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Run-of-the-mill stupidity

A few months ago I posted about the reactions when a Duke philosophy professor, interviewed in the campus paper, invoked a John Stuart Mill quote about stupidity and conservatives in order to explain the relative lack of conservative academics. More and more surfers have been finding that post with searches like this:

  • js mill conservatives stupid critique
  • john stuart mill quote conservative stupid
  • john stuart mill i didn’t mean to say that conservatives are stupid people
  • i did not intend to suggest that all conservative people are stupid but i did intend to suggest that all stupid people are conservative.

There’s another cluster that doesn’t seem to be as historically informed:

  • stupid conservatives
  • why are conservatives stupid?
  • conservatives are stupid jokes
  • stupid things conservatives say
  • every stupid person i know is a conservative

Like Obama said to Letterman, it’s silly season in American politics—it seems like we’re really outdoing ourselves this time. I’m guessing that’s the spirit behind most of those searches (I’m not sure what the spirit behind the search on “lawn guys are stupid” was, though). Nothing spreads election-season cheer like a discussion of the innate stupidity of the other side, especially when the theory is endorsed by a certified Great Thinker.

The long-winded googler was definitely wrong about what Mill intended to suggest, dumbing it down by exaggerating the relationship (and I’d be willing to bet the query didn’t come from a conservative). This quote, apparently from a letter Mill wrote to a Conservative MP, seems to be what the searcher had in mind (emphasis added):

What I stated was, that the Conservative Party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. Now, I do not retract that assertion; but I did not mean to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.

Mill was commenting on a tendency he observed in a political party in mid-19th-century England—capital-C Conservatives, who he considered not inevitably but generally stupid.

One objection I found to the philosophy professor’s wisecrack is that those Conservatives of yore were not conservative in the current sense of the word. And I found other suggestions, reading over that controversy, about what Mill probably didn’t mean to say. A recent New Yorker had an article by Adam Gopnik about Mill, and it has a fine paragraph about what Mill did mean to say (hat tip):

After Harriet’s death, Mill entered Parliament, in 1865, as a liberal backbencher, and did about as well as intellectuals usually do there. He was often hooted, and became notorious for having once described the Conservatives as “necessarily the stupidest party.” What he meant wasn’t that Conservatives were stupid; Disraeli, who was running the Tory Party then, was probably the cleverest man ever to run a political party, and Mill’s own influences from the right were immense and varied. He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about, it tends to break down into tribal nationalism, which is stupidity incarnate. For Mill, intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case to consider it as one of many; a child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the material available to them. The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary. Put him in another’s shoes and he would turn them into Army boots as well.

Applying that to the present is no trouble at all, which might mean that it’s not really Mill but Mill remixed according to Gopnik’s modern sensibility. Either way, our supposedly conservative president has just pushed through a massive public bailout of the banking system. Calling it “capitalism on the way up and socialism on the way down,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tx) sounds like the one demanding from his party some “restraint when action is what seems to be wanted.” And, turning from economic catastrophe to political farce, the nomination of a stunningly insular 44-year-old to be vice president—that looks like the problem of having “a long view of history [or anything else] when an immediate call to arms [or the pressing need to get elected] is about.”

And then there’s “tribal nationalism.” It’s not something that comes up in any of the passages I’ve read about Conservatives from Mill’s writings. But in Subjection of Women, he has this to say about stupidity and tribalism:

Stupidity is much the same the world over. A stupid person’s notions and feelings may confidently be inferred from those which prevail in the circle by which the person is surrounded. Not so those whose opinions and feelings are emanations from their own nature and faculties.

Whether it’s true to Mill or not, Gopnik’s line about the absurd significance given to an accident of birth captures my feelings about flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it patriotism and a few other conservative staples. These days “stupid” is a vague and childish word, though—it’s a playground insult. If it’s replaced with “ignorant,” the ideas rings truer. And “tribal nationalism,” for the present, is as sensitive to internal red state/blue state borders as it is to international ones. With those caveats, I think the charge that “Barak Hussein Obama” is a closet muslim and that he pals around with terrorists—appeals to ignorance and fear as well as stupidity—are fine examples of the modern-day degeneration of conservatism into tribalism. It seems that it’s gotten so hot that it’s even burning McCain, and while he didn’t set all the fires, his campaign hasn’t shied away from fanning the flames—that’s what Palin is there for.

I have to admit that I get some satisfaction watching McCain struggle to tamp down the ugliness that he had apparently hoped to mobilize and then channel. But my side is quite capable of getting into the same kind of trouble—every so often the sans-culottes get riled up and want to chop off some Establishment heads. In the Duke lacrosse case—a pretty good microcosm of American culture-war politics—the strident, intolerant tone was set by zealots from the left, who went for a different part of Establishment anatomy (and if that doesn’t count as a stroke of sheer stupidity, I don’t know what would). Timothy Burke’s latest post, about how demoralizing he finds the “infinitely escalating spiral of spew from hardcore opponents of Obama,” drew a comment from a San Franciscan who keeps quiet about his support of McCain for fear of vandalism and ostracism. I wish I could think of a good reason to doubt him, but I can’t. The real problem, I’m afraid, isn’t conservatives, it’s people.

{ 9 } Comments

  1. TP Squirrel | October 14, 2008 at 23:07 | Permalink

    So what does any of this have
    to do with a bunch of drunk Duke
    athletes attacking a Durham girl
    getting away with it, by strong-
    arming the authorities in Raleigh
    and conducting an expensive
    media whitewash campaign?

    In case you have not noticed,
    the victim has come public for
    the first time- six months ago,
    in fact, and reasserted the
    gang attack in the 610 NB bathroom.

    And your pal Johnson and all his
    Lie-stopping cronies are back to
    using the old Soviet tactics of
    slandering the victim as psychotic-
    living in an “alternate reality”.
    I thought Wonderland was the
    alternate reality. The so-called
    “potbangers” had it almost right the first time.

  2. Robert Zimmerman | October 15, 2008 at 22:12 | Permalink

    Debrah has been by to inspect and leave a horrified comment (“The author of this blog has chosen not to even challenge the proven insanity of such craven and desperate assertions as those deposited by one ‘TP Squirrel’”) and then huffed back over to DIW to tell on me. So, welcome DIW readers!

    I thought Squirrel’s comment pretty well critiqued itself. Or maybe a clever reader would step up to the plate. But no, I got Debrah [but see below—my luck changed]. So, let’s see…

    What does this have to do with a bunch of drunk Duke athletes…?

    Nothing.

    In case you have not noticed, the victim has come public…

    I noticed.

    And your pal Johnson… Soviet tactics of slandering the victim as psychotic… “alternate reality”…. The so-called “potbangers” had it almost right the first time.

    Maybe someday someone will write something decent, informative, honest and useful about Mangum. That would be nice. I certainly don’t expect it to come from over there, where they’re busy tut-tutting about Houston Baker for the 100th time. I don’t know how the bit about the potbangers relates to the rest—it seems like a non sequitur. In any case, it’s plain as day from what I wrote that I disagree about them getting it right.

    Speaking of tut-tutting, though, here’s a question. The latest round of Baker-bashing on DIW was prompted by Baker’s appearance at a “Take Back the Night” rally at Vanderbilt. These rallies, according to Johnson, “are the sort of undertakings that can’t really be criticized.” And yet, what was he doing, right then, as he was writing that?

  3. Michael Gustafson | October 15, 2008 at 22:15 | Permalink

    I try to be fair and balanced in these things, but “TP Squirrel” has cordoned off such a dimension of unreality as to elicit a unilateral reply.

    Unless you have evidence (the real kind, not the manufactured kind such as illegal “lineups” and imagined “notes”) not seen by the Durham Police Department, the Durham District Attorney, and the North Carolina Attorney General, the term “victim” can only be applied to the three men whose lives were turned upside-down by a “tragedy of errors,” and really “tragedies of commission,” starting with a realization that making a false accusation would be preferable to spending a night in a drunk tank, continuing with a tale spun by a wanted-to-be-elected official and maintained and subordinates, and given true hyperbolic flourish by the “true believers” who saw this case as the “Holy Grail” of race and gender conflict, regardless of trifling issues such as “evidence” or “fact.”

    To me, among the truly disturbing aspects of this case has been the hope—the HOPE—on the part of some that the rules of evidence would not apply, and that members of a different social class would be punished just for being who they are.

    Me, personally? I’d like to get in line behind Reade Seligmann to get out the word—known for a long, long time now—that “[their] case, while certainly an outrageous instance of an injustice, is just one small link on an entire chain of injustices that take place in our country everyday.”

    This case is not one where people should show support to Michael Nifong for throwing his electoral hopes behind a flawed case—instead, it should be one for deeply investigating the many, many flawed cases—most against people without the means to adequately defend themselves.

    Again, quoting Mr. Seligmann—“Now is the time for you to put to use all of the same passion, thoughtfulness, and resolve you have demonstrated on our behalf and help others who are in much more helpless situations.”

    ~   ~   ~

    It’s been a while since I’ve hit one of these nerves. Now I remember why I used to kick random, off-topic comments onto their own “extra” page. Luckily for me, a clever reader did step up to the plate with a fine response—unilateral but fair.

    It’s just the note to end this discussion on, in fact—there’s nowhere to go with it that’s even remotely on-topic. Further comments picking up on the thread will almost surely be rejected.

  4. Ralph DuBose | October 17, 2008 at 01:38 | Permalink

    You apparently think that conservative political ideas have something to do with the outcome of this hoax of a rape case that launched so much discussion, comment, ill-humor, and psychotic dissembling.
    I don’t. The two teams that gathered at opposite ends of the field for this round of culture-combat were not assigned on the basis of party afflilation or how they regard G.W. Bush. No; they were all volunteers who signed up on the basis of how they reacted to a stark tableau of obvious lies vs obvious truth-telling. Some folks are more at home with one thing and others feel lost until they are surrounded by another thing. And so they chose sides on the basis of their truest instincts.
    Liberal/conservative/whatever. These days I want to deal with people that will actually pay you back money they borrowed. Old fashioned, simple minded integrity. The kind of person you would pray that would be on a jury judging your life it you were ever accused of a crime of which you were actually innocent. This is a much better paradigm than left vs right, dont you think?
    So tell us, Reharmonizer, would you rather have your jury filled with Liestopper-grade blog hooligans or Durham hoax-enablers when you are dragged before the Bar of Justice having been accused falsely of crimes that could send you to jail for 30years?

    ~   ~   ~

    Talk about a leading question! I’ll pass on that one, thank you.

    I should probably have said that the lacrosse scandal, not case, is a pretty good microcosm of American culture-war politics. Taking a stand on the case (on issues of law and law enforcement) is one thing, making the case into a cause and loading it down with rhetoric is another. The latter took no dedication to truth-telling or integrity.

  5. Mike Lee | October 17, 2008 at 09:43 | Permalink

    In regard to Robert Zimmerman who wrote, “Maybe someday someone will write something decent, informative, honest and useful about Mangum.”

    Your comments make it appear as though Mangum is deserving of something more than she received. You also disount the comments (and writings) of AG Roy Cooper.

    ~   ~   ~

    This is only part of Mike’s comment—the rest took up a thread that I’d already called an end to. But on this one point, all I meant was that I see little of value in what’s been written about her, pro or con, especially in the blogosphere. That’s what struck me when she got her degree from NCCU . I’m sure there have been exceptions, including Cooper, who was writing in a professional capacity.

    Things are different now that she’s published a book—I don’t know how different because I haven’t looked into it. I certainly won’t fault anyone for criticizing what’s in it—that’s the deal you make when you publish a book.

  6. RRH | October 24, 2008 at 09:11 | Permalink

    I’m about to call a lot of people ignorant and misinformed, so I think I need to establish some intellectual bona fides. There is a “civics test” that was given to thousands of college students in the last few years. There are 20 questions each on the subjects of American history, economics, and political science. You can take it online at http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/resources/quiz.aspx

    I made a perfect score on the test. The test is one that can be passed by most high school seniors. Recently a history professor (so he says) bragged to me that he got 90% of the 60 questions correct. I didn’t tell him my score but I recall thinking that I would judge his performance, rather than laudatory as he did, as grounds for denial of tenure.

    Anyway, to my point: I’ve met two types of “stupid people”. The first are the “ignorant-stupid”. These are people who are ignorant of facts (such as are on the civics test). The second type are the “misinformed-stupid”. These are people who think they know a lot of facts, but much of what they “know” just isn’t true.

    In my experience, the “ignorant-stupid” more often than not tend to be on the Right politically while the “misinformed-stupid” are on the Left. Think here of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

    Finally, as an aside, I am sorry to see that Prof. Gustafson seems to have fallen prey to the “fallback metanarrative” of the Group of 88. That is, that the Lacrosse Case is emblematic of the American legal system — specifically, that such abuses as occurred in the Lacrosse Case are “commonplace”. Let me assure Prof. Gustafson: They are not.

    ~   ~   ~

    As I said, I don’t find the word “stupid” very useful. For Mill it seems to have been an inability (or unwillingness) to think for oneself. The usual usage of the word refers more to poor reasoning skills than being uninformed or misinformed. Of course poor reasoning skills can lead to being mis/uninformed. So can lack of curiousity. Maybe stupidity and lack of curiosity are the same thing. Anyway, I think it’s practically automatic that one side of the political spectrum sees the other side as “misinformed-stupid.”

    It’s ironic that Reade Seligmann is the point person for the “fallback narrative” of the so-called “Group of 88.” Is that just the inevitable result of a Duke (mis)education? And who in the 88 has fallen back on that narrative?

  7. Michael Gustafson | October 26, 2008 at 11:15 | Permalink

    I’m confused… I quote Reade Seligmann and somehow I have “fallen prey” to the “Group of 88”? As KC might say—bizarre.

    As for the assurance that abuses are not commonplace—what I said was that the Lacrosse Hoax “should be [a case] for deeply investigating the many, many flawed cases–most against people without the means to adequately defend themselves.” For example—these: http://www.innocenceproject.org/know/Browse-Profiles.php

  8. wayne fontes | October 27, 2008 at 12:54 | Permalink

    I have to admit that I get some satisfaction watching McCain struggle to tamp down the ugliness that he had apparently hoped to mobilize and then channel. But my side is quite capable of getting into the same kind of trouble–every so often the sans-culottes get riled up and want to chop off some Establishment heads. In the Duke lacrosse case–a pretty good microcosm of American culture-war politics–the strident, intolerant tone was set by zealots from the left, who went for a different part of Establishment anatomy (and if that doesn’t count as a stroke of sheer stupidity, I don’t know what would). Timothy Burke’s latest post, about how demoralizing he finds the “infinitely escalating spiral of spew from hardcore opponents of Obama,” drew a comment from a San Franciscan who keeps quiet about his support of McCain for fear of vandalism and ostracism. I wish I could think of a good reason to doubt him, but I can’t. The real problem, I’m afraid, isn’t conservatives, it’s people.

    I’d say the real problem with the culture wars is how the time and effort spent on them displaces discussion of other issues. The battles suck the oxygen out of the room lowering the over all IQ. I realize that telling people what to care about can be a fruitless exercise but when I think of issues like abortion, which have dragged on for generations, I can’t help but to think both sides have made their positions crystal clear.

    When I think back to the last debate the only issue I thought either candidate had a clear win on was the free trade deal with Columbia. Unfortunately I’d guess that less than a third of the viewing audience knew what either candidate was talking about. But they knew who Joe the plumber is. When people use the culture wars as a frame of reference the effects are even worse than those that spring from ignorance. During the recent war in Georgia public opinion seemed to neatly divide up along political lines. The left screamed it was Bush’s fault (he told Georgia not to invade) and the right wanted to reignite the cold war. It was a situation that didn’t lend itself to either side scoring points, but both sure tried.

    ~   ~   ~

    I’m pretty sure I’m with you on this. I think the thing about Georgia, as you describe it (I have to admit I tuned out on that one), is rabid partisanship that’s not cultural in the way that, say, abortion is, or gun control. But the reflexes seem to be pretty much the same, and complicated problems with a host of non-political components—practical, logistical, scientific, diplomatic, etc.—are simplified or set aside as folks grab whatever looks good as a club to beat the other side with. It does get old.

    Because of the same reflexes, I think, the issues surrounding sexual assault, the justice system, and higher education were very poorly served by all the attention to the lacrosse case. The typical and routine aspects that ultimately have the most effect on the most people, usually involving imperfect tradeoffs and always depending on imperfect people, all that was of little use compared to the exceptional and outrageous things that could be reduced to black and white. It’s a pretty depressing record.

  9. RRH | October 28, 2008 at 11:52 | Permalink

    What an honor to be addressed by Prof. Michael Gustafson, who was one of the (too) few faculty heroes of the Lacrosse Hoax.

    However, I will not respond to the substance of his remarks here because I don’t want to abuse reharmonizer’s hospitality by having an off-topic dialogue. If it’s all right with Prof. Gustafson, I will send an email to him on the subject raised in our tete-a-tete about the American legal system.

    ~   ~   ~

    I’ll leave it to Gus to take up the question of email. But you’re welcome to reply in this comment thread. There’s not a big on-topic discussion, as you can see.