Friday, February 3, 2012

Morons Marching Away from Omelas

Recently I amused myself by thinking of a situation where two short stories -- "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula LeGuin and Cyril Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" -- were read aloud at the same event. The result was a matter/antimatter explosion that could have been featured on Star Trek.

I've written about "Omelas" before (as has John Scalzi, among others). It's a secular parable, basically in the vein of Christ's reminder, "Whatever you did unto one of the least, you did unto me."

"Morons," on the other hand (perhaps it would be more accurate to say, "on a hand on a different body"), is an antecedent to both Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and the works of Charles Murray. In it, a Rip-van-Winkle-like character named Barlow awakens to find himself far in the future, when the population of the world has been dumbed down because of too much breeding among the "undesirable." The few intelligent people left run everything, but they let the stupids think they're in charge. In the end, Barlow comes up with a plan to convince the populace that we're colonizing Venus and everyone is going, when in reality the rockets the "morons" board are actually sending them off to their deaths in space.

The story (and Kornbluth, one infers) has no affection for Barlow's final solution, but at the same time the whole thing is premised on the idea that disposing of the undesirables was a necessary evil.

This kind of thinking is contrary to the fact that IQs have been going up for the past century, as Steven Pinker reminds us. As PZ Myers put it,

The other premise of the marching morons scenario, that the underclass would sink deeper and deeper into stupidity, is completely absurd. There aren't any human subcultures that don't value problem-solving and cleverness, where apathy and dull-wittedness are desirable traits in a mate (again, there are individuals who are contrary, but we're talking about populations here.) Growing up [working poor, sometimes called white trash], I experienced that social pressure that makes getting good grades in school a problem for fitting in with a certain peer group — but that isn't about despising intelligence, it's about conforming to the trappings of your group and not adopting the markers of another class, especially when that class has a habit of treating you like dirt and talking abstractly about how to expunge you, your family, and your friends from the gene pool.

And no, eating brie, going to Harvard, and reading the Wall Street Journal are not indicators of ability — they are properties of class. Drinking beer, learning a trade, and reading Sports Illustrated doesn't mean you're dumber, or that there are genes driving your choices — it means you are the product of a particular environment. Yet we all practice this fallacy of judging someone's intelligence by how they dress or their entertainment preferences, and society as a whole indulges in the self-fulfilling prophecy of doling out educational opportunities on the basis of economic status.

There are mobs of stupid people out there. Sterilizing them or shipping them off to Venus won't change a thing, though, no matter how effective your elimination procedures are, because you'll just breed more from the remaining elite stock. Similarly, lining up the elites against the wall won't change the overall potential of the population — new elites will arise from the common stock. The answer is always going to be education and opportunity and mobility. That's what's galling about Kornbluth's story, that it is so one-dimensional, and the proposed solution is a non-solution.
It's easy to get bent out of shape by dreck like Murray's or provocation like Kornbluth's. Myers wrote a stirring response to it, as Scalzi has to Atlas Shrugged. (Interestingly, Scalzi and Myers both grew up poor or working poor, so their perspectives have extra resonance.)

But possibly we (or our blood pressure) would all be better off if we just made fun of these ideas, as Douglas Adams did in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with his own parable of the Golgafrinchans. In what must have been a reference to "Morons," Adams told of a society that had fooled all of its "useless" people into heading off into space for a one-way trip to nowhere. All of the telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, management consultants and marketing executives boarded a ship, thinking they were the first wave of colonization.

All was well for the smarties until they were all killed by a virulent disease spread on contaminated telephone receivers.


Miz Fitz... said...

The last thing I did last night was work on a short essay concerning "The Ones Who Walks Away from Omelas," and this morning here you are.

Daughter Number Three said...

Miz Fitz, you will have to tell your eager readers where they can find your essay on "Omelas."