The Idiot Savant

Some of my articles have focused on highlighting characteristics of my fellow countrywomen and countrymen in Israel. The Romans used to say castigat ridendo mores that loosely means "one corrects customs by laughing at them”. I try to make my readers laugh through the recognition of their own traits. But enough with the Israelis laughing at themselves. It is time for the Israelis to laugh at someone else, and hopefully for someone else to take a look at their own customs. I only criticize the ones I love so this week the article is about the land Israelis refer to as “lands of the covenant”—America.


In 2015, PISA —Program for International School Assessment—tested fifteen-year-old students, in more than 70 countries and education systems, on their critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities as well as their proficiency in core subjects. American students ranked 35th in Math (below the OECD average), 24th in reading, and 25th in Science. The most interesting thing is that those American students ranked number 1 in self-esteem. Self-esteem is how well the students thought they did. Most of them thought they were the best in the subjects on which they were tested. 


America is the land of self-esteem. Boy, all you need is to talk two minutes with an American to think, “Who blew air so far up this guy’s ass to make him believe he can actually fly?” An American is never “average”, and if he is it is because someone else failed to understand his or her greatness. Now, for me, coming from a country where self-deprecation is a polite social ritual I do not see this as a negative. In fact I believe the high self-esteem of Americans explains most of their country´s great achievements. Some Americans tend to blame the educational developments of the last 30 years in their country for these results on the PISA test. But the truth is that unrealistic notions about the self have always been a corner stone of America since Washington crossed the Delaware with less troops than his enemy. Individualism built America, and individualism is built on self-belief, sometimes to a unrealistic degree. But if you think of self-confidence as belief in capabilities you might not have, then most self-confidence is unrealistic to begin with. As George Costanza said,  “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”


But there is a not so positive side to this abundance of self-esteem that Americans have. If you walk into a party anywhere in Los Angeles you immediately spot a specific kind of self-confident American. They usually talk the loudest, they are male most of the time (though not always), and instant experts on everything.  When I mean experts I mean Einstein didn’t know the first thing about physics when placed next to one of these guys. I call them “idiot savants”—persons who are extremely unworldly but display natural wisdom and insight. Many of them have talk shows on American radio and others achieve high positions in the executive branch of government. An idiot savant is instantly qualified to talk about any subject with facile and definitive statements that will disarm anyone including real experts on the subject being discussed. Other important traits of the idiot savant are confusing the specific (what he knows) with the general, and also an incapability to place precise information into a wider context (which he might not know about).


Once, in a party me and a Swiss friend met an American who spoke about the sweet sexy life the inhabitants of Florence, Italy, were enjoying in that distant year of 2011. This was the year the sovereign debt crisis hit Italy and Southern European economies harder. I was living in Portugal, a country not far from Italy, where youth unemployment was 30%, Spain next door had 50%, and France was in deep trouble too. So just from deduction I knew that people in a big Italian city could not be enjoying life as much as this idiot savant was saying they did. But he was not letting go. For him every inhabitant of Florence was a sex bomb, a culinary expert, and someone who could not speak English FULL STOP. My Swiss friend kept smiling and saying, “Yes, yes, of course.” But the idiot savant detected the irony. “What? You don’t believe me? Dude, I lived in Florence for a year.”  Baum! And there it was, a conversation closer! This guy who did not speak a word of Italian knew all there was to know about Florence because he lived there for a year. In a normal conversation, you cannot really rebuke this argument, and why should you? I never lived in Florence, or Italy for that matter, I am not qualified to speak on the subject, and probably what the idiot savant said might be true, probably a part of what he said might be true. I do not know. Even if I knew I would never make a definitive statement about such a subject. This guy lived in a small niche of most-likely American expats with money, a bubble inside a bubble, and yet he seemed to know what an Italian of his age living in Florence, most likely unemployed or employed not making enough money to leave his parents home, felt and behaved like.  


You hear this kind of statements in American talk radio all the time. There are always those references to a law you never heard that a senator approved without you knowing about it, and that later you discover with a quick Google search never existed. Recently when discussing the welfare state in Sweden, an American acquaintance said that this Scandinavian country doesn’t have a minimum wage. What do you say to that? I am not an expert on the Swedish minimum wage, and that was not even what we were discussing. Sweden does not have a minimum wage as Austria, Denmark, Cyprus, and Finland also do not have the minimum wage. It is not a strange situation. The collective bargaining deals cover most of the workers so that they in fact have a minimum wage. What he said was not completely true, and it does not mean what he thinks it means, because unions in those countries have a strength they do not have in the United States. These nuances do not play well with definitive statements.


American idiot savants are dangerous. They simplify public speech to a point you do not know what is true or not, and you do not even care. Their self-esteem is so high they prefer to look good in a discussion than to share what they truly know—nothing. The lessons idiot savants teach you are two—

First,  never trust someone who talks with definitive statements about complex subjects. Complex problems rarely have easy answers and when they do, don’t assume the schmuck in front of you came up with them before anyone else did. 

Second, take the word of an American (except an expert or Noam Chomsky’s) about what’s happening in foreign countries with a grain of salt. Understandably so, America is an insular culture turned inwards. It is difficult to know what is going on in the world when you are there. That is why talking about foreign countries in America gives the speaker an aura of sophistication he does not deserve. Most problems are the same everywhere. The ways you go about solving them is the element that changes but even that less than you think.