You're Not as Smart as You Think
The older I get the more I see how often high intelligence serves as a trap. I've met over the years a number of people who were almost invariably the smartest person in the room. The problem was that being smarter than almost anyone else they met frequently led them to think that they were smarter than everyone else combined, often with disastrous consequences.
The Alter of Slabodka once said of a certain talmid who was leaving the yeshiva, "He's an ilui. The problem is that he thinks he's twice that." That talmid went on to a distinguished academic career as a professor of Talmud.
Overconfidence in one's own intellectual prowess often goes hand in hand with a tendency to underestimate that of others. Many decades ago, Chicago lawyer once warned me against the dangers of trying cases downstate: "With your fancy Ivy League degree and big firm name, you'll be sure that you are ten times smarter than opposing counsel. You'll soon find a country lawyer with forty years of experience and hundreds of jury trials running rings around you."
Fortunately, I had already been somewhat inoculated in law school. A number of my best friends were from North Carolina, and spoke with easy Southern drawls. One could be misled into thinking that the pace of their words had some connection to the pace of their minds. After a few times having your (intellectual) pockets picked while waiting impatiently for them to finish a sentence, one learned better.
Flim-flam operators have always known that the easiest marks are those who are the most sure that everyone is trying to take them for a ride and have therefore set up elaborate precautions to prevent that. Their reliance on their own cleverness is easily exploited.
I suspect that one of the reasons that so many in our community fall into financial scams is the feeling that having learned Gemara they are smarter than everyone else. (There are other reasons for the vulnerability as well.) Sure they know that no one earns 15% on their money, certainly not 25% or 50%, but they tell themselves, that rule only applies to lesser mortals who lack the intellectual acuity that only Gemara study can provide. And if the one selling them something too good to be true has also learned in yeshivos, well, that explains why they are able to offer such easy gains.
THESE RUMINATIONS on intellectual arrogance are not new. I've collected them over the years. But I was reminded of them recently by David Samuel's profile of Ben Rhodes, the Obama speechwriter who became his closest national security advisor, in the New York Times Magazine, "The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign Policy Guru."
The president's own high self-regard is well-documented. His former political director Patrick Gaspard quoted him in 2008 as telling him: "I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director." Obama always thinks he is the smartest person in the room," is how his former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it.
And his foreign policy amanuensis Rhodes mirrors that arrogance. "Brutal contempt," Samuels informs us, "is the hallmark of his private utterances." He has a "healthy contempt" for the entire foreign policy establishment, including largely supportive senior editors and reporters, all of whom he lumps together as the Blob. And his work on the Iraq Study Group convinced him that all the "decision-makers [in Iraq] were morons."
The dangers of such intellectual hubris are manifold. One is the inability to entertain contrary views or even conceive the necessity of intellectual pushback. Another is the refusal to notice when things are not exactly going according to plan, for acknowledging that might require recognizing that one's calculations were wrong, perhaps fatally so.
Samuels quotes a former senior foreign policy advisor to Obama, who notes the president's incapacity to rethink when things go poorly or to take into account new facts. He describes the president as resentful when reality fails to conform to his analysis of where the arc of history is headed: "Instead of adjusting his policies to the reality, and adjusting his perception of reality to the changing facts on the ground, the conclusions he draws are exactly the same, no matter what the costs have been to our strategic interests."
In the face of Iranian provocations following the "deal" – e.g., testing ballistic missiles in violation of Security Council resolutions – Obama will not entertain suggestions of an American response. Every such suggestion plays in his head as just the voices of "blood-thirsty know-nothings from a different era who play by the old book."
In his stubbornness, the former official ironically compares Obama to George W. Bush. But the comparison does not do justice to Bush. Bush dramatically changed course in Iraq in 2007 and ordered the surge in the face of widespread skepticism. By 2009, Iraq was on the path to stability until America removed all its troops.
Perhaps Bush's advantage was that he never thought he was the smartest person in the world, and was open to hearing advice from General David Petraeus.
Almost entirely absent for Obama's long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the March Atlantic is any hint of recognition that the world today is a far more dangerous place than the one his cowboy predecessor left him. Not all those dangers flow from presidential decisions but many surely do. Libya today is a failed state and ISIS haven because of the removal of Gaddaffi. The failure to retain a military presence in Iraq in 2009 left the Shiite government free to dominate Sunnis.
The resultant Sunni resentment was one factor fueling the rise of the Sunni ISIS. The other is the U.S. failure to aid the Sunni rebels in Syria against Assad. The lack of any other credible Syrian opposition to Shi'ite-Alawi domination again aroused Sunni resentment and also contributed to the rise to ISIS as a counterforce against the Iranian-Assad alliance.
Rhodes is troubled by the carnage in Syria, but takes no responsibility. Asked by Samuels whether it really makes sense for the U.S. to try to strong arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to a brutal dictator who has murdered their families or to allow Iran to keep its supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon open, he mutters something about John Kerry – in Obamaland there is always someone else to blame – and the collapse of the Sunni Arab world build by the American foreign policy establishment.
Even Thomas Friedman could see through the arrogance:
President Obama has been patting himself on the back a lot lately for not intervening in Syria. I truly sympathized with how hard that call was – until I heard the president and his aides boasting about how smart their decision was and how stupid all their critics are.
Friedman points at that the consequences of the current situation in Syria, which is destabilizing the E.U. Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan and Jordan, hardly gives anyone the right to claim a monopoly on genius.
Most attention to the Samuels piece has centered on Rhodes gleeful boasting about having successfully created a media "echo chamber" that placed the Iranian nuclear deal in the context of the election of a "moderate" as president. Rhodes does not deny that the narrative was false; he brags about it.
But the justification is interesting: Those opposed to the Iran deal are just too stupid to enter into rational discourse with. "I'd prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote," Rhodes told Samuels. "But that's impossible."
So instead the Obama administration never even allowed the Iran deal to be voted on in the Senate. Superior intelligence, it seems, justifies deliberate lies. The other side is too stupid to engage in debate with. And how do we know that they are so stupid? Because they disagree with us. So much for democracy.
Adam Garfinkle, editor of the American Interest and a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, points out another danger in the intellectual arrogance of the president and his chief national security advisor, the man who one and all in the White House describe as a "mind meld" with the president: The notion that if one is smart enough one need not actually know anything. All the old tools of foreign policy – knowledge of languages, the study of foreign cultures, some grounding in the history of foreign relations – all unnecessary. We are all post-modernists now constructing our own texts, our own foreign policy. And for that who could be better suited than a former "aspiring novelist."
The rise of a post-modernist foreign policy, Garfinkle suggests is just one more sign of the decline of the American university. He describes an old view "that true mastery of a subject took a lot of work, a lot of discipline, and a lot of time. One learned to respect the difficulty of attaining true competence." In that old dispensation, "creativity need to wait until basics were firmly in hand."
And truth was something to be sought – "evasive, subtle, and perhaps even both relative and shifting as life lumbered onward but it existed . . . [a]nd it was your job to search for it." It did not belong to one person or group by virtue of the superior intelligence, certainly it did not entitle the smart ones to create the truth as they saw fit. Rather the truth belonged to those who valued it and sought it.
Those too enamored of their own intelligence, it seems, are not only a danger to themselves, but to all the rest of us as well.