Sunday, November 14, 2004

Savant Idiots

Among those with the congitive disorder called Autism is an interesting subset called Autistic Savants. They are autistic people, often very low functioning, who have one random, very particular skill -- something they do as well as, if not better than, anyone else. In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant with a talent for mathematics. Hoffman's portrayal was fairly accurate, if a bit high-functioning -- childlike simplicity works better, cinematically, than staring and drooling.

Some real life autistic savants solve math problems, like the Rain Man, others can play a musical composition from memory after only one hearing; others do photo-realistic drawings from memory. Others have savant skills that are less impressive. They might be able to wad up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash can from across the room and never miss. Still others may have skills that we, in the outside world, just can't appreciate --there might be some special genius in the way they stare that we just don't get. That's the thing about autistic people: they have as many neurons as anyone else. Something's going on in there. Sometimes we can tell what it is -- sometimes not.

The term "Autistic Savant" is the currently "acceptable" replacement for the previous, and still more widely used term "Idiot Savant" from which I derive the title of this posting. If you are more familiar with the old form, please continue to use it and leave "Autistic Savant" to mental health professionals and the politically correct. As soon as a term becomes common usage -- as soon as the general public figures out what it means -- the process of looking for another term begins. Common usage pursues correctness through the lexicon, nipping at its heels. I think correctness needs a rest right now. So, I'll use "Idiot Savant" for the rest of this posting.

Which brings me --finally-- to my real topic: Savant Idiots. Savant Idiots are the people you see on TV, or read in magazines or newspapers, or hear on the radio, or at concerts -- people of real and varied accomplishments, polymaths who are effortlessly good at many things -- who manage to be the most appalling idiots at one particular thing: Politics.

About this time every four years I heave a great sigh of relief that I can once again turn on the TV or go to a film without having everyone I see exhibit their symptoms. Its not that I think public figures don't have a right to political opinions [although, the idea is not without appeal, come to think of it ] but just that political advice is not why I seek them out. I mean, I'm all for health care and I applaud people who keep themselves in good repair, but this doesn't mean that I want my tax accountant to pull up his shirt and show me his scar. That's not why I go to him and it would add nothing helpful to my opinion of him as a tax accountant.

For a more concrete example, consider Garrison Keillor. I like his radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, and I enjoy his sense of humor and his facility with words. He has a good singing voice, given the right song, and the good sense to know what he can sing and which songs should be left to someone else. He is a fine storyteller -- the stories he tells are sometimes funny and other times interesting, and even when they are neither funny nor interesting they are still worth listening to, if only for the soothing sound of his voice. I am a fan. But, for a couple of months every four years I tend to forget why.

In his book The Anticapitalist Mentality Ludwig Von Mises offers some thoughts about why so many creative people are political naiifs. His theory, as well as I can recall, was that artists -- even successful artists -- are insecure about their popularity, and thus their livelihood. Fame is capricious, sometimes withheld when it is deserved, sometimes granted for no apparent sensible reason. Von Mises speculated that people who live by popularity are attracted to centralized authority in hopes that it will provide objective standards. (Celebrities are usually vain enough to think that they would measure up if they only knew what the standards were.)

This is a plausible sounding theory but I prefer my theory that celebrities have something wrong with their brains. I think that there is some part of the brain that controls clue acquisition and that, for some people, it just doesn't work. This disability leaves the sufferer incurably clueless but the brain compensates with additional activity in other areas, particularly those associated with creative activities. Because of these compensations many celebs go on to leave apparently full and seemingly constructive lives as long as they are not put in situations requiring actual cognition.

A proposal: I think that the problem posed by savant idiots can be improved (if not completely eliminated) by a few simple social rules and regulations. In much the same way we provide ramps for the handicapped (or physically challenged, or differently enabled, or whatever we're supposed to call them) we should try to create an environment for the savant idiot celebrities where they will not be put in situations where their disability will manifest itself. I think, for instance, there should be regulations that prevent people from telling television or movie actors the name of candidates for political office, or letting them find out when elections are being held. The only political yard signs or buttons allowed within the city limits of Hollywood and Manhattan should promote Jed Bartlet for President and the McCain-Feingold law should be strengthened to get all political adds on television and radio because the guys in the newsroom might be exposed to them and become agitated.

Just a few simple changes, but what a difference they would make in the lives of the savant idiots among us.


Das said...

Yes. The way I explain it to myself: celebrities become regular people - rude regular people - when they spout off about politics. It's been a long time since Springsteen has been a regular guy. Celebrity is never having to know you are rude. Then there is a sidebar on why they would think that anyone cares about their politics in the first place...Savant Idiots...

Calvin said...

a very Modest Proposal indeed.