the U.S. Hostile to Smart People?

An article from Japan Times, America is one of the few cultures with insults for smart people, by Ted Rall, went hugely viral. In the context of this blog, the viralness can be attributed to the shared narrative that society neglects and or is indifferent to smart people, which all smart people irrespective of their politics can relate to.

But it depends where one looks and the company you keep. If you go to Target, Walmart, or McDonald’s, yeah, the world is going to seem pretty dumb. Online, there are plenty of smart people if one steers clear from mainstream sources such as ESPN, Huffington Post, AOL, and TMZ, which are fueled by hype and sensationalism, and as you would expect, have a lot of average and below-average IQ users. The meteoric growth of the IDW (intellectual dark web) and popularity of public intellectuals such as Sean Caroll and Jordan Peterson, is evidence that there is a lot of appreciation for intellectuals. Jordan Peterson is so popular he can sell-out any venue, and his latest book 12 Rules for Life is a best-seller. Joe Rogan’s podcast, which often features scientists and other intellectuals as guests, is possibly the most popular podcast on the internet. An then there is the economics and social angle, of how smart people tend to earn more money, have greater wealth, and higher status (in spite of there purportedly being more insults for smart people, which is false).

The article itself is evidence that viralness is by no means an endorsement of its quality.

This linguistic truism came to mind recently when, as part of research for one of my cartoons, I turned to Google Translate in search of a French translation for the English word “geek.” There wasn’t one. Nor in Spanish. All the Romance languages came up short; Google suggested “disadattato” in Italian, but that’s different — it means “misfit,” or “a person who is poorly adapted to a situation or environment.”

No kidding. Etymologically, ‘geek’ is a uniquely American word that only as recently as 1983 entered the lexicon of American slang to describe someone who is socially maladroit. But the failure of Google to find a foreign equivalent for ‘geek’ is possibly due to the limitations of the translation software, not the absence of such an equivalence.

A “geek” — “a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked,” according to Merriam-Webster — is decidedly distinct from a misfit.

Except there is a second definition that the author intentionally omits, which is the one more commonly used today and is not considered pejorative: “an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity [computer geek].”

You can tell a lot about a culture from its language. I had stumbled across a revealing peculiarity about American English: We insult people for being intelligent.

Um…but we [as Americans] insult people for everything else, too: being tall, dumb, fat, skinny, poor, rich, short, etc. There are insults for every possible type of person that deviates from some unobtainable idealization of ‘normal’, not so much that intelligent people are being intentionally singled out.

At least among Western cultures and compared to many others, we Americans enjoy the dubious distinction of having a high degree of linguistic diversity when it comes to mocking the smart and the educated (who, I can attest as the expellee-cum-graduate of an Ivy League school, are not always the same).

Bookworm. Brain. Brainiac. Dork. Dweeb. Egghead. Freak. Grind. Grub. Longhair. Nerd. Poindexter. Pointy-headed. Smarty-pants. Techie.

Most of these would barely qualify as being insulting and are seldom, if ever, used pejoratively. According to the dictionary definition, someone who is a ‘dork’ is not the same as being smart; all it means is a socially inept person. Same for dweeb. Longhair, grind, and grub…I have never seen those used as a descriptor of intellect. It’s as if the author went to great lengths to dig up every possible synonym, not matter how infrequently it is used, and disregarding its contemporary usage. ‘Pointy-headed’ and ‘smarty-pants’ are hyphenated words and shouldn’t count, and are hardly offensive anyway. Techie, nerd, bookworm, and egghead could be considered more flattering than insulting.

Also there are plenty of ‘insults’ for athletic people too, such as ‘jock’ and ‘meathead’.

On the other hand, languages like French are extremely rich in insults for stupid people: “bete comme ses pieds,” or “dumb as hell,” literally means “as stupid as his/her feet.” Apparently this derives from the fact that feet are the body part furthest away from your brain. More zoologically, “blaireau” (badger) refers to an idiot.

Yeah except every culture is like that, not just the French. What about American idioms such as “not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” or “not playing with a full deck of cards,” or “light is on but no one is home,” and many more as evidence the dumb are not immune as the author erroneously believes.

The United States, on the other hand, elected Donald “Celebrity Apprentice” Trump over Hillary “I Have a 12-Point Plan” Clinton.

George W. Bush over Al Gore.

Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson. Twice.

Again the author cherry picks examples to suit is underlying ideological bias/agenda. There are plenty of counterexamples:

Obama, who won by large margins in 2008 and 2012, was generally portrayed by the media as being ‘smarter’ than McCain and Romney, and he made no effort to downplay the aggrandizement of his intelligence.

Carter was smarter than Ford, but beat him.

George Bush, who was by many objective measures smarter than Michael Dukakis, won by a landslide in 1988.

Nixon, who is considered one of the smartest politicians in U.S history, beat his less intelligent rivals Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.

Admittedly, Nixon downplayed his intelligence, but he was still the smarter candidate.

Despite the rise of Silicon Valley and its technoelites, the Revenge of the Nerds in the South Bay has managed to line stock portfolios without moving the needle on America’s cultural values. Jocks still rule high schools that spend millions on new football stadiums while starving the arts.

Yeah, because that’s where the money is. A competitive athletics program brings prestige, and the revenue helps fund less popular stuff such as robotics clubs, especially also from alumni donations. In an ideal world, sports would not play such an important role in academia, but sports are extremely popular and profitable, and many students like to play them. There are exceptions to this, such as New York’s network of specialized high schools, MIT, Caltech, Harvey Mudd, etc., but these schools are highly selective.

And there’s the Department of Defense, which is effectively a giant federally-funded employment program for smart people to the tune of $170 billion/year. And also the CIA, NSA, FBI, DHS, which employ thousands of smart people and receive billions of dollars a year in funding.

Not to mention $40+ billion dollars a year for federal science grants:

Social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid effectively subsidize biotech research by allowing biotech companies to develop expensive treatments, the costs of which are subsidized by these social programs for consumer use.

That makes collegiate athletic programs seem quaint by comparison.

The author ignores the post-2008 rise of ‘nerd culture’; for example, successful shows such as The Big bang Theory that appropriate nerd culture, and the popularity of which is evidence of mainstream appreciation for nerd culture. Or the record attendance of comic conventions. Or as mentioned earlier in the article, the rise of IDW and and sudden and immense popularity of public intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Online, ‘nerds’ such as Elon Musk , Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg are revered and admired for their intellect, competence, and the the creations they bring to the world, not for being people-pleasers.

From Postmodern geekdom as simulated ethnicity:

Geek culture dominates popular media. Comic-book films like Iron Man, The Dark Knight (both 2008) and The Avengers (2012) are among Hollywood’s highest-grossing blockbusters, while geek/slacker comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up (both 2007) are runaway R-rated comedy hits. The San Diego Comic-Con, once merely the largest annual meeting of a fairly obscure comic-collecting subculture, has become a major pop cultural event where A-list actors and directors make lengthy appearances to communicate with fans in an effort to generate buzz for their films and television programs. Best Buy, a dominant technology retailer, offers to send a Geek Squad to your house to help you with technology installation without having to wonder if anyone finds a squad of geeks unsettling. Books like Geek Chic: The Ultimate Guide to Geek Culture and How to Date a Geek have begun to journalistically analyze and capitalize on the phenomenon.

And from the post INTP people rule the world:

The irony is that people who are the most reticent, introverted are the most sought after, the highest paid – in effect becoming today’s new ‘rock stars‘. Competence, again and again, overrides people skills and extraversion. Warren Buffet, for example, projects the public image of a fuddy-duddy, yet everyone can’t get enough of him, and his shareholder meetings are like ‘Woodstock’ as thousands of his ‘fans’ from all over the world descend to Omaha for his wisdom, and the media choruses sing his praise. Elon Musk’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ was perhaps the most popular in the history of Reddit, getting over 11,000 laudatory comments. Like Buffet, Musk lives in his head, not among the crowds, but the crowds online keeps flocking to him because he’s so brilliant.

There’s a funny YouTube video of Bill Gates being grilled by a reporter regarding Microsoft’s taxes, who is clearly intellectually outmatched, and in the comments people overwhelmingly support Bill Gates:

That goes against the author’s thesis that Americans disdain smart people.