The Talented And The Mediocre


When plain men celebrate fairness and justice, they instinctively know that there is no fairness in this elusive quest for fairness and justice. They do it with the same strength of conviction with which a young girl reads a work of genius and tells the writer that she can hear a loud, endless applause inside her head.

When Rajat Gupta was convicted on insider trading charges, many columnists wrote that a great man has fallen, and that they do not want to believe that such good men can do bad things. The jury members turned misty-eyed before passing the judgment. It pained them, but……but……justice has to be done. Even talented men should not be allowed get away with their wrong doings.

But, Rajat Gupta was talented and successful while the middle-aged blokes who sit in their little corner and churn out one fraudulent piece after another are not. Could this have had any bearing upon their judgment? But, then, if they are also lying to themselves, it is perhaps not really a lie. It is at worst, a delusion, and at best, a sincere conviction.

It might as well be true that what Rajat Gupta did will be punished even in a just society. But, the sentimentalists will not tell us that economists have long been arguing that insider trading can be beneficial because superior knowledge is valuable. There is a near-unanimous consensus that insider trading regulations are ineffective. But then, the sentimentalists do not know this, and do not wish to know. It doesn’t pay to be know, materially or “spiritually” because talented men belong to the enemy group. Little people deserve to escape.

People do not feel much empathy towards enemy groups, irrespective of the facts of the matter. Ingroup-outgroup warfare is not deeply influenced by income, as people believe. Billionaires are more likely to identify with ordinary workers than they are likely to identify with other billionaires. People are more likely to identify with low-skilled workers of their own nationality more, even if they are incomparably wealthier than potential immigrants. The Forbes list of billionaires is published on the front page of newspapers. No one protests. People might say that IQ is bogus, or that it is irrelevant, or that it is not perfect, or that “things are more complex than that”. But, imagine a lead story on gender differences in ability, the racial differences in IQ or the correlation between IQ and success! Such sensitive issues are confined to the cloistered groves of academe, where they rightly belong.

People might not admit this, but this really matters to people. Intellectuals and women raise their mate value by swearing allegiance to ingroups. The whole NGO industry is rooted in this. So is the government, the schooling system, the universities, and much of what the media produces. This is also why much of a man’s life is spent doing inane, pointless things.

Moral outrage is rooted in such distinctions, and genuine moral considerations exist only within these confines. Even the concept of empathy is defined within these confines. This is true, even in ordinary life. When people say that someone has low empathizing skills, they possibly mean that the truth is more important to him than emotions and ingroup-outgroup distinctions. They will not explicitly state, “We are deeply insecure. How can you not know?”. A man who does not easily get along with people do not know that others are perhaps trying to say, “You might be good at co-operating, but not adept at conniving. But, it is very important to us.” People are not fully aware of this because they do not know how to make such fine distinctions, because they do not have clarity of thought. Conventional notions of empathy are a slander on clear-thinking men.

When the mediocre set standards, the process is intended to enshrine mediocrity. This is the most underrated conflict of our times, and of all times. Even the fate of humanity is shaped by the extent to which clarity of thought prevails over the sloppy, contemptible ideals of mankind.

An intellectual’s status is largely determined by his skill in inciting inter-group warfare. To be an influential intellectual, you have to be smart and hard working. And you should hate the enemy groups. You need not go overboard in stating it, but you should hate them.

A politician’s status is purely a function of this skill in inciting inter-group warfare, in empathizing with the average man. Politics attracts only rascals because an honest, clear-thinking man in politics has to spend every single second of his life lying, biting his tongue and predicting the mass response to his statements and actions. People who think that this is an exaggeration should imagine what happens when politicians fail here. When Rahul Gandhi recently said that people can overcome poverty, many publications wrote that he was mocking the poor. It is a tight-rope walk. Successful politicians will not know how this can be a tight rope walk. That is why they are called successful politicians. People who miss it have never taken decency very seriously.

When perceptions alone matter, vices become virtues, and mediocrity allows itself to be defined as a virtue. This is true not just in democracy, but wherever things that cannot be democratized were democratized, like writing.

It is an exceptional virtue, to be a terrific stylist. To a writer, the beauty of the prose is the most challenging, and the most rewarding accomplishment. A great stylist is born, because it is a function of clarity of thought, of imagination, of intelligence. But, with the advent of the modern state, the universities, the media and the think-tank industry, almost anyone can be an intellectual. When almost anyone is allowed to write, they inevitably confront an embarrassing truth: Talent is uncommon. Even clever boys in high school can instantly penetrate to their inferiority. The only solution is, of course, to legislate style out of existence. It is hardly surprising that the academia and journalism expects you to take a flat tone. They want you to believe that it is a sign of objectivity. But, when you take away the greatest reward, you also kill the incentive to perform. 

There are of course, micro-level tactics, like cutting out the best passages. The arrogance of ordinary people who think that they can improve upon the work of an artist is common in every industry. When God sent them to earth, marking their position somewhere on the IQ pyramid, he did not give them talent. He did not give them self-knowledge either. In Steve Jobs’ biography, one associate of his says that he wanted to control everything, a desire to seek total control over the work he does.He wanted to dominate. These are precisely the kind of people I would want to spit at. Petty, contemptible minds that cannot see anything beyond their insecurities and complexes.

Dan Faber once said that “Steve Jobs is a strong-willed, elitist artist who doesn’t want his creations mutated inauspiciously by unworthy programmers. It would be as if someone off the street added some brush strokes to a Picasso painting or changed the lyrics to a Dylan song.” Yes, when they speak, it is as if they don’t get it, as if they are trying to understand but deep inside they do get it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist.

Mediocrity is enshrined in many different ways. Smart people generally view field work with a healthy contempt. But, in fields where mediocre minds are more common, the ivory tower view is seen with the same suspicion. But, is it a coincidence that the original ideas flow from the ivory tower to the second-rate intellectuals, and that the second-rate intellectuals spend their whole lives debasing them? Is it a coincidence that journalists quote, and learn from academics and not the other way round?

Academics lament the fact that most academics do not know how to write clearly. But, they will not tell you that clarity is not a rare virtue, and that it is the most basic skill a writer can have. Sincerity is considered a great virtue in intellectuals and activists. But, isn’t it true that sincerity is shockingly common? Is it more valuable than erudition and clarity of though?

Consider the obsession with facts. But, this is again an easy virtue. Fact-checking the facts is easier than theory-checking the theories. To theory-check the theories, you have to be erudite, and capable of following long, complicated chains of reasoning. Another joke is that “Facts are sacred, but opinion is free”. I suspect that the tendency to root out opinion from reportage is rooted in this dictum. But, people draw faulty inferences from the most sound observations. Nothing is more harmful than a faulty inference that is based on sound observation. Drawing the right inferences, isn’t this what intellectual inquiry is all about? Isn’t it easy to observe, but hard to draw the right inference?

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