Oh, Shit! — or — Why Things Are Always So Fucked Up

I’ve thought for many years about why “otherwise intelligent” people can believe or say certain things that are demonstrably false. I mean, there are people who can look and sound as smart as anyone you know, but who don’t “get” certain things. Who WON’T get certain things.

For instance, you can know someone who is a fantastic organizer or salesman, someone who can get rich in running a business, handing every detail easily, but who can’t accept global warming, or evolution … even when you explain it.

This popped into my head this morning:

(And though I mention President Obama as an immediate example of the thing, my larger point is NOT specifically about him, or about the upcoming election.)

“Clever” is using your brain as a spotlight on your own life. It’s the ability to be smart, even incredibly smart, but selfishly smart.

“Intelligent” is using your brain as a floodlight, to examine and operate in a space larger than your own life and concerns.

Clever people can make facile arguments about why global warming is a hoax, or why Barack Obama is a socialist and Muslim, or is equally corrupt as Bush, or Romney. They can find ways to profit from immediate situations, even from fooling and using their fellow men. But they aren’t even interested in seeing outside their self-involved spotlight (even when they might benefit by it).

Intelligent people work to see beyond the facile arguments and the selfish concerns. “I want to see what’s really there, the way things really work. I want to understand the longer view and the bigger picture, even if it costs me, even if it turns up something bad, even if it puts me and my fellow humans in a negative light.”

We’ve all known the “clever” salesman, the “clever” businessman or politician. The world is full of them – people who can turn a profit or become successful in the world, those who are very good at taking care of themselves and their immediate families. The U.S. news media, U.S. politics and business, are run by clever men.

Our own individual lives are impacted daily by clever people. If you make any argument of fact or opinion, there will be an instant contrary response. Not because the person making that response has intelligently thought about what you’ve said, but because they want to jump in – cleverly – and garner points by showing how you have to be wrong (and they right) in this one instant.

Cleverness can easily succeed in the short run. Clever arguments, clever policies, are easier to spread and understand. (And what is easier to say than the opposite of what has just been said?)

Intelligence can win – may not, but can – in the long run. Arguments about the equality of women, or doing away with slavery, were sound arguments, intelligent arguments. But they still took generations to win. Because the clever arguments were easier to speak and accept in the moment.

Clever men – even those who might otherwise be supporters of rescuing and repairing the U.S. – see the faults of Barack Obama, and highlight those over his strengths and accomplishments, and even our own larger goals and longer-term success.

What we lack in the world is a ready supply of “intelligent” fellow men and women. People who are willing to consider things at length, people who can see beyond immediate benefits and profits. Those who can put themselves in the background, at least temporarily, as they study each new idea or proposal or situation.

These are those too-rare humans who think about larger issues such as our own place in a society run by clever people, our future in a nation run by clever politicians, our fate in a world being consumed by the clever men.

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