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IQ is overrated

September 7, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of a video you can watch here.

Today I’m going to tell you why IQ doesn’t matter. Our emphasis on IQ is mostly based on a poor understanding of intelligence and the brain and what an IQ test is. I’ve always thought the claims made about IQ were pretty spurious but I’m surprised to see we’re still talking about it as much as ever.

I’m not going to go too deep into the history of IQ testing because you can read books and watch other videos on it but we should probably start with some basic history. About a hundred years ago, Alfred Binet started the IQ test at the request of the French government. He designed the test to predict which kids would do well in schools so you could give assistance to those who probably wouldn’t do so well. Binet himself argued IQ tests were a poor measure of intelligence, and he was right.

We think of IQ as being synonymous with intelligence, but it isn’t. IQ is merely another score on a test. Do you think all the test scores you’ve ever received were a perfect explanation of your abilities in that subject? What if they asked stuff you hadn’t learned? How could it be about intelligence, as opposed to knowledge? An IQ test measures a couple of types of intelligence, mostly visual-spatial abilities, math and language skill. Are those our only abilities? The only abilities that matter? The only abilities that indicate intelligence? No, no and no.

The idea of intelligence is hotly debated among psychologists but it should be clear that writing a test is not the end of the debate. For example, if you were really tired when you wrote the test, you will get a much lower score. So you’re not as smart as others for the rest of your life because you were tired that day. What if you had been bullied or abused recently? Are you going to get the same mark? No. So why do we put so much emphasis on testing? Do we live in some sci-fi dystopia where everyone is sorted into career tracks based on their performance on paper? No. Testing for IQ is not necessary. It doesn’t indicate the reasons for getting a low or high mark. Parents and teachers can identify those kids who need help and should probably help them with regard to their specific problems, and in fact, that’s what they do anywhere they’re not forced to act according to stringent rules.

Your performance on IQ tests depends on a lot of factors outside your brain, like how much uncertainty you’re living with. Imagine you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or you think your landlord is about to kick you out, or you’re afraid you’ll get beaten up by bullies or your parents or teachers or the police. How are you supposed to perform under those conditions? On the other hand, give an IQ test to a child who is well cared for, well fed, goes to the best schools or can afford the best tutors, you’re likely to get a higher result. It’s not for sure the relatively advantaged kids will always outdo the less advantaged on tests, because we’re individuals. We can only talk very generally about this kind of thing. No one could reasonably expect one of the millions of kids who get no education of any kind, who can’t read because they had to help their parents all day, or work in a factory, or work in a mine to get anything on an IQ test. However, any of these kids could be geniuses by our standards. They should be healthy from the womb. They need happy, safe conditions at home growing up. They should get a variety of opportunities to stimulate their brains, and by the way, that’s not the same as schoolwork. The point is, test results do not reflect intelligence and intelligence is not fixed. It’s conditioned by a million factors, not all of them in your DNA.

Intelligence is partly inherited, but we don’t know how much of an individual’s intelligence comes from parents, teachers, communities, friends, media, etc. so all we know is there is some correlation between the IQ of parents and their children. There’s also a correlation between the parents’ income and their children’s IQ. That shouldn’t be surprising. Elderly people score lower on IQ tests, because of the effects of aging, but so do people with myopia, or short-sightedness, and psychologists don’t really know why. More questions are raised by the Flynn effect. Researcher James Flynn found IQ scores have risen consistently ever since they’ve been measured. Our great-grandparents by today’s standards would have average IQs of about 70. So what would those tests have told us? We know they’re not accurate. There are too many variables in an individual’s life, including major social changes, that affect how smart they are by whatever measure.

Science, especially social science, as I touched on two videos ago, has often been used in the service of the dominant powers and ideas of the time. Even when the powerful don’t find a new idea particularly useful, there’s still the chance it will pick up steam among the rest of us. It’s tough to question everything all the time so we come to accept things as scientific fact when they might be totally baseless. Sometimes we learn a bit about concepts that in science are much more complex than we realize, but they’re handed to us as finished articles. Intelligence is one of those things. We don’t all mean the same thing by intelligent. I usually don’t even use the word because it’s so imprecise. The way we use it is like most of the words we use: defined by the culture, not by some scientifically derived certainties.

Psychology is not the same kind of science as, say, physics. It’s much harder to test and draw firm conclusions. There is no consensus among psychologists on the definition of intelligence, let alone how to measure it. I’ve found with most concepts in social science you can observe them for yourself, maybe with the help of theory. What I talk about in these videos you can observe for yourself and compare what I say to the real world. You can do the same with things in psychology, because it’s about the brain and you have a brain. We just probably shouldn’t assume everything we observe is universal reality, and make allowances for our cognitive biases. You can learn about your cognitive biases, and about how memory works, how observation works, and other interesting stuff from psychology. But that’s not how IQ is used. IQ is used to limit people.

IQ tests do not measure everything psychologists consider intelligence. Where is the test for creativity? Why is that less important? Well, it isn’t less important; we just don’t question the claim that the IQ test measures intelligence. Well, does it measure our ability to plan and strategize? No? So those things aren’t important? Or they’re not considered intelligence? Says who? Actually, psychologists have come up with various types of intelligence. Creativity and strategic thinking could be considered types of intelligence and they’re extremely useful.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is pretty interesting–not the final word on things but it does make some sense. The different types of intelligence he identifies include the things that are measured by the IQ test, like logical-mathematical skills, but it’s much less limited; although in my opinion, any time you measure and classify things you’re limiting them, like taking a frog out of the pond and sticking it in a jar. But along with the logical-mathematical and visual-spatial there’s things like emotional intelligence, self-awareness and even being in touch with nature, which you can believe is a form of intelligence or not but the term refers to a convergence of brain functions working to make sense of some aspects of the world. Is that not what intelligence is?

Language proficiency, another intelligence, isn’t one thing at all. It depends on long- and short-term memory, processing input, responding, following a million grammar rules, accumulating vocabulary, deploying it eloquently, and so on. So there’s language skills, there’s also interpersonal intelligence, which again is lots of different things, and there’s the relationship between the linguistic and the interpersonal intelligences, because we can call them separate intelligences but how separate are they, really? I have to be able to relate to you if I can write a book or give a speech. They’re overlapping categories. See how complicated these things are? It’s hard to talk about intelligence without making assumptions.

Remember our language can be quite simplistic. What we call skills and intelligence and talent and so on are the use of various parts of our brain working in concert. Even during the most basic functions, like listening to this sentence, trillions of things are going on in your brain. You’ve got 86 billion neurons and contrary to popular belief you use them all. You think we can measure that activity accurately? You really think if you take a test on paper, for criteria chosen long before we understood the brain like we do now, that tests for something different from what we say it means, then assign a number to the result, and say that is your overall intelligence relative to other people, you really think that would reflect reality, measure the complexity of our brains without limiting them, revealing some kind of important, useful fact? Can we use the results for something other than to rank and classify people and retroactively justify those classifications?

There are other kinds of intelligence that reflect clusters of functions, like musical ability. If you think those are skills as distinct from intelligence, then you’re probably still falling into the trap of thinking intelligence is a narrow, specific thing measured by IQ tests, and it isn’t. There seems to be a correlation between testing well on IQ or other intelligence tests and what’s known as G, or general intelligence, which implies that if you’re good at one type of intelligence you are more likely to be good at other types. But there is no consensus on G. And even assuming it’s accurate, it still doesn’t really matter. No one is a genius in all the ways you can be, and everyone who isn’t too disabled has talents and skills and the ability to improve them. If you hone your skills, whatever skills, you can be a genius. If you were informed by an authoritative test when you were young that you’re not smart, you might not try to hone your skills or just give up more easily. That said, even if you don’t take an IQ test, school will beat the spirit out of most kids some other way. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please see my whole playlist on education, which I link to in the description. If you really need to test a skill, go ahead. Just don’t test three skills and say that is now how smart you are.

In the age of science, we feel like we have to measure everything by these supposedly scientific measurements. But why do we have to measure intelligence? It’s poorly defined and even more poorly understood. Why do we have to rank children according to their intelligence, or for that matter, according to any of the tests we make them take? To inflate some heads and doom others to failure? People carry the nonsense they learned at school with them their entire lives until they unlearn it. Why do classify kids by vague, unnecessary, misleading labels? It’s like we’re TRYING to limit them. Here’s a better idea: Teach kids the truth about intelligence, which is that it is not fixed. Our brains are very adaptable and change every time we learn something. See? Yours just changed then. It’s called plasticity. You might also want to teach kids how to be wise, since wisdom is astronomically more important than intelligence, and that you need to do lots of learning to get there.

So why is the idea of IQ still alive? Short answer: Racism.

Quite soon after its invention, the IQ test was picked up by racists and used for their purposes. That shouldn’t be too surprising: Racist pseudoscience has existed in some form for hundreds of years. I don’t think you can talk about IQ without discussing its racist history, just like you can’t talk about racism as if it were an individual phenomenon with no history behind it. IQ was used to claim black and Latino people in the US were less intelligent than whites, and IQ results were used to sterilize tens of thousands of people in the US even into the 1950s because they were labeled mentally inferior. As we can see from the popularity of the book the Bell Curve, it is still used to justify racism. It’s easy to make things look scientific: look at all these tests we did. Now we’re going to extrapolate based on those tests and continue to speak confidently without recognizing our assumptions for what they are. Why, when extrapolating, did you choose to compare racial groups? Why was that important? There’s no historical context for explaining IQ differences, so what’s the point of averaging IQ across an arbitrary category like race and comparing results across racial groups? It could be used to provide yet another indicator of how poorly black or other people of color are treated, if you included a lot more analysis in with the statistics, but they didn’t, because the same people who want to know the average IQ of an entire race are only interested in proving that race’s inferiority.

The words we use for races are historical and cultural, NOT biological. They don’t correspond to anything in biology. Yet the assumptions behind the Bell Curve took self-identified racial categories as meaningful. Was that because many of the studies cited in the Bell Curve were financed by the Pioneer Fund, an explicitly white-supremacist, eugenicist organization? Oh, you hadn’t heard about that? Yeah, the author, Charles Murray, doesn’t usually mention that. But he does say his sources come from “some the most respected psychologists of our time”. Intelligence is not fixed and your IQ pretty much changes with your mood. Hardly a solid basis for reaching any conclusions about a person, let alone a group. And yet, Charles Murray got famous for doing just that.

It’s amazing what we’ll latch on to to prove our own superiority. I got a high result on an IQ test, so I’m smarter than you. Or if you’re racist, who cares what I got on my IQ test; I’m still smarter than you because I’m white. But these people simply don’t want to know how genes actually work. They think because someone looks different, they must belong to a group that is fundamentally different. Then, they build a body of science to try to prove it. But that’s not how truth works. That’s how pseudoscience works. Scientific racism is not scientific but just a way of justifying white supremacy. It’s about power. It ignores what we know about biology and psychology. No complex human behavior is caused by one gene. No group differences can be shown to be strictly environmental or genetic. When we start making assumptions about connections that aren’t there, our commitment to rational inquiry goes out the window. So statistics on IQ are almost worthless. They don’t tell us anything interesting about group differences. So why would Sam Harris invite a quack like Charles Murray to be on his podcast? Was it to explore both sides of the controversy? Well, if it was, he failed, since he called a number of Murray’s dubious claims “facts”.

There’s a lot that Harris and Murray got wrong in their interview. Murray says intelligence is largely fixed and genetic and measurable by IQ tests and retroactively proves racial categories valid, and none of those things are very likely. Harris and Murray seem to think nothing could be done to raise intelligence or IQ scores when actually the research shows all kinds of things raise IQ scores: different families, different neighborhoods, different friends, different schools, a teacher who actually takes the time out to help you or challenge you, more money, or even just a decent bed so you can sleep better. So far from being that a person, let alone an entire group that is systematically discriminated against, can’t improve their intelligence, it’s actually quite clear the right circumstances would do just that. Better education, such as the ideal education I map out in my playlist on education, boosts intelligence and outcomes related to intelligence. Higher incomes at home, which after all mean less uncertainty and more ability to cope with crises, lead to higher test scores. These are things we could easily change, by implementing better education or giving people more money. A lot of people assume we’ve been doing those things for 70 years or more, but we haven’t. That’s based on the myths we like to propagate about how since the Civil Rights Era, everyone is equal now, no one is poor and policies reflect that. So people like Harris and Murray do zero historical analysis and just take their assumptions for granted instead of looking at the many policies designed to keep people of color in poverty in the worst neighborhoods and keep them going to jail. If we’re talking about IQ in such conditions, we’re probably asking all the wrong questions. The real question is, how can we change those conditions that are holding us all back?

I have other questions too. Why would you want to talk about IQ differences among racial groups? Why would it matter? What would it reveal? Why would you want to talk so much about race, as distinct from racism? Why are you imputing meaning to something that basically means nothing? Is it because your whiteness is all you’ve got?

To wrap up, it’s not that there’s no such thing as intelligence but it’s really complicated, it’s full of misconceptions, and someone else’s intelligence shouldn’t matter to you. And as I’ll explain in my next video, we are all potential geniuses.

The pitfalls of poli sci

August 24, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of my video, which can be found here.

Quick disclaimer: I’ll be speaking quite generally about universities in this video so if your experience differs from what I describe, great: let me know in the comments. In the end, I can only speak for myself, of course. But frankly, universities are actually pretty conservative places. There might be exceptions, but the dominant way of thinking in most social-science faculties supports capitalism, liberal democracy and the rest of the status quo. Far from being a hotbed of radical Marxism or whatever people think, the university tends to look unfavorably on radical views and weeds out professors who try to spread them around. Left-wing activity on campus is likely to be in spite of what their professors teach, not because of it.

I know it seems weird if you’re used to hearing conservatives say academia is dominated by the left, but most conservatives don’t know the left is very different from liberals and other moderates, and even liberals are not the most influential people on campus. The heads of departments and others who control the hiring and firing of professors tend to be quite conservative. They benefit as much as anyone from the system the way it is: They get 6-figure salaries, tenure, grants, book sales, media attention, consulting jobs for government and corporation alike, and whatever other benefits you get for being considered one of the top people in your field. They don’t usually hire leftists because leftists rock the boat. Yeah, the occasional Marxist slips through but they tend to be, to coin an oxymoron, conservative Marxists: writing dense theoretical and historical books, more concerned with keeping their jobs than revolution. Or as I read somewhere, “when push comes to shove, the academic left is more academic than left.” And anarchists and post-leftists? In academia? Hardly. They’re way too radical, too dangerous to keep around. And even for those liberal or left-leaning professors who dare to criticize Israel, there are dozens of organizations like Campus Watch and the Israel on Campus Coalition that will track you and report you and try to get you fired. The fact is, professors and their bosses are subject to propaganda all their lives, just like you and I, so their beliefs and priorities won’t differ that much from the general population.

Institutions come with limits. If you want to stir things up, academia probably isn’t for you. Your contract won’t get renewed; you won’t advance in the university hierarchy; your proposals won’t get accepted; you won’t get grants; you won’t get tenure. So it doesn’t even matter that much what your personal beliefs are. You play the game or you’re not invited next time. Besides, students aren’t blank slates. You could have all the facts at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean you can just change someone’s mind.

I came out of my undergrad able to criticize any ideology and win arguments, but still unaware of any ideology the university or the wider propaganda might have taught me. I was really good at attacking people’s beliefs but I didn’t examine my own. What kind of education is that? The beliefs I picked up in poli sci were actually pretty mainstream, the same as everyone else’s but with the glitter of a degree to give them credibility. I know what I’m talking about: I studied this stuff for four years! But was it really studying if it led me to the same ideas as everyone else? Let me give you a rundown in four points of the beliefs I left university with 15 years ago:

–Capitalism is the only viable economic system. Socialism and communism mean totalitarian rule, so there’s no reason to consider them.
–So-called liberal democracy means freedom and is infinitely malleable, so that if the people really want something in a democracy it’ll happen. Elections help preserve democracy.
–Things keep getting better and people are getting freer, more prosperous and less prejudiced.
–Social institutions like governments, corporations, NGOs, etc., might be misguided right now but they can be reformed and restaffed and live up to their stated ideals.

I’m sorry if any of those propositions sound uncontroversial to you, but if they do, please hit subscribe because you need this channel. What I was taught to believe was exactly what the propaganda would want me to believe. We still took things at face value, assuming democracy was democracy, rights were really rights, etc., and assuming we were not ethnocentric or otherwise indoctrinated but objective observers. It wasn’t until years after my degree I learned to question it. I never stopped studying the subjects I was interested in, like politics and economics, but most of what I read just added to the body of knowledge I was supposedly accruing.

It wasn’t until I started using social media to learn that I was exposed to ideas you don’t hear about at university, like anarchism. I finally saw people analyze the whole system, so I finally got the opportunity to see the roots of social problems. I stopped with the free-floating analysis for the sake of analysis and changed the priorities of my research. I found myself with more and more questions about social institutions, like the police, money, racism, patriarchy, and the more I learned the more I saw them as connected to class society, hierarchical social relations based on violence. I knew I had to learn a lot of history, because if you really want to understand something, you need to know its history. And the history of these things is usually very different from what’s assumed about them and what we’ve been told all our lives. If you’re new here, I talk about them all on this channel in other videos. Anyway, now I was beginning to put things together, to synthesize the things I was learning, so I was learning theory that explained the world better than the theories I had studied in class, and history I could use to test the theory. I could think more about how institutions create incentives and limits and reproduce themselves. I think I hadn’t realized that was the point of theory. I guess I just always assumed the point of theory was to complicate things. The most important thing is to compare what you read to real life as candidly as you can. In fact, as I’ve explained in my video on theory, no number of books is a substitute for observing and understanding the world, especially your own situation, outside of ideological filters. When did we ever do that in poli sci?

The problem is, we usually only know there’s anything to question when someone tells us something’s wrong or could be different. You know, like when you learn to do something one way and someone watches you doing it and goes, “there’s a much better way to do that,” and for the rest of your life you now know the better way of doing it. The same is true of learning to question things. For example, I can identify the time when I began to question borders and nationalism. It was when my friend said he saw no justification for drawing a line on a map and saying I get to decide who comes in and out of this line. I had this fixed idea and my friend came along and shattered it with one sentence. Since then, I’ve learned lots more on the topic and my brain has never shrunk back to its original size. So I learned to question that aspect of the dominant ideology, no thanks to my classes. And there was so much more to unlearn.

Some of my first videos on this channel were about ideology, and I made one you might have seen on what liberal, conservative and other points on the so-called political compass think. But I also tried to make clear the political compass is theoretical, so it’s useful for simplifying and teaching but it doesn’t necessarily represent people. We’re all different, after all. And some people don’t fall on a political spectrum, or if they do they might be in different points for different reasons. There’s a type of ideology that you could broadly call academia. The ideology of academia is to be the bastion of truth and knowledge, arrived at by reason and superior to other people’s truth and knowledge. Inside academia there are all these different schools that are usually informed by an ideology. I don’t know anything about engineering or the sciences, but for sure if you take a wide enough view of things you can identify ideology in the so-called social sciences. Science is an ideology. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. But it also doesn’t mean we should assume it’s right because it uses the language of science. Calling them social sciences doesn’t make them “value-free” or objective. Where did the term come from? What is the history of each discipline? Did it start in service of empire? Does it still serve empire today? Are they asking the right questions? How can we question their research methods? I tend to get pretty suspicious when I see an attempt at scientific-looking social science full of charts and formulas that no one will ever use, trying to use complex math to predict political events. What’s the point? There aren’t any social problems you could put the same time and effort into?

The word ideology has a lot of connotations but I see it as neutral. It could mean anything from a religion practiced by 20 people to a global system like capitalism. From what I’ve seen, I think academia inherits the ideology of the ruling class and strengthens it by justifying it. The folks at the top get paid well for it. And that matters in the social sciences, because the universities set the ideological tone for discourse outside the university. They’re kind of the high priests of the capitalist system: they present themselves as the guardians of knowledge and truth, the experts that designate experts; they present us with the arguments in favor of the status quo; they make sure we focus on a limited range of theories and assume anything outside that range is not to be taken seriously, so we can question and analyze, but only within the limits set by someone else; then, they send us out into the world to spread the word. Inasmuch as my experience is typical, universities create people who know enough to argue convincingly in favor of the status quo but not enough to see it for what it is.

We can see the effects of their work on the news and in our conversations on current events. They taught us to focus on the wrong things. If we’re talking about politics, why is it we immediately think of parties and politicians and voting? Why don’t we think of, say, the effects of policy on normal people, how most policies are designed and by whom and how they benefit, in other words, what goes on behind closed doors? If we talk about the economy, why do we talk about GDP or the fluctuations of the stock market, which have such indirect effects on most people lives they’re effectively irrelevant, rather than explaining where inequality comes from, and how people actually get rich or poor? When we talk about racism, why do we still talk about it like it’s a purely individual phenomenon and the result of ignorance, rather than a systemic problem adopted by people acting rationally? Why do we talk about mental illness as an individual phenomenon, rather than a result of the relentless pressure the capitalist system puts on us? When we talk about the law, why do we only talk about individual laws and never question the legitimacy of a legal system imposing its dictates on us under threat of punishment? Why do we continue to talk about how institutions should work, in spite of having no evidence they could work that way? I would say it was a failure of education, but I’m not convinced it’s a failure.

Also, why do we separate politics from other disciplines? In my classes, we learned a bit of history and political economy, plus a little statistics, which is useful because most people seem incapable of questioning whatever numbers they see, but then that’s probably because it confirms their biases. But we didn’t learn psychology, sociology, anthropology, all of which would have informed our understanding of politics and helped us question everything. We talked about the state as if it were politically neutral, when it clearly is not, as I’ve explained in about half my videos. The latest research on the origin of states, like from James C. Scott’s work, would throw half or even all of what we read about the state out the window. Are they teaching the latest research? Or are they teaching the Just-So Stories of political science, like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau? What is the core of politics or political science? What, exactly, are we supposed to study? What are we supposed to know by the end of our studies? Why try to make it scientific and why prioritize those things that can be measured scientifically? Why do we read mostly dead white men? How are we supposed to question what we read? How do we question what the professors say? And when are we going to talk about the CIA and the Pentagon’s influence on campus? Oh, that’s not in the curriculum? Waddaya know. We should have practiced identifying and analysing all the assumptions made in the field and we should have born them in mind every day.

When I say the department or the field has an ideology it’s not that they only teach one way of thinking but just there is a dominant way of thinking with its own built-in assumptions. It’s not that you aren’t allowed to think any other way but you’d better be really good at proving it in an essay. When I think about how much those classes made me question, I’m surprised how little I actually learned to question. There’s a lot I wish I had learned. I learned a bit of several different philosophies, but we never took a look at the systems, we rarely discussed or questioned propaganda so our classes had standard poli sci curriculum discussing the standard things “politics” is considered to be–we should have been questioning those assumptions; we didn’t learn psychology, like how having power affects people, or how being a subject of oppression affects someone; we rarely discussed racism or settler-colonialism, even though we were living on stolen land–the closest they ever came was acknowledging that it’s stolen land on websites and before symposiums, when to me that feels like AVOIDING talking about it; we never talked about the heteropatriarchy and how we ourselves might have reinforced it without realizing; we didn’t discuss the violent history of capitalism or the state, or the class society they have left us with; we never questioned the existence of any social institutions, so we ended up strengthening our belief in them; and it might have been a good idea at some point to envision a better world, rather than accepting the one we have as inevitable.

In the end, what I learned in poli sci was a) new vocabulary, b) how to write an essay and c) what some old white guys say about political topics. Was it worth the money? I still don’t know. In my next video I’m going to give you some ideas of how to give yourself a better education than a poli sci degree for free.

So that’s my critique of political science and the rest of the social sciences: They’re too conservative to teach us what matters, which is to scrutinize and dissect all social institutions, challenge all our beliefs and assumptions and leave them in pieces, because only once you’ve unlearned can your education begin.

Themes of Power in the Great White Hype

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Easily my favorite Samuel L. Jackson role is that of the Reverend Sultan in 1996’s the Great White Hype. Indeed, this often overlooked movie is one of my favorites, and the Rev is largely to thank. An imposing figure in gold and a turban, owning the screen with his wide grin, the Reverend Sultan is a boxing promoter clearly modeled on Don King. He understands and wields power as effectively as anyone in Game of Thrones, just in a different context.

It is easy to think the central theme of the Great White Hype is racism. The story revolves around a heavyweight boxing champion, played by Damon Wayans (in a role slightly reminiscent of Mike Tyson), who has become so good no one wants to pay to see his fights anymore. The Rev solves the problem of falling ticket sales by finding a white guy to challenge the champ. The Rev uses racism–not the vicious kind but a more subtle, competitive version that is easy to deny–to whip up interest in the fight and sell tickets in one fight between the champ, James Roper, and the man who beat him as an amateur, named Terry Conklin. His strategy works. White and black Americans become divided (again, not viciously; the fighting stays in the ring) on which fighter they support, and all are inflamed with the excitement of “their side” beating the other.

The subject of race is reasonably well explored for an average-length comedy that doesn’t preach to you. It is not treated as a simple division between black and white or whatever other color. We see how clever people use racism as a tool to blind others and then lead them in a certain direction. “It ain’t about race,” says the champ on hearing of the Reverend Sultan’s plan, “it’s about boxing.” The Rev laughs in his face. Divisions among black people are touched on here and there, as when the champ says “A white contender? The two words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.” And the challenger gets named “Irish” Terry Conklin because “it’s boxing: it just means you’re white.”

But to end our search for themes there is to miss the point of this movie. Racism is a tool to divide people and motivate them, but motivate them to do what? Divide and conquer is an old a strategy for getting people to do what you want, and it works. The people fork over their money in return for the thrill of competition. I cannot help thinking arbitrarily dividing the masses is a story that, though (or perhaps because) it is so common as to be essential to modern-day political power, is not clear enough to people. People do not realize how divided they are. They are unaware how these divisions sap their empathy, break up their community and make the prospect of solidarity in the face of power harder. They compete with each other in ways ranging from supposedly harmless sports to total war, fighting each other when they should be uniting to guillotine their kings and banish the aristocracy.

Power is always at risk. People are always trying to take power from you, and the more you have, the more you have to lose. Power is certainly a means to an end, as it means more of some of the luxuries of life (including people surrounding you willing to kill to protect you). But it becomes an end in itself. Powerful people constantly pursue and expand their influence. It is their 24-hour job. They often become paranoid, so even if their power is secure they could feel the need to lop off a few heads for good measure. They may find ways to imprison, kill or otherwise incapacitate more of their enemies. They may find ways to enlarge their armies, bring in more gold, build more castles or force more peasants into servitude. They might do all those things on the same day.

On that note, let’s go back to the Reverend Sultan. The man is the center of the boxing world. He lives in a palace with all the finest things. The Rev covers all his bases. His chosen title alludes to both Christianity and Islam and implies someone holy and trustworthy but also a man of power. All that in two words. The first thing he says to the media is “Glory be to God, all praises to Allah, God bless America”. He creates and cultivates this image so he can be all things to all people, much like a state that claims to represent everyone, uphold various rights, manage the economy, provide healthcare and education and keep people safe. He talks smack in front of the cameras but in person is steady, charming and intimidating, as the situation calls for. After he breaks his promise to the champ at the beginning, he, with the aid of his employees, puts on a big act to convince the champ of his contrition. Though the champ is never quite convinced, having dealt with the Rev’s bullshit before, this tactic works. It calms the champ down. The Rev proceeds to explain his plan to “create” a white contender for the heavyweight title. The champ is sold on the idea.

The Reverend Sultan came a long way

He is a skilled manipulator, painting a picture others want to believe in. Terry Conklin is skeptical when first informed of the Sultan’s plan. “I give my money to the homeless.” Terry puts his motivation in front of him for the Sultan to use against him.

“Good,” replies Sultan, “because if you take me up on my proposition and [fight the champ], I guarantee that you will personally wipe out homelessness in America.”

He tells Terry, “You can still kick [the champ’s] ass!…He’s scared shitless of you,” later confiding to Terry’s trainer, “When the bell rings, he’s dog meat.”

“This could be the fight of the century,” Sultan claims, but Terry sees through it:

“Yeah, right, until the next ‘fight of the century’.”

“You’re a shrewd man,” says Sultan, knowing complimenting most people’s intelligence puts them off their guard, “but if not for yourself Terry, do it for the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like Terry, Jamie Foxx’s character (whose name is never spoken) falls to the Reverend Sultan. Foxx plays the manager of the top contender. He attempts to act boldly on several occasions and always falters under the influence–sometimes no more than a look–from the Reverend Sultan.

The character that I think best illustrates how the Rev wields power is Mitchell Kane. In an exemplary performance by Jeff Goldblum, Mitchell Kane is an independent journalist making a documentary about the Reverend Sultan. He appears to us several times at the beginning looking into a camera and narrating his report. It begins, “You and I are going to take a very close look at this boxing promoter, this exploiter, embezzler, charlatan and demagogue.” Kane is the only one outside the Rev’s inner circle who knows how dangerous he is. Anywhere with a “free” press is likely to have some radical journalist speaking truth to power, but they, like Mitchell Kane, go mostly ignored.

Kane attempts to blackmail the Reverend Sultan. He forces Sultan to arrange a meeting. But the meeting is not in some coffee shop or even an office. It is in Sultan’s home, on his turf and his terms, in his sauna. He naturally has the advantage.

“So what do you want?” asks Sultan jovially.

“I want to destroy you,” answers Kane, as if he has been wanting to say those words for some time. He hands over photographs of the Sultan in compromising positions with prostitutes. Sultan laughs as he goes through them. “I like you. You have a goal and you have the balls to reach that goal. You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”

“Flattery is not going to work. I–”

“No, no, no, I want to offer you a job.”

After an apparently long discussion, Kane exits the sauna to find his documentary crew waiting for him. He addresses the camera. “Some have said this upcoming title fight is built around racism. But…” The Rev had co-opted him, appointing him his new PR guy with a nice, new salary. As is sometimes the case, the journalist (or the academic, or the social worker, or the more highly skilled union employee) likes what the powerful guy has to offer and sells out. Kane is soon throwing out nonsense like “In the cynical age that we live in, it’s rare indeed when someone or something becomes so transcendent as Terry and this fight have become.”

Julio Escobar gives the Rev more opportunities to show how he wields power. Cheech Marin plays Julio, president of the boxing association and thus the guy in charge of ranking professional boxers. Naturally, the Rev has Julio in his back pocket. The Rev has the money, so he is in charge. We see an example of this power imbalance in every scene featuring Julio. In Julio’s first scene, the Reverend Sultan finds out Julio’s assistant is smart, so he hugs her and says “You work for me now.” Julio objects:

“Hey, wait a minute, she works for me!”

“Uh, Julio, she works for me.”

“Okay, fine.”

Later, the Rev meets with Julio after finding Terry.

“I want the WBI to rank [Terry Conklin] in the top ten so I can give him a title shot,” says Sultan.

“You know Reverend, over the years I have bent and greased and stretched the rules for you…but even I cannot rank a fighter who has not had a professional fight!”

“Now, what’s it going to take for you to make this happen?” asks the Sultan suavely. “Money? Sex? Drugs? …Power?”

“Yeah, power.”

“You’re fired.”

“Okay! Money, sex and drugs.”

The Reverend knows you do not ask someone for power; you bargain for it, you demand it, you take it, but you do not get it by simply asking those people actively wielding their power over you.

“Don’t pull your shit out if you ain’t ready to use it.”

In the next scene, at a press conference, Sultan calls him “the honorable, estimable, incorruptible Mr Julio Escobar.” If you want to lie, lie big: turn the truth upside down. Smother the truth under articulate, high-quality bullshit.

Controlling one’s image requires controlling the message and only admitting being wrong if it benefits you strategically. Part of being in power therefore means somehow avoiding answering the tough questions. We have all heard politicians do it: attacking the interlocutor’s character; “That’s not the question. The real question is…”; etc. While leaving the room of the press conference, a white man accosts the Reverend Sultan and shouts “Julio Escobar is a whore on your payroll.” This man speaks the truth. He must be silenced, his comment forgotten.

“That is a libelous statement and a racist comment simply because Julio Escobar is of Latin descent.” Both barrels. The Rev continues the deflection as the man shifts uncomfortably. “Are you saying something about brown-skinned people? Do you hate Jews and Negroes as well?”

“I am a Jew.”

“Then you’re an Uncle Tom!”

The Rev turned another man from one who literally speaks truth to power into a “racist” in a brief exchange of words, discrediting him in the eyes of his peers and shutting up anyone else who might make the same accusation as he did.

Image is reality, and in the following scene the Reverend is complaining about initial media coverage after the announcement. He is addressing his PR guy, Saul, played by Jon Lovitz. “Why are they saying these things?”

“Because it’s the truth,” says Saul.

“The truth needs to be shaped and molded and framed, Saul.” Sultan is describing how PR (propaganda) works.

With threats, intimidation and co-opting for people who might present him with a challenge to controlling perceptions and images, the Reverend Sultan shows us both how to use power and why people with power are so hard to dislodge. Of course, the Great White Hype is about the world of boxing, not the coercive power of the state. The power of the state is incalculably more dangerous, and as a result, political-power relations are far more competitive and even more lucrative for the winners.

So what happens to the Rev? Does he lose his empire, or does he come out on top? Do you need to ask? He is the only one in the movie who truly understands power. He’s not going anywhere.

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