So Cassandra was this girl back in ancient Troy who was given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Apollo wanted to get with Cassandra — the Greek gods, male and female, were always trying to screw any pretty face — and so Apollo offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy in exchange for… Look, it wasn’t exactly prostitution; God-like powers beat cold hard cash or flowers and chocolates or a silly ring. You’d think Cassandra would’ve jumped into bed at such an offer.
But once Apollo gave Cassandra the ability to see the future, the bitch reneged on the deal. (Maybe you object to my referring to Cassandra as a “bitch.” Well, then which word best describes a woman who receives the gift of prophecy from a gorgeous deity and then doesn’t keep up her end of the deal?) To get back at her, Apollo sprinkled a curse on Cassandra’s gift: she could still see the future, she could see what was going to happen, but nobody would believe her.
From then on Cassandra went around warning her fellow Trojans about the coming war with the Greeks, but none would believe a word of it. Friends and family members called her crazy.
And when one day, after 10 years of fighting a stalemate — the walls of Troy were just too high and too strong — the Greeks and their ships just up and disappeared from their beach encampment, leaving behind a giant wooden horse, apparently as an offering to Poseidon, the god of the sea and horses, who built the walls of Troy himself (along with his nephew Apollo), Cassandra warned her father the king and all the other Trojans that there were Greeks hiding inside the wooden horse. But they just shut her up. They were too busy celebrating their apparent victory over the powerful King Agamemnon and the half-god warrior Achilles and the genius Odysseus and the other Greeks. Cassandra even ran up to the big horse with an axe in one hand and a torch in the other, about to bust and burn the fucker up, but they stopped her and sent her away.
A portrait by the English painter Evelyn De Morgan shows poor Cassandra pulling out her hair as the once great city of Troy burns in the background. She could see the future, but to no use.
Being intelligent and knowing one’s shit is a lot like being Cassandra. Smart people can’t see the future, but smart people who study history and philosophy and economics have a better vantage point to see where things are headed. The future remains a mystery, of course, but it isn’t so much a mystery to those who have seen what came before. Anybody who sees a ball thrown up into the air, who knows about gravity and has seen things thrown up into the air before, knows what will happen next. It isn’t prophecy, or even rocket science; only knowledge and experience, which together become wisdom.
But as with Cassandra, nobody listens to smart people — and even less so today, it seems. Most people only want to hear from celebrities, people famous for whatever reason besides being smart. Smart people are an oppressed minority, despised nearly as much as the truly good people are. Most people– No, let me be fair: most of the people on social media — which has become a greater, more powerful, more influential version of the old Greek public square, the agora — are too obsessed with fame and wealth to care much for truth and goodness. Bling is the thing to have, not intelligence or virtue, to the point where most people look at a man or woman wearing expensive clothes, driving an expensive car, who has 20 million followers on Twitter, and they say, Wow, that person is sharp! They should run for president!
Smart people are resented, the things they say ignored or laughed at. I can only think it must be jealousy. Superior intelligence is a gift — “we don’t all have the same brains,” as Prof. Dawkins has said — and most people are jealous of that gift in the same way they’re jealous of someone born good-looking or rich or athletic, anything that gives that person a leg up on everyone else. But whereas we shower fame and privilege on the beautiful or rich or athletic person, just as the Greeks did, we condemn the intelligent one. The people of Athens put Socrates on trial, for speaking against the gods and corrupting the youth, and made him drink poison. Rarely has it paid to be smart, and oftentimes it has caused someone their life, either physically or socially.
The most any intelligent person should hope for is to be banished to the little island inside themselves, where they can read and think and die ignored.
I bring all this up, about Cassandra and smart people being ignored, because my buddy Dan Cubias has just written something on the annual gathering of the International Society of Political Psychologists this past July in Lisbon, where one of the most respected researchers in the field offered his prediction for the future of liberal democracy: “In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”
Dan ends his post with what the Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen has written in The New Yorker about climate change: how it too is inevitable and how we should just start preparing for the coming hell.
So here we have two modern-day Cassandras — one, a student of politics who says society is doomed; the other, a student of human life who says human life on this planet is plunging headlong into a lake of fire. And then there’s the third Cassandra, Dan, telling us about the warnings of the first two Cassandras.
Yet today’s Trojans hear these three Cassandras, if they even hear them, and just laugh and keep singing and dancing and watching TV, dreaming of fame and money as the United States of America, the once great Troy, begins to burn.
I’m a Cassandra, too, but I’m not pulling my hair out; I wouldn’t even if I had any left to pull. Because I’m also a Cynic. Ever hear of this dude Diogenes? Or Dr. Thompson? You could say they had a gift of seeing even greater than Cassandra’s, in that they saw their forecasts would fall on deaf ears.
But I’ll tell you more about them later, if there’s still time.
Featured image: ‘Cassandra’ by Evelyn De Morgan, 1898