Brainpower


I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

— John F. Kennedy, White House Dinner for Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere


Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t do well in today’s political arena. With a high-pitched voice and a lisp (probably one of the reasons he disliked public speaking) he wasn’t the firebrand modern politicians try to be. He was an intellectual.

He used that intellect for the good of a new nation. In 1776 we needed a declaration of why we would fight to be independent, a statement so clear, so honest, so immensely powerful, that it would ring louder than the liberty bell in hearts and minds, not just around the world, but through the ages. Delegates to the continental congress argued just about every issue you can imagine, with Jefferson and Adams nearly at each other’s throats, but on one point there was no argument: the man to write our declaration of independence was Thomas Jefferson.

He had brainpower.

And he wasn’t alone. Jefferson was a fine scientist, but Benjamin Franklin was such a scientific giant that despite having little formal education and never attending college as a student, he was properly addressed as “Dr. Franklin” with honorary degrees from the College of William and Mary, the University of St. Andrews, and Oxford University. With the public lending library, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, and a public health system that set the standard not just for the new world but for the whole world, his genius as inventor and organizer was the envy of civilized countries everywhere.

George Washington’s understanding of political theory was an important element in designing a republic which enshrines freedom while holding the abuse of power in check, and his recognition and promotion of moderation are a model for us all. He also showed not just courage and fortitude, but true genius in the art of leadership. John Adams’ sholarship was as obvious as the brilliance of his cousin Sam, as James Madison’s genius, as the brainpower of Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, the Randolphs, the Lees, and so many more.

There is no doubt, the founders of these United States of America had brainpower. That they used it, is one of the reasons we remain a nation dedicated to freedom and to justice. It helped legitimize our very nationhood; when European society was apt to look on anything non-European as brutal and primitive, a country born of so much genius could not be dismissed as “backward.”

But today we can. When Sarah Palin is nominated for the Vice Presidency, when Dan Quayle actually holds that office, when Donald Trump leads the field for the Repulican presidential nomination bragging about how smart he is while his speeches sound like a ninth-grade book report by a student who didn’t read the book, when Ted Cruz climbs in the polls while his idea of an intellectual exercise is “machine-gun bacon” as an appetizer for denying science itself, we can no longer claim pre-eminence in the brainpower department. To the rest of the world, it must seem that we’re truly “bush league.”

What happened to the Republican party? I remember the days when the spokesman for conservative ideas was William F. Buckley — I disagreed with him, but if I faced him in a debate I would do so with trepidation. And a healthy respect for his brainpower. Now the face of conservatism is Rush Limbaugh. I remember president Nixon, far from honest but damn smart. I remember Henry Kissinger, by many accounts a total ass, but a brilliant total ass.

I don’t want a mediocre intellect holding the highest office. I want an intellectual. Not a pansy-ass pseudo-intellectual. I want the real thing. Someone who knows the issues, the ins and outs, the details. Someone with enough working brain cells to stand toe to toe with intellectual giants around the world. Someone who has power in the brain, who isn’t afraid to use it and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for it. I want the best, and that includes being the smartest. I want Washington, Adams, Lincoln. I want Jefferson.

That’s what the democrats offer. Whatever else you think of Hillary Clinton, if you deny she’s an intellectual giant you’re either lying to me or lying to yourself. Same for Bernie Sanders. But the republican offerings range from the mediocrity of Bush and Rubio, to the disjointed nonsense claptrap of Trump and Carson, to the outright idiocy of Ted Cruz.

Let’s not allow republican spin doctors to paint brainpower as a flaw. Let’s show it for what it really is: the power to get things done, and the power to know what to do.

57 responses to “Brainpower

  1. Mort Sahl used to say, back i the 1970s: Look at the Revolution – 3 million people in the country, and you had Franklin, Jefferson, etc.; now the two top guys are Nixon and McGovern. What can you conclude? Darwin was wrong!

  2. Candidates are a mirror of the public.

    You only need to visit Disney’s Epcot, which I recently have (and for the 29th time over many years), to track the steady decline of learning in American society. It used to be that people *liked* to learn while on holiday, and the exhibits at FutureWorld and World Showcase reflected that. Then the kids didn’t want to do it. Even so, sometimes the parents made them. Then the parents thought the kids ought to have a break from it, since they did it 9-10 months of the year. Now, no one is interested in doing it, preferring to judge things with “gut feel”.

    So, I agree with your assessments of the Republican candidates versus the Democratic ones, having a preference for Sanders. But I don’t know about that public.

    (Jefferson)

    “[P]reach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people.”

    “[I]f a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.”

  3. I deny Hillary Clinton is an intellectual giant. As a mark of sanity.

  4. F’ing Reagan.

  5. Susan Anderson

    I do wish you all paid attention to people over time. While I’d agree that “intellectual giant” is a bridge too far, I do think Hillary Clinton has a lifetime record that speaks well for her. She does a bit more going along to get along than I like to see, but on the whole she has done a lot of good in the world. I like Bernie’s influence on her, forcing her to be a bit more of a Democrat, and I don’t care for her hawkishness or her holdings in big fossil, if she still has ’em (which I assume is the case). She puts up with a lot of nonsense and keeps her cool, which is remarkable. I like to see that in a potential head of state. She laughs a lot, and that’s good too.

    She refuses to take the bait, unlike most of us, and that’s a good sign too.

    By the way, one of the reasons I love Bernie is I’ve followed him for a long time too, and he does great work. But that doesn’t blind me to Hillary’s merits.

  6. Does anyone else think the majority of the republican presidential candidates are like the bullies in the schoolyard? You know, facts and science puzzle them, but they love the idea of using force to show you how strong they think they are.

    • “Thugs in suits”. The description came to my mind a few months ago listening to Tony Abbot, but it seems to apply equally well to the conservatives in Canada and to those repugnants in USA.

  7. The current guy in the White House doesn’t seem to lack from brainpower, too. Which might explain his record against an unprecedented fierce and downright treasonous opposition…

  8. Jonathan Gradie

    Brainpower and the electorate: There is a meme that “low information voters vote against their own interests” as a reason for the success of the Republican juggernaut. A recent article in the NT Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/opinion/sunday/who-turned-my-blue-state-red.html?ref=opinion&_r=0 , “Who Turned by Blue State Red”) proposes the issue is not low information voters voting against their self interest. per se. but low-income/disenfranchised voters not voting at all thereby skewing the voter tally in favor of a Republican faction highly motivated to turn out to vote for their own self interest. At face value this makes sense (but is worth examining in detail): if a significant fraction of Romney’s “47%” don’t vote at all, then the smaller faction of Republican voters take on a much large role in the final result of an election. So, the intellectual standing of a Republican candidate can be very low and still remain a threat to the sensibilities of democracy simple because a significant fraction of the electorate, which would benefit from a Democratic party win – or any intellectual standing above that of the Republican cohort, simply “refuse” to participate. This hypothesis certainly helps explain why the Republican party is so intent on restricting access to voting, since it is the 47% who are easily disenfranchised and are removed as a threat to the Republican ticket. Cynical, yes. It would be nice to see a more thorough statistical analysis the data used by NYT for their story or include other relevant data, to support/refute their hypothesis.

  9. “There is no doubt, the founders of these United States of America had brainpower. That they used it, is one of the reasons we remain a nation dedicated to freedom and to justice.”

    Well, except for the slavery and genocide of the native population, of course. Those old, brilliant leaders have a lot of blood on their hands.

    • True. But those evil practices were fairly universal at that time. To the extent that they are less so today, the heritage of the Enlightenment they embodied probably deserves some credit.

      • The Founding Fathers were widely ridiculed at the time. There wasn’t a moment in history when chattel slavery was commonly seen as noble and good.

        There’s a bit in a poem (The Black Cottage) by Robert Frost where the speaker wonders about Jefferson and “all men are created equal.” And he muses that some people think he didn’t mean it. More and more I think Jefferson didn’t mean it. They sure didn’t act like they meant much of it at all. At the first sign of dissent they passed The Alien and Sedition Act.

      • “Noble and good?” Perhaps not. But it was pretty normative for a very long time:

        “Slavery can be traced back to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), which refers to it as an established institution. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations, as it is developed as a system of social stratification. Slavery was known in civilizations as old as Sumer, as well as almost every other ancient civilization. The Byzantine-Ottoman wars and the Ottoman wars in Europe resulted in the taking of large numbers of Christian slaves. Similarly, Christians sold Muslim slaves captured in war and also the Islamic World was engaged in slavery. Slavery became common within the British Isles during the Middle Ages. Britain played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600. Slavery was a legal institution in all of the 13 American colonies and Canada (acquired by Britain in 1763). Slavery was endemic in Africa and part of the structure of everyday life. David P. Forsythe wrote: “The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.” Denmark-Norway was the first European country to ban the slave trade.”

        (Just Wikipedia, but it’s in accord with everything I’ve ever read on the topic.)

      • Doc,

        It is impossible to see how the actions of the founders can be rationalized based on what might have been the accepted norms of the time. The American Revolution itself was a defiance of the accepted norms of the times.

        Jeffrey Davis cites the contradictions between one of the founding principles of the Revolution that “all men are created equal” and the existence of slave holder society. All of the founders were keenly aware of the contradictions and were reminded of them by the writings of Thomas Paine and James Otis. As we all know Jefferson was himself a slaveholder. True he struggled with the concept his entire life but he kept most of all of his slaves, of which he owned hundreds, till his death. In fact his 1765 newspaper ad concerning the return of his fugitive slave Sandy can be seen here:

        http://classroom.monticello.org/kids/gallery/image/226/Runaway-Ad/

        So there’s Thomas Jefferson chasing down his slave. How big a problem was it for him really? In fact as the noted scholar on US slavery and reconstruction Professor Eric Foner of Columbia points out, it was Jefferson’s racism expressed in his Notes on Virginia that provided a moral justification for slavery. So no matter how conflicted he or for that matter Washington were on the subject it was all in word not deed. The asset value of slaves was the dominating attribute of slavery at that time and if that lead to contradictions in the principles on which the republic was founded so be it. Racial superiority justified it.

        None of this happened as an accident of history nor were the founders simply swept up with the customary practices of the time. They knew exactly what they were doing. The slaveholders had become very powerful by 1789. The economic foundation of the country had slavery at its core. The resulting slaveholding society that resulted from the Constitutional Convention came about quite by design. North and South saw large amounts of money were to be made via slave labor based southern planter entrepreneurialism and northern interest (finance, insurance, shipbuilding, primarily in NYC). One way to judge the values of a country is by its laws. The framers signed off on these constitutional supports for slavery:

        ARTICLE I SECTION 2
        Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

        ARTICLE IV SECTION 2
        No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

        ARTICLE I SECTION 9
        The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

        These constitutional constructs went a long way in allowing the development and maintenance of a particularly cruel form of apartheid society, the economic growth on which it was based, and the slaveholder power that held sway over the country up to Lincoln’s election.

        Finally I am of a different opinion than Jeffery Davis. I beleive Thomas Jefferson did believe what he wrote. To me the question is to whom was it intended and although it may not have been expecitly stated I think the answer is clear. It was intended for white propertied males.

      • PJ, I have no disagreement with what you wrote; not sure if you thought you were arguing with me, but you’re going well beyond what I said, which was basically 1) the ideas J. et al put forward seem in retrospect to have led to a more comprehensive and coherent ethos today (however imperfectly we live it), and 2) other aspects of J et al’s behavior, including racism, materialism or greed, and a lack of sufficient moral courage to really manifest the logical conclusions of their ideas in their own time were either common then–or common still.

      • The discussion of slavery is extremely pertinent now. For there are some strong similarities between abolishing slavery and weaning us off fossil fuels.

        Firstly, rather like fossil fuels, slaves were a source of cheap energy. No doubt countries built on slavery worried that without slaves they would no longer be great. And civilisations built on the idea of cheap energy are obviously worried about the adjustment to a future where the environmental cost is built into the price of their energy.

        Secondly, one of the most powerful arguments against the abolition of slavery would have been that a country without slaves won’t be able to compete economically with a country that does have slavery. And this mirrors the fear that if we tax carbon emissions appropriately, it just means our industry will move to a jurisdiction that doesn’t.

        And while we have seemingly won the war against slavery, various approximations of slavery still exist in most of the world. And there are strong political interests who, although they never say so, clearly support some form of slavery – or at the very least support the employer’s “right” to fully exploit the power imbalance between themselves and individual workers.

        The US had a civil war over slavery. Lets hope we can be more successful and implement full environmental pricing without bloodshed.

      • Doc,

        “not sure if you thought you were arguing with me,”

        No of course not. In fact I appreciate this opportunity to discuss this with you and the clarification that you give here. To me a couple of things have to be considered. Ethos without practice becomes myth. The principles of contained in an ethos are best taught through practice. So when the practices of the founders stand in glaring contradiction to the principles encompassed by the ethos then it undermines the credibility of those principles. I think characterizing the contradictions as imperfections understates the conditions. Human rights violations are something more than imperfections.

        So I believe you are right when you cite moral failure as preventing the manifestations of the logical conclusions of their ideas but to put it in the context of “common then common now” frames it so as to invite inferences of dismissiveness though that may not have been intended. I think that moral failures (as with virtues) continue over time so what is common today results in a large part of from what was common before.

        That is how I see it anyway.

  10. What I dislike about Clinton is that she served on the boards of Walmart and Monsanto, takes money from Wall Street sociopaths, promoted the neo-con Victoria Nuland and voted for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But I like the way she manhandled congress.

  11. the real climate web site seems to be hacked. it is special a few day before Paris ??

  12. Meh. If you want an intellectual giant who actually *wants* to tackle the issues at hand, try Lessig. Oh, wait, the Democrats retroactively changed the rules to kill off his bid … smart, yes, if you want to call ‘don’t change the system because we the politicians make more money that way’ “smart”. But honest? Politicians these days? worse than used-car salesmen.

    Sanders excepted. Possibly. But not Clinton.

  13. Another way to turn a blue state red is by gerrymandering. I live in the blue city/county Austin/Travis:

  14. We should also remember, Malcolm Forbes’ keen observations and honest opinions on all things economic. I think he helped rationalize GOP economic policy.

  15. I liked the movie Idiocracy but that may have been my immature streak. I can’t think of another country as nominally educated as the U.S. that has such a large minority of aggressively anti-intellectual citizens and politicians.

  16. This is a good place to mention Michael Faraday’s 1854 essay “On Mental Education”. He rarely spoke up in public, but he did investigate the craze for “table turning” that was sweeping London in the 1850s and reported on his findings. (This was a kind of seance in which tables levitated and spun around under people’s hands – Faraday found it was due to a subconscious force of the hands.) This unleashed a storm of criticism from the public, causing him to remark

    I think the system of education that could leave the mental condition of the public body in the state in which this subject has found it must have been greatly deficient in some very important principle.

    and to develop his ideas for self-education in his 1854 essay, noting especially the need for

    clarity of ideas; consideration of matters from every side; precision of language; guarding against presumption; awareness of errors of observation and custom; proportionality of judgements, …

    In short, the scientific method. But these values are not widely exhibited today. The whole essay is full of moving, penetrating remarks and repays reading 160 years later. It can be read at

    https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=AUwNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA463

  17. @jean-luc: Yes, someone has poisoned the DNS to redirect it to a site that claims you’re infected with a “virus” and plays a clip to “help” you “solve” the “problem”. Sounds like a felony violation of the CFAA to me.

  18. Well yes. But having had a tussle with a Nobel Lauriate this year, I think the awe in which we hold “Big Brains” can be overdone. Aramatya Sen was clearly wrong http://ow.ly/UWLjE and a few years ago Sir Peter Hall was clearly wrong too. He was Britain’s most famous town planning guru . http://ow.ly/UWLtb

    However, the size of their “Big Brains” meant that only a few clued up people could accept that they were wrong. Challenge one of the “Big Brains” and you are ignored more than answered.

    Personally this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans but Sen’s advocacy of economic growth (that will destroy the climate) will continue without adequate challenge, similarly for the late Sir Peter’s ignorance of the enormous climate hit from constructing tall buildings.

    Sometimes those that (we/the media/the public) perceive as having “Big Brains” are those with convenient messages.

  19. Jefferson was a ruthless politician, viz his attempt to impeach Samuel Chase and his attack on Aaron Burr. The behavior of him and his allies in the election of 1800 was really nasty, arguably the dirtiest presidential election in US history!

  20. No surprise at your dislike of Cruz and Carson from the perspective of political views, demeanor, wisdom and government experience. But on raw intelligence? Cruz was a national debating champion at Princeton, law clerk for the chief justice of the supreme court, and named as one of the five smartest law students ever taught by liberal Alan Dershowitz. Carson is the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeon, a field populated by some pretty smart f’ing people.

    [Response: Ted Cruz’s comments on climate science eliminate him from being a contender for “smartest.” His statements are not smart at all, they’re not even mediocre. They are stupid. Stupid. Truly stupid.

    Ben Carson the “world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeon”? Permit me to doubt.]

    • The contradiction is better resolved by admitting that intelligence is not a one dimensional metric. Cruz’s skill at law gives him the confidence to contradict established science so vociferously. Cunning like a fox.

    • Go read John Marshall on Ted Cruz. He and his wife attended Princeton at the same time as Cruz and she went to Harvard Law with him

      http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/me-ted

      As my correspondent notes, Ted managed to distinguish himself as a arrogant a#@hole at Harvard Law School, which is an amazing accomplishment since the competition there for that description is intense. . .

      And this is why I’ve been saying since Ted Cruz replaced Michele Bachmann as the King of the Tea Partiers that the reaction to Cruz in the senate is simply the reaction Ted’s gotten at least at every stage of his life since he arrived at college in 1988. An incredibly bright guy who’s an arrogant jerk who basically everybody ends up hating.

      • Eli,

        A set of elitist snobs calling another elitist snob an arrogant asshole??

        Thats it????

        I don’t know the business but I can’t imagine maintaining a reputation as a Page Six blogist with posts like that.

  21. I can’t remember the last time I voted gladly for any candidate for public office. Practically speaking, one can only vote against the candidate one fears most.

    • Mal,

      “I can’t remember the last time I voted gladly for any candidate for public office.”

      When I am struck with this realization which happens virtually every time I consider voting I gain some relief from the famous anarchist Emma Goldman’s notable quote:

      “If voting changed anything they would make it illegal,”

      • Voting does change things, which is why conservatives will put up a lot of money to try and stop people voting. Vote.

      • John Brookes,

        I am not sure where you are from but here in the US I have to beleive the amount expended in trynig to stop people from voting is greatly exceeded by the amount expended in just outright buying of politicians. Donald Trump has spoken a number of times in his campaign speeches about the advantages of this latter approach..

  22. B. Buckner,
    I have had to modify my definition of stupid. To me, stupid is when you use your own intellect to convince yourself of things that are untrue. Thus, a person who is intelligent can often be much stupider than an idiot. Carson falls into that category. Cruz is simply delusional. After all, he was raised by his daddy.

  23. I think this essay, concerned most particularly with Carson’s take on the Holocaust, but considering the “Carson conundrum” generally, has a lot to recommend it:

    http://www.jewishjournal.com/marty_kaplan/article/ben_carson_the_nutty_neurosurgeon

    But when Ben Carson blames a mass murderer’s victims for failing to foil him, I know of at least one man of science whose capacity for moral response has been absorbed by fictions.

    “Absorbed by fictions”–isn’t that a good nutshell description of most denialism?

  24. Both Clinton and Sanders are intellectual giants compared to the majority of the current crop of Republican candidates, but that’s grading on a pretty steep curve. While I would certainly would not want to debate either one of them on any substantive issue, neither would I put either in the same company as Jefferson or Lincoln.

    Besides, as long as the Republicans control Congress, it won’t really matter.

  25. I’ve read testimony to Cruz’s brilliance from too many disparate sources to not believe that there is something to it. But he seems to embody the definition of psychopathy, with a big dollop of narcissism thrown in. A Messiah complex, if you will. And for “messiahs” with aspirations to worldly power, there is often a need to play to the ignorant and angry in order to achieve their visions. I would have no trouble believing that Ted Cruz is aware of the validity of climate science and the dangers posed by climate change — but just does not give a damn.

  26. Tamino,

    I remember the days when the spokesman for conservative ideas was William F. Buckley

    I remember Buckley as well. An erudite, scholarly Yale graduate in English. He was brilliant in debate as you suggest, published a number of books and was the editor of National Review when it had a great reputation as a respected journal of the right. He taught us about the politicians who conservatives of the time admired like the English politician Edmund Burke. Thing about Buckley was he was highly articulate if somewhat loquacious in his speech but he was funny too, with a dry ironic sarcastic sense of humor. You would tune into to his TV program Firing Line just to hear him discuss things or debate guests.

    The left had very capable representatives too, foremost among them being Gore Vidal a brilliant man himself and maybe the most important literary figure in the US in the latter half of the 20th century. He put the US on notice about the National Security State long before 9-11.

    If there was one guy who could get to the cool self possessed Buckley it was Vidal. Maybe you remember the 1968 Democratic Convention TV coverage where Vidal debated Buckley. Tensions ran high during that convention in Chicago with a large student antiwar uprising occurring outside at the same time. The debate reflected these tensions and at one point Vidal denounced Buckley as a crypto-nazi with Buckley firing back “Now listen, you queer stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

    Apparently a movie was made recently about their debates as discussed in this linked New York Times article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/movies/buckley-vs-vidal-when-debate-became-bloodsport.html?_r=0

    • Please excuse all the italics, the html got botched.

      [Response: Although I do *not* accept responsibility to fix people’s formatting mistakes, I too remember the Buckley-Vidal debates so I thought it was worth it.]

      • Tamino,

        Thanks very much for adding that correction. I will be more mindful of errors like that in the future.