Discrimination against intelligence


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It seems to me that the word “genius” is not held in the highest regard in these United States. Americans appear a little uneasy with the concept, suspecting that too many brains may encourage too much thinking, which is widely recognized as the source of many problems in the world.

Perhaps that is why we unfailingly elevate politicians who are as dumb as posts to the highest positions in the land. Many voters relate to them precisely because they speak in cliches and simplistic slogans. If you appear patriotic and are kind to dogs and children, and hide your brain under a good head of hair, you are already halfway to being elected.

This prejudice against brainy people is not altogether illogical. Geniuses are everywhere at work, confounding our lives.

Those annoying cell phones that go off in restaurants and theaters? Technological geniuses invented them.

The constant ads that bedevil football games, turning one hour of play into three or more? Marketing geniuses sold them.

Viagra and kindred pills that raise smirks and much else? Yes, you guessed it, pharmaceutical geniuses concocted them, and just when women of a certain age thought it safe to go back into the bedroom.

Yet some sympathy is due to geniuses. Not that I would know personally, but it must be awful attending a meeting of Mensa, the organization of the chronically intelligent. A member could hardly settle down with a cold brewski before some earnest bald guy comes up and says, “Hey, how about that Kierkegaard?”

Fortunately, geniuses have their own support group, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It has just released the list of its 2006 MacArthur Fellows, which are known by lesser intellects as the genius awards.

Among the 25 new fellows this year is one from Pittsburgh, Luis von Ahn, 28, who is an assistant professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University.

He is said to be “working at the intersection of cryptography and artificial and natural intelligence to address problems of profound theoretical and practical importance relating to Internet security and functionality.”

It is good that he is standing at that intersection doing whatever on earth he is doing. Hitherto, the main person considered a genius in these parts has been the Steelers defensive coordinator.

The amazing thing about the genius awards is that they come with $500,000, paid over five years with no strings attached. That’s a lot of hot dinners where I come from. A fellow could be forgiven for thinking all his birthdays had come at once and burst into song: “For I’m a jolly rich fellow, for I’m a jolly rich fellow _ and so say all the dumbos.”

While a fellow doesn’t have to do anything for the money, it is hoped he or she will have Great Thoughts and make important contributions in the future. (I had a Great Thought once, but I didn’t get paid so I promptly put it out of my mind.)

As people determined to keep life unfair like to say, life is unfair. Actually, this is unfair. Already heavily endowed with brains in the lottery of life, the recipient is rewarded for being smart enough to have used his or her considerable gray matter in productive ways.

It is true that these subsidized geniuses may go on and invent something for the betterment of mankind, but will it really be better?

Maybe they will invent female Viagra and old dignified gentlemen will find their peace disturbed when they are trying to watch football on TV. Maybe they will invent new cell phones that not only vibrate but also play the national anthem loudly so that everybody in the theater will be obliged to stand up, thereby masking the sound of the call.

Giving money to geniuses is the intellectual version of the beauty sweepstakes. The handsome and shapely get the dates. The homely and misshapen stay at home. Yet, speaking for the latter group, we need love too, and we also need money to subsidize our dull thoughts.

That is why I call on America’s foundations to have an annual award for those blissfully untroubled by intellectual effort. Call them the Egg McMuffin Awards for the Mind, fast, enjoyable and not nutritious.

These awards will give the American people hope as they stand there at the intersection of innocence and gullibility. No strings should be attached _ except one. Winners could not vote for five years. Perhaps that will stop them relating to the knuckleheads in high places who think they are geniuses.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)