Friday, May 2, 2014

By the Waters of Babylon 5, We Lay Down and Wept

A friend of mine posted this quotation from Babylon 5 on Facebook today:

"... intelligence has nothing to do with politics."

Since I don't watch TV, I don't know the original context for this line, so it might be less offensive there.  As it stands, though, it annoys me.  My first reaction was to comment, "It had damn well better start, then."

Noam Chomsky has often said, and I agree, that politics isn't rocket science: unlike physics or some other sciences, it doesn't require highly specialized thinking to talk or think about sensibly.  He says this because governing elites often try to dismiss criticism by giving the impression that their critics lack the rarefied knowledge necessary to understand why it's necessary to kill dusky foreigners or immiserate the poor while enriching the rich even more.  He also says it because many of his fans think his political opinions and writings come from the same kind of intelligence involved in his linguistics work, which he has always (rightly) denied, because ironically enough, his fans are trying to put him on a pedestal to let themselves off the moral and political hook: in order to criticize the government you have to be able to 'deconstruct' the lies our rulers tell, or some such, and only Chomsky is smart enough to do that.  Chomsky insists that ordinary people are perfectly capable of learning what they need to know about government policy and action, and make judgments about it.  So if this line was meant to imply that you don't need to be Einstein to speak up or act in the political arena, fine.

My friend just told me that the line meant something very different in the context of the program, but taken out of context and posted on Facebook it will probably be read differently by other people besides me.  (From his description, it sounds like it may have been an allusion to Mae West's quip, "Goodness had nothing to do with it!")  Standing by itself, it sounds like a popular cynicism that turns up all over the political spectrum, about politics as a dirty business, politicians as stupid and corrupt -- as if they were a separate and inferior breed of subhuman, like menial workers whom the respectable classes can safely despise.  Aside from the fact that the politicians were probably voted into office by those same cynics, their attitude easily flips over to eager naivete and a gushing cult of personality when a fresh, articulate young candidate comes along, promising a new frontier, hope and change.  This one, his devotees believe, will be different from all the others, and they don't take kindly to having their noses rubbed in reality.

I admit, it does seem that a career in politics, especially, depresses intelligence.  I've written before about the way that Barack Obama seems to have become progressively stupider the longer he's in national politics, from his prose style (which became noticeably slacker and more vacuous just between Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope) to his grasp of history and the Constitution.  But that suggests that structural factors are at work, as they are in poverty for example.  Poor people aren't poor because of their nature, but because of the structure of the society in which they live; career politicians, I submit, aren't stupid because they're just naturally dumb, but because of the systems they inhabit on the job.  That means we need to figure out what in the system produces the dumbing-down, and try to change it.  Sure, that will take intelligence, but an intelligence that as far as I can see is in everybody's reach.