Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

I’m with Stupid

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There is a trend of long standing for intelligent people to work from the assumption that most people are stupid and need to be told to do right. This is a dangerous viewpoint and one must guard against it.

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
— H. L. Mencken

Mencken rose to public attention at a time when urbanization and modernity challenged the traditional and comfortable beliefs of the nation. Like Sherwood Anderson and Dorothy Parker, he tested limits and broke new ground. They had the excuse of being pioneers, with no success model. It was inevitable that they should throw the baby out with the bathwater sometimes.

Mencken’s coverage of events such as the Scopes Monkey Trial shows him going beyond defense of free speech and thought, demonstrating contempt for those whose priorities differ from his own. His identification of the intellectual threat posed by Bryan is largely correct, but he does not attempt to examine it or its attractiveness to his followers. Mencken simply dismisses them all as stupid, backwoods rubes, deserving only to be mocked.

Mencken provides an early example of intellectual smugness, inviting the reader to join him in looking down their noses at the vast herd, the “booboisie.” While his assertion of the threat posed by groupthink and conformity is valid, his tone can lead one to conflate being merely different with being superior. In this, he has not been alone.

Some ideas are so ridiculous that only an intellectual can believe them.
— George Orwell

Examining the stupidity that has gone down in the past years since Mencken’s day, one finds that supposedly intelligent people have originated much of it, and fallen for even more. Witness the willful romanticism of Communism that peaked in the 1930s and surged again in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, what happens to the Republic? If power is derived from the consent of the governed, and the majority of the governed are stupid, aren’t we screwed?

Based on my experience, I am prepared to say that the majority of the people in this country are not fundamentally stupid. They have been told repeatedly that they are since first grade, and many have come to believe it. Still, they have a sense that something is not right when the wool is pulled over their eyes. They may not be able to articulate why something is wrong, but they intuitively apprehend the difference between right and wrong.

The intelligent person must resist the temptation to believe that s/he has the monopoly on truth and reasoning power. This leads to the thinking Thomas Sowell describes in The Vision of the Annointed, where one begins to see “the masses” as the raw clay with which s/he will fashion a new and perfect world. In the best outcome, this leads to failure. In the worst, it has led to totalitarianism, misery and death.

Too many among today’s intellectual elite see themselves as our shepherds and us as their sheep. Tragically, too many of us are apparently willing to be sheep, in exchange for being taken care of, being relieved of the burdens of adult responsibility and being supplied with “free” stuff paid for by others.
— Thomas Sowell, “Shepherds and Sheep” (http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell022613.php3)

Kamenev and Bukharin likely thought that they knew better than the common people about what was good for them.  Trotsky surely did; he called Stalin, “our party’s most eminent mediocrity.” Stalin was helped to power by all three and ultimately had all three killed. Some mediocrity. All three, and others who participated in Stalin’s rise, were caring, committed men who believed in what they were doing and the good that would come of it. The thinking person must know the stories of these men, what went wrong and what is to be learned from them.

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Written by srojak

April 23, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Ethics, Primose Path

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