We've Got Magic to Do

            4/4/08

The Bird her punctual music brings
And lays it in its place —
Its place is in the Human Heart
And in the Heavenly Grace —
What respite from her thrilling toil
Did Beauty ever take —
But Work might be electric Rest
To those that Magic make —
                        —EMILY DICKINSON

Sorry it’s been so long since I put up a new essay, but I’ve had to spend most of my time in the last few weeks calling up classic-rock DJs who are pissed that Madonna got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and explaining to them that she is more culturally significant than any pop artist except Elvis and the Beatles and Dylan, and that this is still true no matter how many slut jokes they make, and that it doesn’t matter that she didn’t write a lot of her good songs because neither did Elvis, and that classic-rock DJs are all just sexually insecure losers who are terrified and jealous of her.

And they didn’t listen to me, because although they are not smart enough to realize that I was right, they were at least smart enough to know that they had no self-interested incentive to listen to me because I can’t put a spell on them.

I say this because the other thing I’ve been doing recently is reading Bertrand Russell’s 1938 tract Power.  For those who are unfamiliar, it argues that the fundamental stuff of sociology — analogous to energy in physics — is power, and that all power can be divided into four categories:  physical force, wealth, control over the law, and influence over opinion (in other words, the only four ways to get people to do something are to threaten them, to pay them, to make a law that says they have to, or to convince them to).  Obviously, I was most interested in the last type, and was especially interested in what Russell had to say about smart people.  He points out that, paradoxically, the more advanced a society becomes, the less respect smart people get within that society, even though the smart people are the ones who advanced it.  Since this certainly seems true of our own time and place, and is highly relevant to The 1585's project, I figured I’d do a piece on it and try to come up with some solutions (which Russell doesn’t propose).

First, here’s the situation in Russell's own words (condensed down from a passage a few pages in length):

Oddly enough, the power of what passes for learning is greatest in the most savage communities, and steadily decreases as civilisation advances.  When I say ‘learning’ I include, of course, reputed learning, such as that of magicians and medicine men.  […]  The intellectual, as we know him, is a spiritual descendant of the priest; but the spread of education has robbed him of power.  The power of the intellectual depends upon superstition: reverence for a traditional incantation or a sacred book.  […]  …although knowledge plays a larger part in civilisation now than at any former time, there has not been any corresponding growth of power among those who possess the new knowledge.  Although the electrician and the telephone man do strange things that minister to our comfort, we do not regard them as medicine-men, or imagine that they can cause thunderstorms if we annoy them.  The reason for this is that scientific knowledge, though difficult, is not mysterious, but open to all who care to take the necessary trouble.  The modern intellectual, therefore, inspires no awe, but remains a mere employee… he has failed to inherit the glamour which gave power to his predecessors.
    The truth is that the respect accorded to men of learning was never bestowed for genuine knowledge, but for the supposed possession of magical powers.  Science, in giving some real acquaintance with natural processes, has destroyed the belief in magic, and therefore the respect for the intellectual.  Thus it has come about that, while men of science are the fundamental cause of the features which distinguish our time from former ages, and have, through their discoveries and inventions, an immeasurable influence upon the course of events, they have not, as individuals, as great a reputation for wisdom as may be enjoyed… by a medicine man.  The intellectuals, finding their prestige slipping from them as a result of their own activities, become dissatisfied with the modern world.  Those in whom the dissatisfaction is least take to Communism; those in whom it goes deeper shut themselves up in their ivory tower.
                                                                                                   —(Russell, Power, pp.30-31)

Wow, talk about hitting the nail on the head.  Everyone got it?  Smart people were never actually respected for their smartness, but only because they used to go into the mumbo-jumbo fields back when those were the best jobs around and thus were regarded as wizards, i.e., as people who could actually do something to you if you fucked with them.  But then as a result of smart people doing smart things, people realized that this wasn’t the case and transferred their respect from the smart people who had left the mumbo-jumbo fields behind them to the dumb people who had subsequently started filling those jobs, because mumbo-jumbo was the only thing people ever really respected, because they were scared of it.  Today, dumb people are free to regard smart people not as wizards, but merely as illusionists — as people who are not really right, but only skilled at making it appear that they are right.

The fingerprints of this progression may be seen all over contemporary culture, most especially in popular entertainment.  The magic possessed by the protagonists of sci-fi/fantasy, from the Jedi of Star Wars to the wizards of Harry Potter, seems strongly to be a symbolic stand-in for intelligence itself; or rather, for what it feels like intellectual superiority should allow one to do in a perfect world.  This is why nerds identify with superpowered characters so intensely.  The problem, of course, is that in real life, intelligence does not actually enable you to kick anyone’s ass; it simply does not translate into physical force in any way.  It once would have, in the case, say, of whatever genius caveman first invented the bow-and-arrow, but these days are long gone.  It is, perhaps, the trace cultural memory of the fact that smartness used to translate into physical force that makes us feel as if it still should.

Who's that baby deer on the lawn?
Memorizing the State Capitals enables you to make lightning deer.
Wait — No, it doesn't!  Oh shit, I've wasted my life.

Take the opening sequence of X2, for example, in which Nightcrawler bamfs holy hell out of the tightest security in the history of the world.  Smart people cheer their asses off at this scene, as if it is somehow an artistic representation of nerds bamfing holy hell out of bullies — and indeed, this seems to be an interpretation that the X-Men films invite.  But the thing is, we’ve studied the issue, and it turns out that having an IQ in the 160s — or even the 180s — does not actually enable you to do this.  Even that chick who figures out riddles in Parade Magazine would almost certainly just be mowed down instantly.  And it wouldn’t even take dozens of highly trained professionals with guns — it could be three or four junior-high students with sharp sticks.  Shit, unless you are also strong or armed, even one junior-high student with a blunt stick would present a huge challenge, no matter how smart you are (don’t bother trying to trick him into saying his own name backwards, because we used to try that all the time and nothing ever happens — he says his name backwards, and then you stare at each other for a couple seconds, and then he hits you with the stick a lot and it hurts).

Smart people are still indispensable to a nation that wishes to win wars, of course — but weapons have long since advanced to the point where they are being developed in a lab, with government funding, to be used by an organized military comprised of tough guys.  There is simply no way anymore for an individual smart person to smartly invent some smart thing in his or her own apartment using cheap, to-hand materials that enables them subsequently to waltz outside and make everyone their bitch — only to be employed by an organization that wishes to make everyone its bitch.  Hence, smart people have become hired help, just like anybody else.  We gotta live the rest of our lives like a schnook*.

    *(If you recognized this as a quote from Goodfellas, and the title of the essay as that of a song from the musical Pippin, and knew that this is hilarious because early in his career Ray Liotta once had a disastrous audition where he sang that song, you are truly a Herald of the ‹bermensch.  Or maybe you’re just good at trivia.  But hey, same shit, right?)    

But if the fact that being smart doesn’t actually enable you to do anything to anyone were only hard to believe for us, it wouldn’t be that big a problem.  The problem is that dumb people find it even harder to believe.  You see, as self-reliant and ruggedly individualistic as dumb people may claim to be, they are used to being taken care of.  They move directly from having rules they don’t understand enforced by their parents and concepts they can’t grasp drilled into them via rote memorization by their teachers directly to having both these offices filled by their precious “God,” and in all of these cases, the dynamic is the same:  dumb people can’t actually comprehend why they are supposed to follow these rules or believe these opinions (on account of, you know, the whole dumb thing), and so what it always ultimately comes down to is the fact that the authority figure is in a position to punish them.  And after a while, it begins to seem to them (i.e., the vast majority of people) as if the ability to punish is, in fact, what makes someone “right” about something.  If smart people can’t actually do anything about the fact that dumb people choose not to believe them, the dumb subconsciously reason, then they must not actually be right.  After all, what kind of an orderly, God-created Universe would allow that?

Now, reasoning like that might make it seem like the problem is that the dumb people are optimistic to a fault — that they simply cannot believe that the ultimate power rests with people who are woefully unequipped to enforce it (i.e., us).  But they are no such thing.  Though they never tire of accusing us smart people of being downers and killjoys, it is in fact anti-intellectualism that is rooted in the darkest pessimism of all.  As previously observed in several paradoxes on the site (the paradox of who may call whom stupid at the dinner table in On the Calling-Stupid of People; the “alternate types of truth” paradox in the Relativist Liberal section of the Michael Jordan dialogue), in order for dumb people to know in the first place whom they are even supposed to resent (i.e., us), they must actually agree with us deep down — if they really agreed with the people with whom they claim to agree, then they would be under the impression that those were the smart people, and resent them instead.  And yet, they appear to believe that all smart people secretly wish to do horrible things — this is why, whenever we say something smart, they call us evil and accuse us of wanting to kill everyone.  So, if dumb people believe that everything we smart people believe and want to happen is evil, but also secretly suspect that it is true, then this means that dumb people secretly suspect that evil things are true, which is pretty fucking pessimistic.

How can they be so stupidly optimistic and so stupidly pessimistic on such grand scales at the same time?  It’s called doublethink, and it is the air that dumb people breathe.

The callow theologian Roger Olson, in that open letter of his that I tore to shit a few months back, accuses atheists of having no counter to the idea that might makes right — which is infuriating not only because it’s not true, but because precisely the opposite is true.  Theists back their faith-derived moral prescriptions not with argument that can be comprehended in terms of earthly ethical logic (though they occasionally engage in crappy efforts to make it look like this is what they are doing), but ultimately only with the trump card that their God will punish those who disobey by sending them to Hell.  They are quick to add, of course, that since their God is inherently right about everything, this is not actually a case of might makes right, but only of might enforcing right.  But herein lies a paradox.  You see, just like good parents, any just God would need to be right for a reason besides “because I said so.”  Even if an explanation for the prescription is not obliged to be given, it must be possible to figure out — i.e., the morals of God must make sense, or else they are not actually moral*.  And in all the cases where religious morality lines up with secular morality (e.g., “it is wrong to kill”), it may be seen that there are perfectly satisfactory secular explanations for the precept, and so appeals to faith are not necessary for the justification (“because God said so”), but are merely icing on the cake in terms of enforcement (“even if the police don’t catch you, God will”).

    *(This can be proven as follows: ask a religious person what he would do if God said that everyone had to jump up-and-down on one leg for 45 minutes every Tuesday.  He will respond “God wouldn’t say that,” which proves that he believes on some level that the prescriptions of a just God need to make sense for a reason external to that God.  Otherwise, it would be impossible to discuss what God "would" or "wouldn't" say.)

In short, if dumb people were actually right about the fact that their God (i.e., the shit they make up) is right about everything, then there would be valid secular justifications for all the things they currently use faith-based justifications to support, and hence, no need for the faith-based ones. 

Of course, in the case of, say, a debate between a smart person and a dumb religious person (or P.C. relativist, or what-have-you) who is sufficiently well-spoken and manipulative to make what he says appear plausible to an untrained mind, the masses are not equipped to distinguish in strict conceptual terms which argument is superior.  The choice that the masses make in those situations, then, is simple pragmatism:  “if I don’t listen to the smart person and he turns out to be right, nothing will happen to me because the smart person is powerless, but if I don’t listen to the dumb person and he turns out to be right, I will go to Hell” (or be “a bad person,” or what-have-you).  Add to this, naturally, the fact that the dumb person’s ideas frequently match up with what the masses already wish to believe.

Naturally, the masses in this instance have a short-sighted view of what “nothing will happen to me” constitutes (e.g., if the smart person is not listened to, great amounts of moral attention will continue to be lavished on trivial matters, which will prevent the real problems from being solved, which will affect everyone), but the deck of human nature is stacked against changing this fact.  What must happen, then, is for it to appear to the masses that it is in their immediate self-interest to align themselves with smart people.

And apparently, in order to achieve this, we have to make them think we’re magic.

But how may we achieve this without compromising our principles as smart people?  Here is a refresher on what we’re up against, laid out as six brief concepts:

        1.  As smart people, we know what is true or not true.
        2.
  This is valuable because it can be used to combat what is dishonest/false.
        3.
  This should be done because dishonest/false things have bad results.
        4.
  In order for us to be successful, people have to listen to us.
        5.
  No-one will listen to us unless they think we’re magic.
        6.
  Making people think we’re magic would be both dishonest and false.

Our first idea out of the gate was for smart people simply to adopt the trappings of magic.  We could, as suggested in The Requisite Girls Gone Wild Essay, start wearing capes, and all future printings of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae could be rendered in special “musty scroll” form.

But instantly, I realized this was nerdy, and thus counterproductive.

So apparently, what we must use is something that does not merely evoke magic and that we do not allege to be magic, but which for all intents and purposes is indistinguishable from magic.  Those readers familiar with 1960s Flash comics will doubtless suggest that we use science from the future, but unfortunately, we do not have any science from the future*.  And with the way things are going, we had better think of something fast if we want there to even be science in the future.

    *(Also: if Abra Kadabra’s magic is actually just science from the future, how come it works on Superman when he fights Superman, since only real magic is supposed to work on Superman?  By that logic, if Superman had come to Earth long enough ago in the past, someone from the present day would be able to go back in time and kill him with a regular gun, when obviously this would not be the case.)

Luckily, there are things besides science from the future to which people respond as if they are magic.  We can think of one that will get the job done, but it’s going to take some doing.  For you see, our only course of action must be to strive after an impossible hope — a fool’s hope, if you will — the dream of which has been for two-centuries-plus crushed by what has seemed to be an unbreakable national curse.

Smart people in America must become cool. 

I’m afraid there is no other option.  Yes, many will call you mad — mad — for suggesting this, but to this you must respond “Fools!  I’ll destroy them all!”  And besides, it may not be so impossible for smart people in America to become cool.  It almost happened in the early ’90s, but it was derailed because we went too far in the direction of equating intelligence with depression.  We got as far as transmuting the archetype of the nerd into the archetype of the smart rebel, but then it started looking like smart rebels had to kill themselves, and since no-one wants to kill themselves, everyone just said Fuck it and bought that Hootie and the Blowfish album and we were back to square one.

Hey, it's "werewolf BATHTUBS," not "werewolf TONGUES," Mr. Cool...
It almost became cool to be smart in the '90s,
but it turned out people missed happiness—
Who knew people liked happiness so much?

Plus, it didn’t help that the chicks wore those fucked-up chunky high heels instead of real high heels.  You would be like How about you wear some real high heels and they would be like No that’s what my mom would wear and you would be like Well then can I bang your mom.

Speaking of which, the other day I heard some dude in a porno say that intelligent girls are always the most perverted, and that seems like a good place to start.  In order for society to move forward, the terms “genius” and “hot girl” need to become equivalent to each other — and there is, happily, already some precedent on which to base the hope that this is possible, as our research has revealed that it is a not-uncommon phenomenon in American high schools for the girl who had always been the smart girl and theretofore exclusively worn airbrushed unicorn t-shirts tucked into khakis to suddenly decide in October of senior year that she wants to be the sexy girl too and show up to school one day in a vintage carhop uniform with backseamed thigh-highs and one of those knit flapper caps and makeup that is all various shades of dark purple.

Obviously, this trend is brilliant, and needs only to be more widely adopted and retained into adulthood.  But for the plan as a whole to come off, smart boys need to start being cool too, and this presents more of a problem, because a young male is infinitely more likely to encounter opposition in the form of physical force should he attempt too quickly to transcend his prescribed social boundary — i.e., if you are a smart dude and suddenly come to school one day in leather pants, someone is just going to beat you up.  It may be possible to walk into high school transformed into Madonna and take the place over, but if you try to walk into high school transformed into Prince, there is a good chance you won’t be walking back out.

Now we encounter another paradox:  in order for the dumb to stop hating us, we need to become cool, but the dumb will do everything in their power to stop us from becoming cool, because they hate us.  At this early stage, the best plan may just be for the smart girls to become cool first, and then once that’s taken care of, the smart boys can start being cool and it will be okay because they’re with the girls.  (NOTE:  this plan requires the smart girls to not ditch the smart boys for cool dumb guys in the interim period.)

But of course, there are ways of becoming cool (“magic”) besides sexiness.  And as I’ve pointed out before, sexiness itself needs to be viewed as only one component of a general program of overall awesomeness.  Sexy Geniuses of The 1585 are Artists with a capital “A” above all; we are cultural creators.  And the saving grace that lights our endeavor on its way is the fact that, ultimately, it is this power to create — and not merely to kick ass or destroy — to which humanity will always respond as the true magic.  It was in the winking wizard Prospero that Shakespeare saw himself, and not in his many blood-drenched warriors, inspiring as they also are.

And in terms as real as possible without retreating from reality, this website is magic.  It has created, though all it does is tell the truth; it has kicked ass, though it has done no violence; it has fucked your brains out, though it has never touched you (unless you are one of the people I have actually touched, in which case, that was fun and we should do it again).

Over the course of so doing, here is what I have learned:  that smart people have to stop retreating and start engaging reality harder than anyone.  If you are not hot yet, become hot instead of deciding that hotness is for dumb people.  If you are a writer, try writing about something that’s actually important instead of about how sad you are.  If people fuck with you, beat them in arguments and rank-outs to their face instead of waiting for them to leave and talking about how mean they are.  If there’s stuff you wish you knew, learn it.  If there’s stuff you wish you could get away with wearing, wear it.  If you sit around stoned talking about what you are going to do someday, stop sitting around stoned and do it now.  And if you go to stupid conventions dressed up as a goddamn Jedi, grow up and try becoming the closest thing there is to a Jedi in real life, because it’s a lot better than pretending.  Trust me, writing essays where you take apart real-life bad guys is a lot more satisfying than pretend sword-fights where you take apart pretend bad guys (and you wouldn’t want to be in a real sword fight, because you would just get killed).  Awesome music might not start playing out of nowhere when you sit down at the keyboard, but at least you’re doing something real.

So remember:  in order for smart people to win, other people have to want to be us.  And there’s no way they’re going to if we spend all our time wishing we were someone besides ourselves.  In other words, real fake magic is to be preferred to fake real magic.

Ezra Pound wrote “I cannot make it cohere.”  I think he wasn’t trying hard enough, but what do I know?  I’m just a crazy scientist from the future.



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