Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Helix of Evil

The existence of evil is not exclusively a theological question. The word “evil” is not limited to metaphysics or the vivid, viscous, and visceral imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft. It can simply mean bad or foul. For example, in an issue of “Sam and Max, Freelance Police,” there is a sign in a convenience store that reads, "Drink cheap, evil-smelling beer every day of your life."

Yes, this is going to be yet another geeky post with lots of gratuitous comic book references.

Historically, the word "evil" has also meant some undesirable result or harm. For example, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegate Elbridge Gerry said, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” On the other end of the patriot spectrum, Thomas Paine wrote of humanity's loss of original economic equality, “The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits" of becoming civilized. Although the two founders had the opposite politics, both their definitions of “evil” were secular and societal. They saw themselves as troubleshooting flawed systems.

But I want to talk about about evil’s chronic association with stupidity. It is a classic comic book trope that also appears in related media. Generally speaking, minions and henchmen are not particularly bright. A Blackadder-like figure is not apt to attract too many sharp followers. It is, after all, an abusive or exploitive relationship that most intelligent people would quickly spot and avoid. We also see this dynamic in “Pinky and the Brain.” It is an irritating inevitability that Ayn Rand had learned the hard way. Later in life, the patron saint of sociopaths reflected, “[M]y fans disappointed and depressed me more than my enemies.”(1)

Cult leaders and tyrants are notoriously lonely. Anyone in their D&D alignment who shares their level of intellect is most likely a deadly competitor. Thus they typically spend their years in stygian, Nixonian loneliness with few friendly peers. I wonder how many dark, cold nights Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, or Grover Norquist have spent groping for resolve with a glass of scotch in one hand and a Glock in the other.

Just kidding! I don’t actually think either is that smart or honorable.

On the flip side, dim leaders invariably have evil advisors. Every George W. Bush has his Dick Cheneys and Karl Roves. Ronald Reagan likewise drew sociopaths like a Lt. Col. Oliver North and, well, many of those who later staffed both Bush administrations. Interestingly, a number of them were Nixon people too.

The classic dynamic by which useful idiots and manipulators interact is so obvious that there is no point in spelling it out. The familiar labels for each type of person that I have just used does that already. What most interests me is another dynamic – the one by which the evil genius becomes dumb.

Most manipulators have already stepped on that slippery slope. It is said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." That is because those who have it are often not smart enough to appreciate how little it is. They only know that they are smarter than most and have been tormented for it. Most geeks experience this. But, ironically, you do not start to get really smart until you get over yourself. Otherwise, you are largely resting on your laurels. Hubris breeds stupidity: Witness Wile E. Coyote. And obviously nursing your bitterness is a pathetic dead-end distraction. At some point, you must get over yourself and decide to be Spiderman rather than Doc Oc or the Mole Man. Alas, few “Sad Puppies,” Men’s Rights Activists, neoreactionaries, or any member of the Red Pill Right will ever get this. Their politics are almost entirely grounded in a galloping sense of entitlement and perhaps a tad bit of self-inflicted frustration. They invoke the Law of Nature to rubber stamp their claim and get angry and confused when Nature fails to perform as they advertise, so they blame society instead of their theory (which isn't terribly scientific).

Of course, there are other slightly different, related ways to frame this dynamic; but they are not mutually-exclusive. Indeed, they inform one another even further. For example, there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which notes that the ignorant are often boastful and over-confident about their knowledge and ability while the smart are often cautious and under-confident. Another is that people are creatures of habit. If you are contemptuous of others' intelligence, your default will be to underestimate people. And as Abraham Lincoln put it, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of thee time." Even if you are an especially gifted grifter and initially cautious, eventually too much effortless success will make you sloppy. Nobody can always be at the top of their game and ever alert. Eventually everyone flies on autopilot. Finally, if you are an expert in one area, it is tempting to overestimate your competence in other unrelated areas. As I wrote in my book, "Libertarian intelligence is typically so narrowly focused that they frequently win at tech and business but fail at life and citizenship."

The brings us to the present field of Republican presidential candidates. Many are fortunate egoists.

Former front runner Donald Trump pretty much sums up the bunch. He is a billionaire celebrity who has been infamous since the 1980s. But every time he opens his mouth something moronic emerges. I just typed "stupidest things ..." into Google and "stupidest things trump has said" was the second top suggestion after "stupidest things ever said." I did not even have to finish typing.

Recently, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson unhorsed Trump in both the GOP primary polls and in making immensely embarrassing statements. He has made so many that parodist Andy Borowitz quipped that Carson was destroying the stereotype that brain surgeons are smart. The most humorous claim was that the pyramids were built to store grain. If true, it would make them the most inefficient public works project in history since, as most people already know, their interiors are mostly solid stone.

Carson also duplicates Trump's galloping egoism: His home is a shrine to both himself and God (complete with misspelled engravings). It is filled with the type of white and gold-leafed things you would expect to find in a televangelist's mansion.

Also like Trump, Carson has never held elected office. That is not so much as a problem as the way he defended his lack of experience. In a Facebook post, he incorrectly claimed that none of the Declaration of Independence's signatories had ever held elected office. He later edited the statement to add the word "federal" which changed it from a false statement into a merely pointless one.

This is of course a petty footnote in comparison to his entire phony biography unraveling under scrutiny: He did not face a robber at Popeye's. He did not have a violent, troubled youth. He was not offered a scholarship at West Point, etc. There is a new revelation of fabrication every day.

And this is to say nothing of his pattern of incurring malpractice suits. I bet I can guess his position on tort reform. Perhaps this is related to the neurosurgeon's "close enough" approach to spelling. In fairness, that embarrassment was probably the engraver's error. But at some point, you must notice it and call the contractor back to fix it. Either Carson hasn't noticed it yet or surgical precision is not his forte. Moreover, that missing space after the comma is irritating the shit out of me. I cannot ignore it after noticing it. Seriously, look at it again! You had ONE job! How does seeing that everyday not drive him nuts?

Oh, wait. I think I just answered my own question.

I do not mean to pick on Ben Carson too much. I wrote more about Carson than Trump because Carson is now the GOP front runner and these incidents are more recent. And note that most of these incidents liken Carson to Trump. Both men are hucksters. Again, I am generalizing about the GOP field, and on that note the other party primary candidates are not much different. Ted Cruz is also arrogant, egoistic, and prone to saying outrageous and stupid things - Google him and you will come up with similar lists. Rand Paul is also spouts loopy conspiracy theories on a regular basis. And if that is your idea of entertainment, he does not disappoint. Google him too. Like Carson, Paul is a surgeon whose knowledge of medicine does not necessarily translate over to government or, for that matter, medicine. And both have compared same sex marriage to bestiality. No, it's not just Rick Santorum:  Rand Paul and Ben Carson say that too.(2) And I haven't even gotten to Mike Huckabee and the others.

None of these antics are likely to alienate the party base. On the contrary, they are how candidates court the base. Most of these candidates have built their entire political careers by chasing controversy. If controversy were a person, it would have restraining orders against each of them.

Are their statements born of stupidity or cynicism? Are they playing dumb? Who knows? Who cares? Either explanation disqualifies the candidate. At some point, they merge anyway. Eventually, the evil genius begins to believe his or her own press releases. And, at the same time, his or her habits get sloppy. Dumbed-down shoddy arguments become reflexes. The evil genius and the well-intentioned simpleton start off on different sides of the whirlpool, but they eventually spiral closer together until they wind up in the same place. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, “Lead not morons, lest you become a moron.”

But I am pretty sure they are not geniuses.


1)  Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 303.

2) An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Rick Santorum was already out of the race. I had assumed this because almost nobody had heard anything from him for several months. I regret the error.

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