In modern-day estimate, a person’s level of intelligence is measured by h/her worth in the bank. By this estimation, Bill Gates is the most intelligent person on the planet by any category. Larry Ellison of the Oracle fortune is more intelligent than Donald Trump. Tiger Woods is the most intelligent person in the world of sports, above Phil Michelson and Ernie Els by a few visible notches. The two Toms in Hollywood, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, are the most intelligent men in the glitzy world of glamour, over such contenders as Will Smith and Denzel Washington.
What about Garrett Lisi? The genius on surfboard that wrote a paper, An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything, which, in the very near future, might just crack the impasse in the research for Theory of Everything of the universe. Granted, Mr. Lisi still has a ways to go before he would be considered anywhere near a contender to Einstein, who is incidentally the only person one would think of as being intelligent without in the same breath considering his worth in the bank. But Lisi is undoubtedly ranked way up there, above and beyond Bill Gates or Tiger Woods or the Toms, in the general measurement of intelligence quotients. Unless he breaks through brilliantly with affirmation of his theory, Lisi will, however, be considered a person with contentious intelligence in the select community of scientists. Outside of this community, he’s just a geek.
Ironic and unfair? Oh sure, but that’s the reality of modern day’s sense of value for intelligence. Ask a regular Joe about what he understands by Einstein’s intelligence, he will most probably scratch his head and at best jots down E=mc2. He wouldn’t be any wiser of course that the formula is supposed to explain how energy can be converted by multiplying the mass by the square of the speed of light. Ask him why he thinks Bill Gates is intelligent, he might suddenly wax loquacious, describing an expansive empire of Windows EX software packages, Xbox players, and the recent investment forays into the search directory domain, etc. etc. In a fuzzy logical way, intelligence has become the generic term for success. Erudition is a redundant marker that bears no significance.
It’s also interesting to note how intelligence has become the thing to be avoided at all costs in conversations. To the list of religion, politics and race, now we should add intelligence. Any crazy dude who comes to a party and tries to make an opening gambit in a conversation with how excited he is that now after almost twenty years in construction the biggest atom smasher, Large Hadron Collider, is in full operation, will definitely encounter a grimace and awkward shifts of legs, and quick exits in the group. Or try another approach, talk about the new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. How much improved and more precise this new version is as opposed to the Constance Garnett’s version. Eyes rolled up, glazed over, sudden acknowledgment of invisible beckoning hands from the next table. Whoever this guy is, he will be branded for sure a social moron.
Intellectualism is considered poor taste. One is supposed to hide it, conceal it with great discretion, to eschew the wrathful disdain of general public. Try and make a serious film with intelligent dialogues, the writer and filmmaker will be accused of being high-mindedly patronizing. No writer in h/her right mind would think of going for another War and Peace or The Novel of the Century. In an egalitarian society, all men and women are equal. Or in more layman terms, try and impress a girl at the bar with your intelligence, chances are you’ll be tooted with an upturned nose and a shrug of cold shoulder. You might have a better crack at it by being a funny bone.
No man or woman deserves the highchair of wisdom (intelligence) unless he or she has amassed great fortunes to show for it: see J.K Rowling. In the film industry, see Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. That seems to be the rule of thumb these days. In other words, intelligence is meaningless unless it can be measured in clear materialistic or commercial terms, such as how many private jets Bill Gates owns. Or by how many orphanages Angelina Jollie helps to build in underdeveloped countries. There must be a tangible value for it to count.
Any efforts in scholarly studies or pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself will be seconded by any studies that promise clear commercial gains. It’s easy to see nowadays why intelligence shouldn’t be flaunted, because it is generally considered inappropriately pretentious in any social setting, while great wealth should be visibly bragged about: watch how Oprah Winfrey wags her coiffeur in mock humility while commiserating with her multimillionaire sports star guest on the pains of being a celebrity and being rich. Measurable or immeasurable wealth is in our age the new badge of intelligence.
A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, November 25, 2008