Dominic Cummings – pictured entering Downing Street looking like the kind of man who wears three-quarter-lengths to work – is a genius maverick. We know this because Channel 4 roped in Benedict Cumberbatch to go full skittish detective mode to portray Cummings in ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War.’ If that’s not evidence enough, he also has a suspiciously large head.
In fact, Cummings has shot right to the top of the Men Who Wear Trainers To Work and Swear at People Because They Are So Clever rankings. If Armando Iannucci and Aaron Sorkin were tasked with writing a crossover of The Thick Of It and Steve Jobs, Cummings would be their sweary Silicon-Whitehall brainchild. The confrontational dismissal of Sonia Khan – a Treasury media advisor accused of consorting with anti-no-deal figures – would be their opening scene: it was a paranoid act directed by Cummings, suitably ‘redolent of the ways of a hard-hitting technology CEO, such as Musk or Steve Jobs, rage-firing employees suspected of not being committed enough to his vision.’
It is little surprise, then, that a quick Google search of Cummings yields a trio of recycled terms: articles debate among themselves about the extent of his ‘guru’, ‘maverick’, and ‘genius’ properties. Yet amid all the media furore exalting and fearing him in equal measure, it is difficult to discern from where the ‘genius’ label actually derives. Surely to earn the title of an erratic but brilliant mastermind it is not enough to simply create a ‘culture of fear’ in the workspace. No one hails Alan Sugar as Da Vinci incarnate for firing everyone.
Shedding light on the issue, Cummings provides a window into his thoughts in the form of a blog that amasses, by one Guardian article’s calculation, a greater word count than Ulysses. It is with thanks to this that we don’t have to try and infer the complex inner workings of a mind that once declared, in 2017, that ‘Tory MPs largely do not care about poorer people’, yet currently sits inside Johnson’s Number 10 pulling the strings. His ideas, interests, and visions have already been laid out on the page, ranging from a few brief sentences to vast extended essays.
In Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities (and by ‘some’ he means 237 pages), his essential thesis is that the globe is rapidly changing, but Western politics aren’t keeping apace; if children are to thrive in this big new world, our schools must undergo a profound shift to an ‘Odyssean’ education – one that begins with the biggest questions and problems. The author notes that less than 10 percent of children leave school with sufficient tuition ‘in basics such as exponential functions, normal distributions (‘the bell curve’), and conditional probability’, normalising the fact that ‘most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with…little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgement).’ To overhaul rule by the ‘incompetents’, we need an education system that, from the bottom-up, spawns ‘leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling, who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project.’
For a young person like me with a pitiful grasp of anything resembling statistical modelling, it’s comforting to be told that you might not actually be, to use Cummings’ own phrase, ‘thick as mince’, but just another casualty of a decaying system that will eventually send us all hurtling towards our own extinction.
Amid the urgent tone, it’s hard to doubt that the thrust of Cummings’ thesis is compelling. But it strikes me that I don’t know just how compelling it really is, because I am unequipped to assess how pressing the issues he presents are. I may be proving his point. It’s also hard to doubt that – considering a formal education in ancient and modern history – Cummings’ ability to meander from energy technology, space science, genetic engineering, machine intelligence, cognitive science and on to cyberwar indicates some big brain energy. It almost makes you forget that the sum total of his ideas probably amounts to some sort of grand technopolis of Renaissance polymaths that understand data and listen to rationality podcasts.
But even when dealing with the authors of eccentric and eclectic blogs, how useful really is it to throw around the term ‘genius’ in politics? Certainly by the metric of his own intellectual mentors, talk of genius seems fruitless.
The intellectual milieu that Cummings associates with are referred to as the ‘Rationalists’ – a corner of the internet that concerns itself with thinking accurately, making precise predictions, overcoming biases, and, among other issues, the menacing capacity of AI. His page is littered with links and references to Rationalist blogs such as Slate Star Codex and LessWrong. But as this great article demonstrates, judging by Cummings’ willingness to ‘eat away at the various little conventions and traditions which underpin British public life’, it is not clear that he totally grasps the fundamental objectives of his peers. Cummings is a disruptor – a man in a hurry, advancing his ideas with vigour because he knows that he is right.
But the Rationalist movement – no matter how exceptional or urgent the idea – is not about bulldozing through reform in pursuit of a short term goal, nor is it about proving you’re the smartest guy in the room. It is about being introspective, taking stock of your own errors, and implementing ‘steps to make sure that you’re not going to accidentally blow everything up with your brilliant ideas.’ Many Rationalist thinkers even object to being called as such, preferring the term ‘aspiring rationalist’ to signal humility. Perhaps Cummings’ erosion of constitutional convention and his rash removal of the whip may disqualify him from the halls of careful brilliance among his own keyboard ‘gurus’.
As for other names in politics, even by Cummings’ very own metric of a proficient mind (a dense amalgam of literature and science), many figures that might come close are rarely awarded the title of genius. Angela Merkel is a doctor of quantum chemistry, and was recently pictured on her South Tyrol hike digging into Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of the playwright’s villains. Whether she’s a genius, however, is a question hardly asked. Maybe if she spends her last few years in office lurking in the shadows and telling civil servants to piss off more people will remember her for her intellect.
Similarly, Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg is said to speak eight languages and managed to bag a first during his time as a Rhodes scholar, but there appears to be (to my knowledge across the pond) no dominant narrative labelling him a great mastermind. And perhaps it’s all the better for it: a President who enjoys the odd book wouldn’t go amiss, but buying into the cult of the Guy With the Impeccable CV may not be entirely helpful, either. There can be no escaping the fact that leadership races are largely about the character and credentials of the candidates, but it is not immediately clear what effect a beefy academic record has on advancing good policy – especially in the wake of recent news reminding us that elite university admissions can be based on factors independent of talent.
Of course, neither Merkel nor Buttigieg have asked that we refer to them as brilliant geniuses. If someone actively demands to be regarded as a brilliant genius, as Mr Trump so gracefully demonstrates, they most likely are not. Yet Cummings has never outright laid claim to any sort of distinction, either. He remarks that he is ‘not clever’, but rather succeeds on account of a ‘demented focus’; perhaps, for this reason, he is not to blame when the media decides to pounce on his unorthodoxy and dishevelment and brand him a maverick, or when babbling students like me decide to question his status having read only a fraction of his writings.
But this misses the point slightly. Intended or not, the ‘erratic genius’ label Cummings has acquired has helped to explain away many eccentric, and sometimes outright poor, behaviours – his unceremonious firing of Sonia Khan being one. What’s more, a media preoccupation with character over record helps to detract from the issues that ought to warrant greater attention, like the small indiscretion of Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign breaking electoral law, for instance.
Indeed, in the long term, whether his branding as a scruffy genius is the product of studied behaviours or media sensationalism is hardly consequential. Cummings’ popular image will now provide him with a buffer, regardless of whether his time puppeteering in government is a success or a failure for his cause. If his strategising works, the label will stick. If it crashes and burns, then he may nonetheless leave Number 10 as the unorthodox genius who ran into a burning building of ‘grotesque incompetents’ that just would not listen.