Andrew Sullivan reviews Freddie deBoer’s new book:
People are not just born unequally and unfairly into class, and culture, and place, they are inherently unequal in various ways in their very nature: “not everyone has the same ability to do calculus; not everyone has the same grasp of grammar and mechanics … we can continue to beat our heads against the wall, trying to force an equality that just won’t come. Or we can face facts and start to grapple with a world where everyone simply can’t be made equal.” And this is not a counsel of despair. What Freddie is arguing is that, far from treating genetic inequality as a taboo, the left should actually lean into it to argue for a more radical re-ordering of society. They shouldn’t ignore genetics, or treat it as unmentionable, or go into paroxysms of fear and alarm over “eugenics” whenever the subject comes up. They should accept that inequality is natural, and construct a politics radical enough to counter it.
For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence, no higher after-tax income for the brainy, and in which education, with looser standards, is provided for everyone on demand — for the sake of nothing but itself. DeBoer believes the smart will do fine under any system, and don’t need to be incentivized — and their disproportionate gains in our increasingly knowledge-based economy can simply be redistributed to everyone else. In fact, the transformation in the economic rewards of intelligence — they keep increasing at an alarming rate as we leave physical labor behind — is not just not a problem, it is, in fact, what will make human happiness finally possible.
If early 20th Century Russia was insufficiently developed for communism, in other words, America today is ideal: “The communist revolution could take place in an economy more than capable of providing food, housing, education, and medical care for everyone … an economy, that is, like the twenty-first century one.” Let the super-smart create the wealth and then tax the hell out of them — to provide Medicare for all, universal pre-K, and a UBI or a guaranteed job.
This genetic case for communism can leave a reader a little disoriented, I have to say, if only for its novelty. But it is more coherent, it seems to me, than a leftism that assumes that genes are irrelevant to humans and society, that the ultimate goal is to be as smart and thereby wealthy as possible, and that we can set up an educational system where everyone, regardless of their genetic inheritance, can succeed or fail by their own efforts.
“An insistently quirky thinker,” Sullivan says. I prefer “incoherent,” but whatever. More realistic than traditional leftism? Congratulations on clearing that incredibly low bar, I guess?
Everything about this annoys me. It annoys me that “intellectuals” are so goddamned predictable. Here we have an intellectual idiot like deBoer, the sort of man who has spent his entire adult life in academia — and it shows — holding to puerile fantasies about communism that no small business owner could entertain for a minute. Here we have Sullivan thoughtfully stroking his chin and furrowing his brow as he insults his readers’ intelligence by pretending that this sort of academic gibberish is worth taking seriously and praising. Taxing the ultra-wealthy alone, even if it were politically feasible, which it isn’t, still wouldn’t cover the cost of these hallucinogenic social-democratic visions. There is even less appetite for taxing the middle class to the extent required to approach some Scandinavian welfare-state fantasy. So! Are we done here, then? Why are we even talking about this? Is there no such thing as natural selection in the hermetically-sealed intellectual environment? Is there no such thing as an idea too stupid to live? Do they just go on breeding indefinitely, producing ever-more mutant offspring, safe from predators in their academic zoo?
A vast scholarship surrounds Benjamin’s work. Every Benjamin essay, including “The Storyteller,” each book and unpublished manuscript, gets picked over and commented upon. Scholarly monographs tumble off university presses. An academic press issues a series called “Walter Benjamin Studies.” A university library lists almost three hundred books containing Walter Benjamin in the title or subtitle published just in the last five years. An International Walter Benjamin Society holds regular conferences with scores of lectures such as “The Image as Abbreviation: Walter Benjamin on Mallarmé’s Poetic Monadology” or “The Concept of Gesture in Walter Benjamin: Between Political Criticism and Theology.” Yet in this academic flood, a reference to, much less a discussion of, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen barely exists. Why? The book is not exactly hidden. It was published by a leading American press. It contains Walter Benjamin in the title. Any online search will kick it out. In the book, McMurty ponders not only “The Storyteller” but also Benjamin’s larger work.
The explanation for this silence is simple. Larry McMurty wrote about Walter Benjamin, but he did not cite any Benjamin scholarship, an unpardonable offense. He just read and reflected upon Benjamin. McMurty is a well-known novelist and screenwriter, but he cannot hold a candle to the lowest assistant professor at the humblest college for this reason: If you quote him, he will not quote you in return. In other words, he does not trade in the coin of the academic world: mutual citations, fulsome tributes, and fawning acknowledgements. For the Walter Benjamin industry, founded on the writings of a self-proclaimed Marxist, the value of Larry McMurty is zero.
The online world of magazines and intellectual journals is much the same. Gladhanding, brown-nosing, careerist philistines. I realize, of course, that this is an obvious point. It’s just that, like a trick knee on a rainy day, it sometimes flares up and makes me irritable. You see, I was not a motivated student in my day. I preferred daydreaming to studying. Teachers constantly remarked on my failure to live up to my potential. I only got 980 on my SAT. I graduated high school and dawdled at community college for a couple years. But somewhere along the way, I discovered the joy to be had in reading and reflecting on great writers and interesting thinkers. Eventually, I even discovered, to my surprise, that I could write down my own thoughts in passable prose, using those writers and thinkers as conversational springboards. I’m forever grateful to those, like McMurty, who provide the example, who remind us that ideas don’t require credentials and guild approval to be handled. I lament the fact that there seems to be too much of a divide between the “intellectuals” who reinforce all the old clichés about themselves and the regular folks who are happy to cede the territory to them, judging it to be useless from a practical vantage point. I guess I mainly wish that “conversational” ideal, as I think of it, could flourish more widely than on a handful of obscure blogs.
Like I said, it’s the weather. My knee will feel better tomorrow.