Posted on September 14, 2020

The Logic Of Bell Curve Leftism

Andrew Sullivan, September 11, 2020

There aren’t many books out there these days by revolutionary communists who are into the genetics of intelligence. But then there aren’t many writers like Freddie DeBoer. He’s an insistently quirky thinker who has managed to resist the snark, cynicism and moral preening of so many others in his generation — and write from his often-broken heart. And the core of his new book, “The Cult of Smart,” is a moral case for those with less natural intelligence than others — the ultimate losers in our democratic meritocracy, a system both the mainstream right and left have defended for decades now, and that, DeBoer argues, gives short shrift to far too many.

This isn’t a merely abstract question for him. He has grappled with it directly. As a school teacher he encountered the simple, unavoidable fact that some humans are more academically gifted than others, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it. He recalls his effort to teach long division to a boy who had managed to come a long way socially (he’d gone from being a hell-raiser to a good student) but who still struggled with something as elemental as long division: “At one point he broke into tears, as he had several times before … I exhaled slowly and felt myself give up, though of course I would never tell him so. I tried to console him, once again, and he said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ And it struck me, with unusual force, that he was right.”

What DeBoer tries to do is explain how our current culture and political system is geared to torment, distress and punish this kid for no fault of his own. “This is the cult of smart,” DeBoer proclaims. “It is the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change.” It has become un-American — or perhaps it always was? — to say that an individual has natural limits, that, even with extremely hard work, he won’t always be able to realize his dreams. And this is not because of anything he has done or failed to do — but simply because of his draw in the genetic lottery of life. The very American cult of education is supposed to end this injustice — except that it doesn’t, because it can’t, and its brutal logic actually exposes and entrenches the least defensible inequality of all, the inequality of nature.

This genetic reality — in fact, the very idea of nature existing at all — is currently a taboo topic on the left. In the most ludicrously untrue and yet suffocatingly omnipresent orthodoxy of our time, critical theory leftists insist that everything on earth is entirely socially constructed, that all inequality is a function of “oppressive systems” {snip} Freddie begs to differ: “Human behavioral traits, such as IQ, are profoundly shaped by genetic parentage, and this genetic influence plays a larger role in determining human outcomes than the family and home environment.”

People are not just born unequally and unfairly into class, and culture, and place, they are inherently unequal in various ways in their very nature: “not everyone has the same ability to do calculus; not everyone has the same grasp of grammar and mechanics … we can continue to beat our heads against the wall, trying to force an equality that just won’t come. Or we can face facts and start to grapple with a world where everyone simply can’t be made equal.” And this is not a counsel of despair. What Freddie is arguing is that, far from treating genetic inequality as a taboo, the left should actually lean into it to argue for a more radical re-ordering of society. They shouldn’t ignore genetics, or treat it as unmentionable, or go into paroxysms of fear and alarm over “eugenics” whenever the subject comes up. They should accept that inequality is natural, and construct a politics radical enough to counter it.

For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence {snip} DeBoer believes the smart will do fine under any system, and don’t need to be incentivized — and their disproportionate gains in our increasingly knowledge-based economy can simply be redistributed to everyone else. {snip}

{snip} Let the super-smart create the wealth and then tax the hell out of them — to provide Medicare for all, universal pre-K, and a UBI or a guaranteed job.


I think it was Mickey Kaus who once quipped about the potential for “Bell Curve Leftism”, but DeBoer takes it seriously and thinks it through. {snip}


The reason for the left’s pathological distrust of the genetics of intelligence, of course, is about groups. Many legitimately worry that because there are real differences between some crudely defined racial groups, intelligence genetics must be inherently racist, and thereby should remain a forbidden topic. Freddie is risking cancellation by even mentioning it. But he insists that the heritability of intelligence is for individuals, not groups: “it is perfectly consistent to believe that the difference between individual students is largely genetic while the difference between racial groups is not.” {snip}

So why is the difference between these “racial” groups so great and seemingly stable, even if there is more variability within any such group than between any? Freddie notes that “if the average white student sits at 50 percent of all students at a given academic task, the average black student lies somewhere between 15 and 30 percent,” which is not a minor difference. DeBoer doesn’t explain it as a factor of class — he notes the IQ racial gap persists even when removing socio-economic status from the equation. Nor does he ascribe it to differences in family structure — because parenting is not that important. He cites rather exposure to lead, greater disciplinary punishment for black kids, the higher likelihood of being arrested, the stress of living in a crime-dominated environment, the deep and deadening psychological toll of pervasive racism, and so on: “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it in our investigations of the racial achievement gap.”

He is emphatic on this, as well he might be, inveighing against pernicious “race scientists” whose genetic reductionism he says is indistinguishable from racism. But he is almost as withering about those “well-meaning but misguided people who dismiss the importance of genetics out of hand, who associate any discussion of the heritability of behavioral traits with the worst elements of eugenics and colonialism, and who make grandiose claims about a scientific literature they have never read.”


{snip} I believe a moral revolution in this materialist, competitive, emptying rat-race of smarts is long overdue. It could come from the left or the right. Or it could come from a spiritual and religious revival. Either way, Freddie DeBoer and this little book are part of the solution to the unfairness and cruelty of it all. If, of course, there is one.