TCS Daily


On the Stupid Party

By Lee Harris - December 27, 2007 12:00 AM

The nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill bequeathed to modern conservatism a lasting inferiority complex when he dismissed the conservatives of his day as "the stupid party." No one likes to be called stupid, as we can all agree, though Mill himself may not have understood this, since it is highly unlikely that anyone had ever called him by this disparaging epithet. In his famous Autobiography, Mill tells us that he was reading Plato in the original Greek when he was five, and by the time he was twelve, he was capable of discussing the fine points of economic theory with the leading authorities of his day—facts that may well have seriously skewed Mill's judgment about the intelligence of other people. Stupid, for Mill, may have meant those who only learned how to read Plato in Greek at the ripe old age of eleven, in which case the charge of belonging to the "stupid party" loses much of its sting.

Yet the sting of Mill's insult remains today and it explains, in part, the conspicuous braininess of contemporary conservatism. Conservative think-tanks abound in PhD's and experts in every field imaginable, whose intelligence, as measured by IQ tests and academic credentials, is certainly a match for those of their ideological opponents. But has the emergence of a conservative intelligentsia proven to be an unmixed blessing, or is the very phrase conservative intelligentsia an oxymoron?

Let's begin by noting that the eagerness to appear intelligent to others is a fairly recent development among conservatives. By and large, the English Tories whom Mill dubbed as the original stupid party did not share this desire in the least. If you read the delightful novels of Anthony Trollope, you will find them teeming with hilariously dim-witted Lords who feel no need to apologize for their mediocre minds, as long as they have their aristocratic pedigrees. Their stupidity, as many of them no doubt hazily realized, was their best defense against the inroads of clever madmen intent on turning their world upside down—men like John Stuart Mill, for example, to whom tradition meant nothing, and who was willing to throw out the solid heritage of the past in the pursuit of the latest fad, dubbed by him "experiments in living." Against the blueprints for a better world concocted by the brilliant they opposed the redneck wisdom encapsulated in the adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Today, no self-respecting conservative wants to be thought stupid, not even by the lunatics on the far left. Yet there are far worse things than looking stupid to others—and one of them is being conned by those who are far cleverer than we are. Indeed, in certain cases, the desire to appear intelligent at all costs can be downright suicidal.

Throughout history people have come along who were able to outtalk and outthink their neighbors, like the sophists of ancient Greece or the philosophes of the eighteenth century French salon. The bell curve virtually guarantees that there will always be those who can pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us, and if we once begin to listen to their spiel, then we find that before we know it we have been taken advantage of. It is not easy to outfox the fox, and those who try often end up on the unpleasant end of the food chain. Thus, it is safer simply never to begin listening to them—or when you must listen to them, to force them to go so slowly that they despair of ever drawing you into their clutches. In short, it is often wise to play dumb.

In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer, just as Odysseus found that stuffing cotton in his ears was his best defense against beguiling but fatal song of the sirens.


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