by Anthony Esolen
Is the United States becoming like the old Soviet Union in a way that people fail to see because of the noise and the distractions of electoral politics, mass entertainment masking as news, and mass indoctrination masking as entertainment?
We are becoming a meritocracy that punishes merit and rewards folly. We have all the disutility of a meritocracy—the snobbishness, the restless ambition, the inclination to see merit only in what can be measured or paid for; even the tendency to pull intelligent people out of their native regions and set them down, like gilded tumbleweeds, in places without memory or character. But we get none of the benefits. We punish truth-telling and intelligence, and reward stupidity.
We are an idiocracy.
Perhaps I am being a bit unfair to the Soviets. They still had the Bolshoi Ballet. The Soviets did not bury all their great novelists: you would not win any points sneering at Tolstoy, as you might now in the United States if you sneered at Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Mark Twain. I am looking at a photograph of a Russian sports parade in Moscow. In front are some hundreds of skinny teenage boys, stripped to the waist, wearing boxing gloves, and looking as if they are ready to take on the world for Mother Russia and beat it to a pulp. They want to win.
The Soviet system was stupid because it was untrue to the world and to the nature of man. Therefore, it did often punish merit and reward the dull, according to its own woke ideology. The Soviets ridiculed the “big bang” theory, calling it “Jewish science,” because it was in accord with the Jewish and Christian belief in a created universe. The Soviets sent Solzhenitsyn to the gulag, while the bloated and plodding Leonid Brezhnev, writing his memoirs of some minor campaigns in World War II, and making the battles out to be some combination of Waterloo, Hastings, Tours, and Teutoburg Forest, won the Lenin Prize for Literature.
Stupidity is not just stupid. It can be deadly. Trofim Lysenko, the ideological agronomist responsible for widespread famine not only in his own nation but in Red China to boot, getting one bushel of wheat where the old well-off peasants had gotten three, rejected the genetics of Gregor Mendel, and sent to forced retirement or prison or death those scientists too stubborn to go along with him.
Many millions of people died not for a truth, but from patent falsehoods. I sometimes wonder how many American men have suffered loss of life or limb because our armed services are committed to unreality, sending into battle women who lack the strength, the agility, and the speed of teenage boys.
What can cause you to fail to recognize or reward merit? Three things, as I see them. The first is that you are stupid. You do not know what you are evaluating. Some perennial losers in professional sports suffer from flat dullness or blindness. From 1985 to 1989, the NFL’s Cardinals had the tight end Jay Novacek, and somehow missed the man’s ability; he started only six games for them, while the team went 28-50-1, without a single winning season. Novacek joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1990, and the team made him their starter. In the next six seasons, he went to the Pro Bowl five times, and won three Super Bowl rings. Jay Novacek had half of a Hall of Fame career.
This kind of dullness weighs heavily upon our schools and colleges from kindergarten to the doctorate and beyond. You will find it everywhere, though not in everyone. In most places it is dominant. If your child is a genius or a near-genius, he will almost surely be smarter, and often considerably so, than all his grade school and high school teachers, who will not know what to do with him. I use the masculine gender advisedly here, because the problem is more likely to befall the boy than the girl, and it is more likely to be acute, because boys are not like girls, and most of their female teachers will not be interested in the same things that interest them. The boy ought to be playing with pistons and cylinders, not writing out in words what he is doing when he multiplies 12 by 25. He should be reading Moby-Dick. Instead he is given The Handmaid’s Tale. He rolls his eyes.
The second cause is a stolid insistence on procedure rather than on results. The greatest geniuses are irreducible to procedure, which, when demanded for its own sake, smothers. I will take another cue from sports. The Houston Astros had a talented but erratic and temperamental pitcher named Joaquin Andujar, with whom they did not know what to do. He did not “fit.” Then Whitey Herzog, manager for the Cardinals, got hold of him. He understood that if Andujar was going to be any good, you had to let him be himself and do things his way. Herzog ran a tight ship, but he judged each player individually and not by formula, asking, “How can I get the best out of him?” Under Herzog, Andujar won 20 games twice, and in his best statistical season, 1982, he went 15-10, and was 3-0 in the postseason, winning the final and decisive game in the World Series.
A good friend of mine was a physicist of the first rank at Bell Labs, in the years of its most striking creativity, when work was characterized by an easygoing camaraderie, and the men were paid by seniority, not by merit. Paradoxically, that was the way to get the most out of them, because then each scientist was free to tinker with his own projects in his own manner, and everyone was free to help everyone else out. No one needed to guard an idea jealously; no one needed to look over his shoulder at an ambitious and unscrupulous neighbor. In other words, Bell Labs did not care overmuch about workplace procedure, only about the cumulative results, which were tremendous. There was nothing like “Human Resources” there, that stunning misnomer, the bureaucratic fog that stifles, turning human beings into functionaries, and gold into mud.
The third cause is an insistence on something that is beside the point. We hear from Hollywood to Harvard, from Washington to Westinghouse, that “diversity is our strength.” I don’t know what the phrase means, but is it true? Consider the studios in Renaissance Italy, when every town boasted an artist who, were he alive today, would deserve world renown, and when the important cities bequeathed to us such artists as Michelangelo (Florence), Leonardo (Milan), Titian (Venice), and on and on. The artists were Italian men. Is it sensible to suppose that the greatest of all time would have been greater still, if they had done more of what we do now? Forget Michelangelo. Where is our Mino da Fiesole?
What we have in America and elsewhere in the West, sleep-woking to absurdity, is a relentless insistence upon things that are beside the point. To say that a television show should have some fit proportion of characters that are female or homosexual is like choosing the starters for your football team by the color of their hair. Army officers should be chosen for their courage (Anthony Wayne), their cunning (Nathanael Greene), and their ability to command men in mortal danger (George Washington). In war we should remember what Vince Lombardi said: winning is the only thing. Yet our army, insofar as it is beholden to something besides deterring or winning wars, will, if history is instructive, turn to some easier objective. The weakling beats his wife.
Do not interrupt your enemy while he is destroying himself. Russia waits, no longer ideological, but moving slowly and gingerly toward the Christian heritage that once made her a nation, even as we stupidly toss our own culture away.
– – –
Anthony Esolen reports for American Greatness.
Photo “Vladimir Putin” by The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office. CC BY 3.0.