I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Obama’s obvious smarts are a bug, not a feature in the U.S. This newspaper column gets it right, in appropriate plain-guy prose:
The charge of elitism isn’t about people flaunting income; it’s about people flaunting IQ. Americans, as a rule, don’t resent people who have more money than them — particularly if the wealth is seen as earned. Envy, maybe, but not resent. You don’t resent people whom you hope to emulate. And most Americans dream easily about having much more dough than they do.
What Americans more readily resent is someone who is smarter than them, who knows it, who shows it, and who seems to think being smart makes you better than everyone else.
A gap in income, you can always dream of closing. A gap in IQ, not so much. It’s more personal, thus easier to resent.
Plenty of Europeans would have no problem with the assertion that “being smart makes you better than everyone else” (as long as you didn’t imply smart people should have more rights or more money). And — mirabile dictu — it wouldn’t just be the smart ones agreeing. Not so stateside. As horrid but occasionally right reactionary John Derbyshire puts it: “The ignorant condescension of the overclass was exactly what was causing Barack Obama so much trouble back in May — not a mistake he will repeat, I think. He doesn’t seem the type to repeat mistakes. There you have one of the advantages of a high I.Q.: You learn fast.”
Derbyshire notes America’s increasing stratification by intelligence, and muses: “Our cognitive elites are not lovable. Every so often their arrogance and condescension will come breaking through the surface. It’s a pity there isn’t some way to forcibly mix them with their fellow citizens at some point in their cosseted young adulthood, so that they might at least have a shot at learning how to talk across the I.Q. gap; but in a free society, there is no way to do that.”
And here we come to one of the most interesting differences between the U.S. and continental Europe: In Europe, smart people do “mix” with less intelligent people regularly. In the streetcar, during mandatory military service or civil-service jobs (where you might get detailed to a nursing home or teen center), in your thriving urban neighborhood, at festivals and circuses, during “public-viewings,” and even at universities, which are much less stratified than in the U.S., and where there is no standardized admissions test. You can wall yourself off in Europe, of course, but you simply can’t do it as completely as in a country in which so many people live in their own houses, drive their own cars, and spend lots of their free time with relatives or chosen companions in front of a computer console or TV screen.
Europeans live much more public, social lives than most Americans, and public resources such as day-care spots and transport tends to be shared among lots of very different people. Of course, this doesn’t mean that rich and poor, smart and not-so-smart end up joining hands and singing Kumbayah. But it means that smart people will routinely have some contact with people of more modest cognitive gifts. Everyone’s life will be much easier if the smart people can figure out how to talk to others and perhaps find some common ground. People who can do this well (i.e., easily converse with people from different social backgrounds in a way that puts them at their ease) are called sympathisch in German, And no, in case you’re wondering, I’m not considered particularly sympathisch, a fate I share with quite a few Americans. (But I’m working on it!).
Finally, and this never ceases to amaze me, Europeans tend to remain loyal to their childhood friends, even when their abilities differ and their paths in life later diverge radically. Naturally, they won’t meet these friends very often, and the encounters may become increasingly superficial, but they still take place. One of the functions of European conversational codes is, I’m convinced, to make these meetings between unequals possible without too much friction and resentment. Ergo, talking about yourself too much is frowned upon, lest your achievements, your income, or your eloquence make less fortunate conversation participants uncomfortable. To quote Greg Nees yet again:
The American penchant for personalizing the discussion is looked upon by Germans with both distaste and envy. On the one hand, they find it quite amazing that Americans can talk about themselves so much, so openly, and so naturally and may find themselves wishing they could do the same. On the other hand, they often view this focus on the self as unfounded bragging.
We seem to have ended up rather far from where we began, and possibly making a contradictory point, but the day-job calls, so I’ll have to leave it there.
P.S. Hold on, what if smart people actually are better than everyone else? (pdf)
[There is a] possibility that a third variable caused both better [moral] reasoning and better [moral] behavior: intelligence. Blasi found that IQ was consistently related to honesty, and he concluded that future investigators must do a better job of controlling for IQ. Kohlberg (1969) reported that scores on his moral judgment interviews correlated with measures of IQ in the .30 to .50 range. Rest (1979) reports correlations of .20…
Th[e] theory [that intelligence leads to better self-control, which leads to more ‘moral’ behavior] was proposed in part to explain the astonishing finding that the number of seconds pre-schoolers were able to delay choosing an immediate small reward (one marshmallow) in favor of a later, bigger reward (two marshmallows) was a powerful predictor of adolescent social and cognitive competence, including SAT scores and ability to exert self control in frustrating situations, measured about 13 years later (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).