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Thursday, December 1, 2011


I am a big fan of the evening crime show Bones. Courtesy of Netflix, I have watched almost every episode prior to the present season on my computer. The central character, a forensic anthropologist named Dr. Temperance Brennan [nicknamed "Bones"], is played by the irresistible Emily Deschanel [sister of Zoe Deschanel, for pop music fans]. She is represented in the show as being at the top of her rather narrow profession, and is given to constantly touting her own brilliance, saying such things as "I am a genius so you should listen to me" or "I have a Ph. D., and I am much smarter than you." As you can imagine, I find this exceedingly irritating, but the writers, who are rather good, make it clear that this behavior on her part is an expression of deeply rooted insecurity. [Her parents abandoned her as a child -- her father reappears in her life, played by the now quite mature but still very appealing Ryan O'Neal.] It took me a long time to figure out that this is the writers' idea of how non-academics view college professors.

Now, I spent fifty-eight years of my life in the Academy, starting in 1950 when I entered Harvard as a Freshman and ending in 2008 when I retired from my professorship in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts. During that entire time, I was surrounded by people virtually all of whom had doctorates and all of whom [with one or two egregious exceptions] would qualify as smart by the standards of the general public. Many of them were genuinely accomplished in their chosen fields, having done distinguished work that earned them the respect and recognition of their peers.

A relatively small number of the people I came to know well in the Academy were truly brilliant, standing out even in the rather selective circles in which they traveled. If I were to make a list of these truly extraordinary intellectuals, it would include -- leaving to one side my sister and my two sons, Patrick and Tobias, all of whom have some claim to being so identified -- the logician Willard van Orman Quine, the economist Samuel Bowles, the linguist Noam Chomsky, and perhaps my old colleague and friend Charles Parsons. I would like to include the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, but even though I have met Sen several times, and he was for a long time a faithful donor to my scholarship organization, I cannot really claim him as a friend. Nor can I include the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, because even though he and I had four or more personal conversations over a number of years, each time we met he could not recall ever having met me before. I had tea at the home of Bertrand Russell in the Fall of 1954, but of course he probably forgot me as I walked out the door. Nor did I ever have the great pleasure and honor of meeting the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, even though she and I were colleagues at UMass for some years.

In all of those fifty-eight years, I never heard any of these extraordinary people, or indeed any of the merely distinguished people whom I met, ever say anything as nakedly self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory as the remarks given to the character Dr. Temperance Brennan in the television show Bones. However, since confession is good for the soul, I should perhaps take this opportunity to admit that on one lamentable occasion I myself lapsed into a pretty fair imitation of Bones.

It happened like this. I served for twelve years as the Graduate Program Director of the newly created doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at UMass. The students all liked me, because I managed to find a Teaching Fellowship for each of them in every one of those twelve years, and because I was their unfailing supporter in the inevitable encounters with the UMass bureaucracy. But they knew perfectly well that I was no kind of scholar of Afro-American Studies, so when they actually wanted to know something, they went to one of my colleagues. I was, for their purposes, in Lenin's immortal phrase, a useful idiot. One day I was talking with Jennifer Jensen Wallach, one of my all-time favorite students, who had consented to allow me to direct her dissertation, even though she knew vastly more about the subject than I. She made some remark that conveyed to my sensitive ears her view of me as just a very nice departmental administrator, and in a fit of narcissistic pique, I blurted out, "You know, Jennifer, people in this department may not realize it, but I am actually a world famous philosopher." Jennifer, who has a rather puckish sense of humor, took to calling me The WFP, and when her first book was published, she dedicated it "To WFP," a fact of which I am inordinately proud.

Which brings me to Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, as everyone is aware, constantly touts his own brilliance, describing himself as having a world-shaking mind, as having written the most important statement of this or that "since Lincoln's Inaugural Address," as being a fount of important ideas. In short, he presents himself as a know-it-all smartypants braggart, which is, if the writers of Bones are correct, just the way professors are viewed by the seventy percent of adult Americans who do not have a college degree. Like Dr. Temperance Brennan, he seems genuinely not to understand how ridiculous this makes him look, and like her, his self-promotion probably stems from a very deeply rooted insecurity. The basic difference between him and the television character is that she is, or is represented in the show to be, genuinely brilliant in her field, whereas Gingrich, as I now know from having read his doctoral dissertation, has a rather pedestrian and mediocre mind by the standards of the Academy. His insecurity is honestly come by, if I may put it that way.

It is beginning to look as though Gingrich may actually win the Republican nomination for the Presidency this year, thanks to Mitt Romney's inability to win over much more than a quarter of the Republican electorate. If that does come to pass, we shall have another eleven months of Newt to kick around. Now, people don't like know-it-all smartypants, and Gingrich seems genuinely incapable of concealing that facet of his personality, or even of realizing the prudence of concealing it. If he does indeed secure the nomination, I think there will be a small voice deep inside him that tells him he has pulled off a vast scam, and his inability to heed that voice will push him to ever more grandiose self-descriptions. The contrast with Barack Obama, who really is very smart [though not, I think, in the league of Quine, Bowles, or Chomsky] and yet is quite modest about his intellectual attainments, should make for some riveting viewing.


Keith said...

There is such pleasure gained from reading a well constructed essay like this.

There is also pleasure in having related observations condensed into one sentence. Paul Krugman: "Gingrich Is what stupid people think a smart person sounds like".

And, speaking of clever people and compact expression: can we get these people to stop comparing themselves to Churchill?

Aaron Baker said...

I think Temperance Brennan's arrogance is regarded as extremely eccentric even among the "squints" she works with.

I'd like to say in passing that a much more attractive characteristic of Bones is her unapologetic atheism. She's not the first atheist on television, but she's one of the few who isn't a foil for some pro-religion message.

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