Friday 5 June 2015
SMARTS Update: Intelligence and the Politics of Genocide
My new book SMARTS is about the nature of intelligence and who or what displays it. At base, it is really about human politics because both of these questions--who is smart, what is smartness made of-- have produced horrifying political answers for the last 150 years. (And troubling ones for millennia before that). Often, the answers enabled genocide.
The work of early anthropologists, at least in the Americas, aimed at demonstrating that different races have different intellectual capacities and that First Nations' are intellectually inferior to whites. In Brazil, they were so sure that native people are worthless that their last Emperor, Pedro II, gathered heaps of human skulls sent to him as gifts by farmers and ranchers who shot native people like big game. These skulls still reside in a museum in Rio. The first tool used to measure intelligence was a tape measure. Size of the head was assumed to be a proxy for the level of smarts within it. Things got better (and worse) after IQ tests were invented by psychologists at the beginning of the 20th Century. IQ tests are also proxy measures of ill-defined brain processes (they refer to something called fluid intelligence which they call "g"). Nevertheless, school systems and governments and corporations worldwide continue to rely on these tests to predict future intellectual performance. In Brazil, some who would like to return to the last century’s dictatorship, once muttered to me that "we cannot be ruled by these people because the average IQ in Brazil is 85!” In the early days, IQ tests given in Canada and the US were mainly written in English, yet they were given to immigrants who were non-English speakers. Surprise! They did badly. In the US, legislation was proposed to prevent such inferior groups (East Europeans, Slavs, etc.) from immigrating. Native children, learning English as a second language, did badly too. Through these means, anthropologists and psychologists acted as willing handmaidens to racism. In fact, you could say that scientists invented racism. Psychologists continued to rank racial and ethnic groups by IQ test results for many years after all racial categories were disowned by the anthropologists who had first defined them. A Canadian scholar with tenure at the University of Western Ontario, J. Philippe Rushton, did such so-called studies well into the 2000s. You remember him: he insisted the Chinese are the smartest and have the most sexual self control due to smaller weenies.
This week, in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which spent seven years examining the tortured history and lingering impact of residential schools on native Canadians, produced a summary report. The report declared that the Canadian government’s residential school policy was one of cultural genocide. How could a government of Canada create such a policy? It’s a testament to the power of the disgraceful--but so useful-- scientific theory that First Nations' were intellectual inferiors.
As Canada expanded its territory west, during and after Confederation, the problem of what to do about the native people who lived there, and moved around a lot, had to be addressed. Our governors came up with a Canadian solution: we could not conquer native people in war as the Americans were doing. We couldn't afford a war. (In the US, the Surgeon General demanded that soldiers send the heads of native men killed in battle to Washington so their skulls could be measured and their inferiority demonstrated.) Instead of war and beheadings, Canada used treaties to expunge land rights in exchange for cheap promises. One particular promise was that the government of Canada would educate native kids. In return for accepting a small reservation, first nations' children would get the benefit of western education. This seemed like a fine idea to native elders of the day. But the government's idea of education turned out to be very different from theirs. The government intended to use education to take the Indian-ness out of the Indian. That meant stripping away language, culture, history, spiritual beliefs, and especially contact with families. That meant instilling shame and a profound sense of inferiority about being Indian. The government did a fine job of that: and it also paid as little as possible for the program, leaving the children to the tender mercies of Catholic and Anglican missionaries who took on their task with fervor and didn’t expect much remuneration.
Children as young as five were taken from home by force, pulled away from their parents, packed off to boarding schools where food was scarce and fear was constant and children were punished for speaking their own languages. There was very little government supervision of these schools and no parents showing up daily to see how their kids were faring. With unchecked power went unchecked cruelty. Weren’t these children inferior? What did it matter if they ended up in a small grave. There was rampant sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental suffering, starvation, medical experiments and untreated diseases, and many, many deaths. The Commission found at least 6000 out of 150,000 children who endured these schools died, a figure totally out of whack with death rates in the rest of Canada. The few officials who visited these schools found rampant TB and other pernicious diseases and practices. They raised these issues with governments of the day, but the governments ignored them. Why? Because it could. These people were described by science as inferior to whites. The IQ tests said so, didn't they? And of course, imprisoned on their reservations as a never-enfranchised minority, native people had no political power to change any of it.
This week, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada also used the word cultural genocide to describe what has gone on in this country. You'll hear the phrase a lot in the days and years to come because it is the truth, and the truth has been finally been written down in black and white and published. Though we have examined these issues many times in the past, though the government has apologized for these deeds as part of a class action lawsuit settlement, though churches have been bankrupted for their failures to reign in their missionaries, this is the first time Canadians, as opposed to the Canadian government, will be presented with some of the vast documentary record detailing who did what and to whom. This is the first time we have had to face exactly what was done in our name, exactly what we have to apologize for and somehow fix it.
There is a picture of the summary’s presentation ceremony held at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence, that appeared in my morning paper. The Prime Minister attended, representing the government. The Prime Minister did not speak. It has been suggested by the usual pundits that the Prime Minister intends to say nothing about any of this until after the next election.
He can do that because he has power. Maybe we need to do something about that.
As SMARTS also points out, the electronic computer was first built in order to find out what the Nazis were planning: it lies at the root of our smart era. Smart computing machines that interact with us and now learn from us make it possible for the powerful to keep tabs on everybody. This week we saw what happens when even a small element of these surveillance powers slips from those who like to wield them. They grab it back as fast as possible. Section 215 of the US Patriot Act, which had been illegally interpreted to permit the NSA to gather and hold all the private communications data from telephone companies' customers under warrant from the FISA court, failed to be extended by the US Senate. Panic ensued! But the House of Representatives', happily, had passed their own bill that stood ready to replace it. The House bill ties only a few new strings around section 215- style surveillance practices, yet it is titled the USA Freedom Act. The Senate passed it and the President signed it into law in one day. Are ordinary Americans now free from scrutiny? Read the bill and you will see the answer is no.
And what about the rest of us around the world?
It’s still open season.