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by lionel shriver 
harper, 288 pages, $24

In Lionel Shriver’s novel Mania, the main character, Pearson Converse, is at war with the major political dogma of her time. As a result, she’s in danger of losing her best friend; endures tense arguments with her husband; gets summoned to the dean’s office at the school where she teaches, Voltaire University; and receives a threatening visit from Child Protection Services. In this book, the conceit is (nearly) all, and it’s a brilliant conceit, elaborated with relentless logic: Mania is set in an alternative early twenty-first century, where the last frontier of social justice warmongering isn’t racism, but “cognitive discrimination.” 

The Mental Parity (MP) movement begins its blitzkrieg through the institutions, inspired by the best-selling The Calumny of IQ: Why Discrimination Against “Dum People” is the Last Great Civil Rights Fight. It’s no longer permissible to speak about, or even to acknowledge, differences of intelligence. “Smart,” “stupid,” “dumb,” and all the related assemblage of evaluative terms are placed on the MP Index. CPS visits Pearson because her youngest child, Lucy, reports to a teacher that her mother uses these insulting words at home.

Smart books and smart movies are censored, because they assume cognitive disparities and make some people feel inferior. Dumb movies—Dumb and Dumber, for instance—are preceded by a “warning about offensive representations of cognitive inferiority,” which some unfortunately take as “one more gag.” The Simpsons gets cancelled because of the double transgression of portraying an idiot (Homer) and a genius (Lisa). Adam Sandler has retired (long past due, in my opinion).

When intelligence gets flattened, everything else does too. No one can admit there’s such a thing as “being good at.” Pearson’s daughter Zanzibar is too good an actress to be cast in school plays, and the orchestra director stops her when she plays a stunning Bach melody on her flute. Pearson’s tree-surgeon husband, Wade, tries to keep his head down, hoping MP will never touch him, until he’s forced to hire an incompetent and keep him on the payroll for fear of a cognitive discrimination lawsuit, a decision that leads to disaster. Contracts can no longer be enforced for the same reason—if someone defaults, they can claim discrimination. With the American food system and auto industry staffed with dumb people who aren’t allowed to be trained, American food becomes toxic and American cars explode on the highway. Families who can afford it adopt a policy of “Don’t buy American!”

The New York Times spikes even its “easy-peasy Monday crossword,” and soon sudoku and all other puzzle games vanish from newspapers. The military and federal agencies fall over themselves to rectify centuries of disparagement of dumbness, compensating by promoting the least competent people to fill high offices. Pearson’s teaching is hamstrung because telling students something they don’t know already comes with the forbidden implication that they were ignorant before they learned it. Schools have long since given up on tests and grading. The university plunges into a financial quagmire, as foreign students abandon U.S. universities and intelligent Americans flee to places where “smart” can be spoken above a whisper. 

The political ramifications are massive. Barack Obama’s braininess becomes an electoral drawback. He’s “aloof, snooty, and supercilious,” and every time he talks “He still rubbed the popular nose in his own articulacy.” Despite warnings from his staff, he conveys “the impression that he thought he was smarter than the average bear” and his “effortless cool and dry sense of humor” costs him votes because people feel they are “missing something.” The Democrats rescue their electoral hopes with an “impressively unimpressive” candidate, “an ideal fit for the times”: Joe Biden. He’s qualified in every way Obama isn’t: “Biden’s speaking style was delectably leaden. His version of profundity was to make a prosaic point and then repeat it word for word. Whenever the vice president was at a loss, his compulsive insertion of ‘C’mon, man!’ conspicuously failed to seem rousing and hip.” After one term, even Biden proves too smart. As one character puts it, “Biden is merely a mediocrity. And that’s not good enough any more.” 

It’s an interesting but not overwhelmingly compelling story, told in clear, amusing prose. But I didn’t care much about any of the characters, who are less persons than allegorical cut-outs in a political-cultural satire. Subtract the conceit, and the novel holds limited interest. Still, the book is worth reading. If it’s a one-joke novel, Mania at least is an exceedingly good joke, and a chilling one. Shriver occasionally pauses to let her characters reflect on the energies of radicalism, as in this remarkable passage:

Radical movements keep ratcheting up their demands, because nothing enervates a cause more than success. Crusaders resent having their purpose stolen out from under them by the fulfillment of their quest; reaching the promised land leaves seekers bereft. There’s little to do in a utopian oasis but sip coconut water. So the journey must never be completed. The goal must remain out of reach. To preserve the perfect impossibility of getting there, the desired end point becomes ever more extreme. 

She’s exactly right, which leaves me with the uncomfortable sense that Shriver, like the Babylon Bee and Titania McGrath, is less satirist than prophet.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

Image by Steven Penton, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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