On weblogs, both in posts and in comments, one of the most frequently cited characteristics of political operatives is their intelligence (or lack thereof). The same goes for those who post on blogs and in the comments sections. It’s a preoccupation in blogs to assess or otherwise comment on everyone’s smarts. Yet I don’t recall ever noticing journalists in the mainstream media bothering to comment much, at least out loud or in print, whether someone is smart, average, or downright stupid. Considering how very important smarts seem to be in the blogsphere, it’s a rather startling omission in mainstream journalism. Perhaps it’s the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge.
So in politics, since that’s the dominant subject of public debate, do smarts really matter? I think they probably don’t but should. We’re just as suspicious and sceptical of those who are regarded as highly intelligent (e.g., Clinton) as those regarded as mere hat holders (e.g., Bush the younger). And since results speak louder than reputations, the meaningful part of any legacy is effectiveness rather than good intentions (e.g., Carter).
The only way to judge the intelligence of bloggers and commenters is to examine how well ideas are put across in print. In politics, there are many other avenues, and press offices seek to shape and frame impressions in the most advantageous ways, which aren’t always the most intelligent. We also discuss credentials such as education (degrees and alma maters) and stats (GPAs, SATs, and IQs), and intangibles such as charisma. Considering intelligence has been redefined in the past few decades as being more than simply raw information processing power (probably closest to an IQ measurement), multiple intelligences or overall intelligence can’t really be assessed well using any sole traditional measure. Combinations of criteria also introduce too many variables, which quickly become worthless apples-and-oranges comparisons.
Personally, I don’t care about anyone’s credentials all that much; I care about ideas, and I look to writing for effective, intelligent communication. Writing is mostly uninfluenced by personal charisma (exhibited in face-to-face or video contexts), and anonymous writing (as with many blogs) also diminishes the cult of personality surrounding many public figures. So an Ann Coulter type, on the basis of her reputation, might get a pass for (presumably) smart writing in a book published under her name, but the same writing offered anonymously would be given no extra credit because of the writer’s identity.
Still, why are blog writers and commenters so preoccupied with intelligence? I sense that many in the blogosphere have become serious adherents to public debate, and the worthiness of the opponent is an important consideration. It goes beyond idle entertainment or mere gamesmanship, though that’s part of it, too. Worthiness is correlated to intelligence and writing ability. Paradoxically, many high-profile bloggers and commenters don’t write very well. But they can often suss out the salacious topics and angles and inject excitement into the debate. Both of these characteristics go against the 18th-century notion of rational, informed public debate associated with Paine and Jefferson, which is ideally conducted dispassionately and disinterestedly but with a vivid, lucid writing style. That sensibility is difficult to achieve, but I daresay we would all say, Bring It!