The Critical Mass

Is there such a thing as a genius?

A friend recently said to me, “I don’t understand why people keep calling Jay-Z a genius.’ ”

And yeah, I have to agree. Nothing against Jay-Z. He’s a successful entertainer, but I’m not sure where the “genius” part comes in. It’s this over-use of the word “genius” that’s the problem.

I frequently encountered this issue during my previous life as a sportswriter. Sportswriters¬† get a little tired of typing simple identifiers like “49ers football coach Bill Walsh.” So over time he was promoted to “West Coast Offense genius Bill Walsh.”

Nothing against Bill Walsh. He was a successful football coach. But I know a little about football and, to be honest: It doesn’t take a genius. Drawing up plays for your 11 guys to run isn’t exactly like designing a suspension bridge. The secret to football is finding enough 320-pound guys with what the scouts euphemistically call “a mean streak.”

Bill Clinton and Karl Rove are frequently referred to as political geniuses. Really? I guess they look pretty good alongside some of their stumblebum contemporaries. But throughout their long careers, both made major miscalculations that proved costly to their political parties. In politics, you’re only as brilliant as the outcome of the last election. Genius seems to beg for some kind of consistency.

Was Albert Einstein a genius? Sure, in some respects. There is some anecdotal evidence suggesting he moved about more comfortably in the realm of theory than reality. Was Ernest Hemingway a genius? He wrote three great books – The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms – that are brilliant. He also wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and it strikes me as vastly overrated. Were Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol geniuses? Marketing graffiti and soup cans strikes me more as right time, right place for an idea. Was Emily Dickinson a genius? Or simply a woman in her bedroom with a lot of time on her hands?

Genius, it now seems to me, might be more about ideas than people. Sure, smart and focused people more frequently come up with moments of brilliance. The conditions that led to one moment of genius might even last for a while, leading to more moments of genius. But the inner voice that spoke to Hemingway as he wrote his three great novels went AWOL for Across the River and Into the Trees.

Is Bob Dylan a genius? I’m not sure. But he has been, at the very least, consistently excellent. An artist who understands who he is, and from where he draws his inspiration.

But there is one 20th-century icon who I do consider a genius. Not Winston Churchill: too many lies and terrible errors accompany his finest hour. No, I was reminded of a man of true genius when friends recommended I type three words into YouTube and watch. I did, and  I thought, yes, this is genius. A man who for years had things to say, and said them with great humor, truth and clarity. Try it yourself: Carlin, God, religion.  Or click here:

Carlin, God, religion