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.