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The Smartest Monkeys
(with apologies to Colin Moulding)
My daughter, as she is wont to do, once made an observation that stuck with me.
“You know, without our big brains, humans are kind of useless.”
If you want to know why my blood pressure rises with every flat-earther, MAGA-hatter, and science-hater I see, reflect on this: Brains are the only thing that give us an edge in this world.
Other animals are stronger, hardier, and better adapted to their environments than we are. We spend so much of our time trying to adapt the environment to us rather than vice versa because we are actually fairly terrible at finding a niche in any given ecosystem. We have become the apex predators because of our brains more than any other physical characteristic.
So what happens when we dumb ourselves down? We adapt poorly, finding ourselves awash in poisonous water, chemical-soaked food, and hostile weather patterns we will not bring our big brains to try and counter.
It really baffles me. Imagine you were in a car race, and you were given the choice between a Lamborghini and a Pinto? Why are so many of us choosing the Pinto?
There are a lot of answers to that question, but a fair number of them center on another question: Who stands to gain from people being stupid?
Answer: The wealthy, the powerful, the greedy. The dumber their marks, the easier the fleecing. They want you to believe that choosing the Pinto makes you somehow morally superior to those fancy-pants Lamborghini drivers who think they’re faster simply because they have a faster car.
It makes my big monkey brain hurt.
I wrote my first novel about an oligarchy controlling the minds of the public through perfected propaganda. That book was started in 2007, when I saw portents of such message control in outlets like AM radio and Fox News. By the time I released it in 2016, the machine had come into its own, and now bestrides our nation with terrifying propriety, pushing out more and more extreme positions for its subjects to adopt, fearing no electoral repercussions, so great is their hold on the levers of power and those who continually vote to keep that machine in place.
I laughed in 2008 when Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority crumbled. But it didn’t take all that long for it to reassert itself, with lessons learned and armor reinforced. One truth about the machine is that its individual cogs are expendable. Rove may be toast, but his methods survive, keeping the beast alive, making it stronger.
A key requirement for the creature’s feeding is ignorance. A predator must work harder to catch quick-witted prey. Watch wolves harry a flock, and see who they pick. The weak, the dim, the easy marks. Now look at Steve Bannon’s philosophy, that the last great age of humanity was the Middle Ages, before the Renaissance brought more widespread education and set the stage for the Enlightenment. The self-same Enlightenment that made the American Revolution and its big-brained ideals possible. Not that schools without libraries are likely to teach you that.
But Bannon is on the outs, you say. No matter, the beast feeds on the weak in its own pack just as readily as it plunders others. It has no head, but is amorphous, absorbing the powers of its adherents, who believe they can control it, but who are ultimately assimilated and obliterated by its insatiable hunger. The GOP and its media assets throw it raw meat daily, but at some point, even they will get too close, and be devoured by its maw as well. It has had many erstwhile owners, but it will outlive all of them.
What is this fantastical creature I describe? Well, it is us, of course. Our worst natures, amplified and consolidated by skillful craftsmen of lies, tapping into the lower levels of our big monkey brains, bypassing the higher functions of critical thinking and empathy, going straight for the fear and base survival instincts. They’re coming for your children, the lies say, they’ll take everything you hold dear, they think they’re better than you, they see your weakness, your uncertainty, your questions. Here are answers, all laid out neatly, knives you can use to poke out the eyes of those who believe themselves to be your betters. They’re coming for you, quick, quick, take them out, before it’s too late…
No wonder we have more mass shootings here than anywhere else. Our brains, those evolutionary boons which separate us from the primal creatures of the wild, are under attack daily. But because of the finely-honed messaging, we believe the ones attacking us are the ones who have in fact done nothing to us. We lash out at the targets whispered into our ears, when we should be turning on the whisperers themselves.
Of all things, ask: Who stands to gain? Who benefits from making the smartest monkeys dumb again? It is not you or I. Nor the foot soldiers we encounter every day, spewing hate and imagined vengeance. The spoils go to those who can serve the beast in the shadows, never rising high enough to have their heads taken off by its voracious jaws, but harvesting the kinetic waves of chaos and suffering for their own gain.
If you believe that a higher power made us in its own image, then strive to make that image as intelligent and honorable as you would hope that power would be. Be the smartest monkey. Or else we will go back to the trees with the others soon enough.
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