America has an odd way of making smart people stupid.
I went to a college full of people who were bright on paper. I was friends with people who were at the top of their classes, in classes chock full of smart people. Yet if you talked to these people about anything beyond their narrow field of expertise, they knew nothing. And not only did they know nothing, they had no desire to know more than nothing; even a subject of wide appeal like human nature wouldn’t get their interest. They were philistines in every area of human thought, except their own – and that too bored them. Political science majors would squint in confusion when you asked them about political philosophy, as if you had asked them how to refine uranium into fissile plutonium.
I came to college hoping to be engaged intellectually, among fellow students. I didn’t find that. People who did fancy themselves as intellectuals were awkward, weird, boring – and their conversations were about the nerdy trivia of Star Wars and video games. Screwing around with girls was far more mentally engaging – at least that drew laughs and satisfied my penis. Being curious didn’t get you any closer to an internship with Goldman Sachs or a spot at Johns Hopkins’ medical school, so it went ignored among the students.
In an intellectual sense, they were effeminate – they would only want to know something when society would reward them for it – which is the same reason why so few women opt for the thankless job of editing Wikipedia. There was no intellectual interest independent of professional gain. There was none of that masculine desire to know for knowing’s sake, like a medieval monk might have. At most, people would spout their personal feelings about something, ignore what everyone else said, and pat themselves on the back for ‘being so expressive.’
Among the intelligent in America, the chief object of study is learning to conform
You would try to figure out what other people were thinking, and parrot it accordingly. Thankfully, Orwellian campus newspapers made it easy to conform. It was hard to even find the words to dissent. When someone did dissent, you were sure to hear about it, in harsh scolding tones, with shock and anger. Personally, I had a teacher ‘correct’ me when I failed to include an ‘or she’ when I correctly used ‘he’ to refer to both sexes.
When you’d say something controversial, and it was logically convincing, they would fall silent. They knew what you were saying was taboo – but they couldn’t prove you wrong. Or they may have even sensed that you were right – but your position was so taboo they had to stay silent. They wouldn’t give your argument an honest look, lest they become convinced and believe something different from everyone else. Controversial beliefs were just a liability to a bright ambitious future as an up-and-coming mandarin. So it was imperative to walk around with a protective cage around the mind – thinking impure thoughts would only keep them from fitting in and having a successful career.
Maybe they were so unused to a clear framing of debate that everything you said confused them. And there were the philistines – principally girls – who’d say “how do you even know this?!” – to shame you for knowing something that they didn’t.
At best, people would come and tell you they agree with you in private – and then go right back to parroting the herd’s message. They could not even manage to stay silent, lest they raise doubt by withholding their agreement. It was like a communist party meeting where every vote ran 100% in favor of the party position, yet there was no Stalin or Mao there to send them off to a death camp if they abstained.
A few men retain their curiousity, but they go to comical lengths to cloak their dissent behind a studied pose of ignorance. Paul Graham, a celebrated Silicon Valley capitalist, wrote an essay about the taboos of our time, and how they make certain truths unutterable. Yet he could not bring himself to mention any of those very taboos. That which goes unsaid goes unquestioned. Men of power have refused their duty to live not by lies, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:
And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me.
This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exist only in a living organism…
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood-of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies-or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.
Occasionally I go to political events and see a similar pattern. On the right, among Republicans and conservatives, the only people making bold claims are crackpot audience members. The crackpots may have poor powers of reasoning – but at least they’re using them. Then there are the rich backers who bring in the speaker – they are too polite by half to discuss his ideas in earnest. They are all desperately waiting for a man to step up, and say what they are too cowardly to say themselves. Deep down, they know what must be said, but to a man, no one has the balls to say it.
You can see this dynamic on display in this clip, in which Allen West discusses the nature of Islam. Regardless of your position on Islam or Allen West, what’s happening is obvious – the crowd is waiting for a man to say what everyone in the room believes about Islam. The greying panelists hem and haw empty platitudes until Allen West takes the microphone, and speaks forcefully (skip to ~0:48):
The West is stuck in that very moment, in wait, for a man possessed of conviction to stride to the podium and defiantly state the unutterable truths of our day.
Read More: The Master And The Slave