TCS Daily

Revisiting 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 teaming 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 paradox-bearing sophists of ancient Greece or the mocking 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, acting on the maxim: "Never let a good argument get the better of your common sense."

The intellectual conservative of our day excels in good arguments. His policy positions are reasoned and based on well-documented evidence. If he supports a cultural tradition, it is not because of his blind and irrational attachment to the tradition in question, but because he has come up with a solid reason for adhering to the tradition. This line of argument can be traced back to the great Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, who used his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary medicine in order to justify the hygienic rationality of the Hebrew dietary code. Pork, for example, was forbidden because it caused trichinosis, a frequently fatal disease. Yahweh, in forbidding the Chosen People the flesh of swine, was not acting arbitrarily, but with prudent economy. Knowing, as he did, that the ancient Jews lacked sufficient medical knowledge to prohibit the eating of pork on the basis of reason alone, he supplied them with a revealed commandment: "Thou shalt not eat pork!"

But there is a problem with Maimonides' approach. As I argued in my Policy Review essay, "The Future of Tradition," those who seek to justify a cultural tradition by appealing to reason are unwittingly subverting the authority of the very tradition they are trying to bolster. When you defend a tradition as Maimonides did,

"tradition becomes merely a primitive method for doing what empirical science does better. Here we have one horn of the dilemma: If a tradition is reason in a somewhat garbled code, decipher the code and throw away the tradition through which it was transmitted. If pork should be avoided because of the dangers of trichinosis, simply state this as a fact, and those who can appreciate the value of scientific information and who can heed maxims of prudence will be able to make the proper judgments about the dangers and benefits of eating pork."

The stupid conservative, on the other hand, does not look for a higher authority than tradition itself. He is prepared to rest his case simply on traditional authority alone, without seeking to appeal to logic, or reason, or empirical data. For what reason gives, reason can take away. If hygienic rationality becomes the basis of our adherence to the traditional dietary laws, then scientific progress can easily provide us with a good reason to ignore these same traditional laws when they are found to conflict with the latest scientific findings. Pork, after all, if prepared properly, poses little danger to those who consume it. So why not amend the prohibition on the eating on pork to read: "Thou shalt not eat pork unless it has been prepared according to the modern hygienic standards?"

The same principle applies not just to eating pork, but to any of the traditional imperatives passed down from generation to generation. If traditional marriage needs to be defended by good arguments, then it stands or falls on the validity of these arguments, and where good arguments can be put forward to justify alternative "experiments in living," then the authority of tradition as tradition is overthrown, and whoever comes up with the best argument carries the day. The end result of this process is that intellectuals, trained to be good at arguing, inevitably gain an undue influence in the shaping of public opinion, while those who adhere to traditions simply because they are their tradition are left vulnerable to attack and ridicule because they have difficulty defending positions they have never found cause to question. In such a case, the traditionalist must either abandon his sacred ground, and learn to argue, or else he must be prepared to accept the derogatory label fixed upon him by the intelligentsia. In short, he must not mind too much being called stupid.

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.

Lee Harris is author of The Suicide of Reason.



Reason is dangerous?
It is in Lee Harris’ hands. Speaking of a con ...

This is the dumbest load of crap I ever read. It is basically a defense for uninformed stupidity.

Not only Odysseus
Also the Soviet tyrant Stalin feigned the stupidity of a peasant to the high class guys like Lenin and Trotsky et al. and used it too as a mechanism against intellectual dreamers and such, as the article states. In reality Stalin was much more intelligent, and well read than his rivals gave him credit for, often to leading to their downfalls.

Getting sucked in
This reminds me of a supervisor I once had who was of modest intelligence.

He attended a "diversity" conference, and returned quite enthusiastic about the enlightenment he had been given.

"We learned about white privilege," he proudly informed me.

He would have been better off putting cotton in his ears.

Does "rationality" always have the upper hand?
When Lee Harris's article in Policy Review came out, I read it with interest. After reading this article, which is a subtle instruction about how to avoid being flim-flammed by a rationalist, some thoughts came to mind about what Harris is trying to describe as "rational" thought.

The method Harris attributes to Maimonides is essentially empirical. It is based on experience and is subjective, or at best "intersubjective". The epistemological presumption is that all knowledge at some point comes via experience. Contrast this to other rationalists such as Descartes, or idealists such as Kant and Hegel, who presumed that there was such a thing as innate ideas and that some degree of objective knowledge was obtainable through logic and reason.

Furthermore, there was a time when empiricism was just not in vogue, and philosophical idealism or even rationalism were at some point the reigning philosophical paradigms, not empiricism, pragmatism, etc.

Thus when Harris talks about a rational method, he's basically talking about empiricism, not philosophical rationalism nor idealism--at least that qualification seems to make the most sense in the context of both of his excellent essays.

If by "rationalism" we are really talking about empiricism, then knowing this much puts us on firmer ground in being able to defend tradition against empiricism.

For one thing, we can argue that empiricism has its legitimate limits within which is can produce reliable knowledge, and outside those limits we are on shaky ground. For example, scientific investigation has produced a number of miraclous discoveries. It has improved our health, put us in space, on the moon, the Internet, etc.

But what happens when we try to apply the scientific method to objects and phenomena that do not lend themselves as readily to empirical investigation as, for example, stones or atoms? Like "humans" for example? With humans, controlling your subjects and experiments becomes significantly problematic. Atoms don't lie, but humans sometimes do. Researcher bias is also more prominent, especially when the research is about a social issue the researcher cares about (and which is usually why he or she is a researcher at all).

What happens is that social science itself, when it goes beyond mere questioning of tradition and starts making its own bold assertions, has not delivered as promised, or has sometimes spectacularly failed.

A shining example of this is the development of public welfare in the U.S. from the 1960s and the demise of black families. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted trouble for the black families, the scientific establishment turned on him. It's from this episode we get the slogan "blaming the victim". In the end, Moynihan was vindicated--perhaps moreso than he ever thought possible. Today 7 out of 10 black children are born out of wedlock, and in the inner cities the rate is higher. Not delivering as promised is why today the social sciences don't enjoy as much public trust as they once had.

Considering this, I would say that the "glow" of progress that empiricism engendered in the last 150 years took a great beating in the 20th century--two great wars, a cold-war, and a Western society that liberal and conservative scholars agree is in decline. I think that Harris gives too much credit to what he calls rationalism. It is not unbeatable.

I think that a partial yet effective defense against empiricism is to point out (and keep pointing out) that empiricism itself has its own tangible limitations in the affairs of the world. Give empiricism its due within its legitimate domain and within its limitations, but not on matters that it cannot effectively investigate.

Revisiting the Stupid Party -- classical allusions
The impact of the essay falters when the concluding sentence has a muddled allusion: Odysseus did not use cotton in his ears -- he didn't even close his ears because he WANTED to hear the sirens' song. He had himself strapped to the mast so he could listen, but not act, while his men rowed through the danger with wax stuffed in their ears.

Revisiting the Stupid Party
Most conservatives who stick to tradition not based solely on empirical or reasoned justification are basing it on moral authority. Usually founded through belief in God. Its an interesting article but in large part to me because the author didn't mention the moral dimension.

I Don't Think So . . .
Not A-work, this article. Taking a small quote 18-19th century philosopher and running with it to make a grand conclusions about the intellect/psychology of people by political persuasion, then stating without foundation that liberals are more cunning and better at intellectual argument than conservatives, and coming to the farcical conclusion that people need to make themselves willfully ignorant for the good of public policy.

I'd question the premise that liberals use better intellectual arguments. On the contrary, every political argument they've made in the last 80 years has been based on the abdication of reason.

First they were stating the Hillary doctrine that wealth should be taken away from the rich and given to the poor for the common good. Anyone with wherewithal could've seen (and did see!) the rational flaws in this plan: Is wealth left to the rich spend invested in capital while money given to the poor is generally spent or squandered? What moral right do you have to take someone's stuff from them by force and give it to a stranger? Wasn't something like this tried by the Roman Emperors to curry favor with the populace and failed miserably?

Instead, the program was pushed forward for reasons not based in logic: self-loathing by limousine liberals, populist politicians who knew what to say and do to get elected, an activist press with an innate institutional bias for making emotional impact over making sense, a modestly intelligent citizenry who couldn't distinguish between charity and altruism, and a electoral system that inherently promotes irrational decision making.

When the New Deal/Great Society's miserable failure became apparent in the 70s & 80s, the liberals stopped their fallacious "good for society" arguments and resorted purely to unfounded moral imperatives and ad hominum against those who dared questioned them. The welfare programs couldn't be discontinued because the dependents they created would starve, and conservatives who wanted reform were painted as heartless brutes who wanted to starve children, enslave minorities and make old people eat catfood to survive.

Liberalism has almost never been defended by rational argument, but almost always by raging moral appeals, like a hell-fire preacher who shouts Bible verses that say everyone is going to hell, while ignoring the ones that say everyone is going to heaven.

Only two exceptions I know of exist. First was the economic theories of Keynes and Galbraith (sp?) who thought public spending for public spending's sake would improve the economy, and second was work by Skinner, Gould and other psychologists/sociologists who proposed that "environment makes the man" rather than the other way around. Their proponents did make rational arguments, but the Spirit of the Age adopted them as truth after-the-fact to justify their policy wants, and ignored valid criticism of these views until it was too late.

Not so stupid party
From 'smart' intellectuals, stupid means holding to tradition without question.

"In such a case, the traditionalist must either abandon his sacred ground, and learn to argue, or else he must be prepared to accept the derogatory label fixed upon him by the intelligentsia. In short, he must not mind too much being called stupid."

This is just another pointless binary argument in which the 'intelligentsia' need to denigrate their opponents because they have no rational arguments to support their departure from tradition for the sole reason of being opposed to tradition. (Reminds me of teen age children.)

The following is from an essay "Evolving a Theory of Tradition" by Rory Ewins (

"Natural selection is about the survival of the fit, not the fittest; or, if you prefer, the survival of those that are able to survive. It's not just the strongest or the smartest of any particular species that survive to pass on their genes, but the strong and the smart; or the average; or even, in a lot of cases, the relatively puny and stupid. All that is required is that they are capable of getting by in whatever environment they find themselves in."

"we can avoid the need for a great deal of personal learning by trial and error by simply taking a lot of knowledge on trust. And that's where tradition is useful, because it's knowledge vested in the group, and it's knowledge about beliefs and practices which have worked and supposedly still work for the members of that group—our group. And 'work', in this context, is potentially as wide in scope as 'fit' in the context of biological evolution; it makes about as much sense to worry about whether a practice 'works best' in order to be a tradition as it does to worry about whether an individual is the 'fittest' rather than simply 'a fit'."

"a tradition usually won't disappear overnight, and with the unanimous consent of all the members of the group whose tradition it is. Because even though tradition is knowledge shared by the group, the active agents in a process of change in tradition are individuals. A few individuals, at first, might decide that a certain traditional practice no longer works for them, and that they will flout tradition and do what they think is better. If their new way catches on with enough people, that particular tradition will begin to fade—perhaps accompanied by the protests of those who still prefer the old practice over the new—and eventually, it may die. And then, in time, the new practice can take over the mantle of 'tradition'."

Abandoning tradition for no reason except to spit in the face of your ancestors is stupid.

Evaluating traditions, and creating new ones when the old ones no longer apply, is not so stupid I think.

Uh...the author doesn't know too many Liberals, obviously
I have the privilege & curse of being quite an outspoken Conservative living in the ultra-liberal San Francisco Bay Area.

And, let me tell you: 90% of the 'liberals' out here are nothing but sheep caught up in the 'groupthink.' Most just want to keep themselves uncontroversial to the dominant ideology in order to keep being invited to parties and not denied promotion at work. I ran into the same type of Republicans while on a business trip in Alabama -- social conservative traditionalists like the author describes. The point is: They exist in all ideological spectra.

Just keep that in mind, that's all,

Now...I'm selling T-shirts that say "I'm with Stupid!" on them for $49.99/each. Let me know of any of you want to buy 'em. I also give discounted prices at $59.99/each for volume orders of 2 or more. Proudly show your credentials with the Stupid Party! For each order, 50 cents will be donated to a program that hands out stickers to children waiting for their school bus that say "Al Gore is NOT God!"

The problem lies with calling the idiots on the Left what they want to be called: "intellectuals".

Since when did mere academics ever earn the right to be thought of as "intellectuals"?

When did "intellectuals" become denigrated into people with silver tongues, all style without substance and having a lot of nothing to say?

Salesmen are intellectuals? The typical lawyer is an intellectual?

Those who call themselves, in political terms, "progressives" are regressive and there is little that is intellectual about them.

Maimonedes' arguments were not very intellectual, either. They were what we call today "pretense".

Usually, I think of guys like Lee Harris as intellectuals.

But what the hell is he referring to as "sheer brain power"? Does he mean "pure" reason void of all emotion? Does he mean all fantasy with no grounding? Does he mean people like Stephen Hawking, who (for whatever reason) can use their minds but not their hands?

The political Left is no more intellectual than most Congresscritters of any political stance are "elite".

Homeric Weather Forecast : Reigning Idiocy
Given that supine metaphysical allegiance to The Base seems to be the foundation of 21st century neoconservative science and technology policy -- palaeoconservatives simply have none-- it seems positively pixilated of Lee to assert that common sense enters the picture at all.

Seeing him, and Victor Hanson, make a dogs breakfast of the classics only confirms the common wisdom- if the votes on the left hand side of the bell curve count for as much as the ones on the right, why waste words and money appealing to intelligence ?

Massive nitpick about Odysseus
Odysseus didn't put wax (not cotton) in his own ears. He had his crew do that. He had himself tied to the mast and told his crew to keep him there until the ship was past the Siren's island.

Hmm, I live in Alabama I know many conservatives and the one trait I see most often is individualism. Most own businesses, work hard and adhere to traditional values, you know, the ones that built society.

Your views on liberals are pretty on base, they are the herd mentality in general. Those that are not are usually off on appealing to some emotional level or internal guilt.

Then you have the power mongers. Conservatives, in general, make lousy political leaders because we view government as something to be minimized and avoided. The exception was Reagan. Bush is no conservative.

Liberals love government and seek to grow it at every turn. Hillary's "gifts" to America are a example. She actually believes, I am convinced, that we really want all the dribble she is going to give us on the backs of those she despises, the successful.

Fantastic essay!
Might be one of the best I've ever read on TCS.

It helps explain something that we know is true, we know its there but its hard to describe, its hard to grab and point out to others.

It might be the only way conservatives can avoid changing and still stay relevant in a changing society. Wow. I really think this might be an indication of the leading edge, the very first absolute beginning of a necessary shift conservatives need to make to stay relevant. Even if the general philosophy doesn't change very much, it signals an adjustment, a recognition of reality and the need to deal with it.

Time will tell. Good stuff Harris!

The answer is yes, conservative intelligenstia IS an oxymoron. Pick any thread on TCS and read some arguments, its obvious.

Dream on
You liberals are just so much smarter than us. Why I wonder how I made it this far.

I am sure that Bill Buckley is a oxymoron also right?

"[The essay] helps explain something that we know is true, we know its there but its hard to describe, its hard to grab and point out to others."

Well, don't be so presumptuous as to include me in your "we" -- I don't "know" that it's true at all, and I'd venture to guess that many others of a conservative bent don't "know" it either. Such an attempt to speak in empirical terms without substantial basis is argumentative folly. But since your apparent perception of those disagreeing with your ideological stance is that they're simply stupid for not aligning themselves with your notions, the essay does a lot to reinforce that perception and bolster your beliefs.

"Even if the general philosophy doesn't change very much, it signals an adjustment, a recognition of reality and the need to deal with it."

Again with some kind of faux empiricism by invoking the term "reality." I have a very solid conception of reality, thank you, that doesn't need to be "dealt with" by some kind of "shift" in order to stay "relevant" -- it just doesn't comport with yours. To somehow claim that the reality with which we must "deal" is one that is incompatible with conservative ideology is simply a hollow debate tactic without intellectual merit: "I have the REAL low-down, but you conservatives are really out of it, man." Nothing of substance there.

"conservative intelligenstia IS an oxymoron."

Yeah, all those dunderheads at the Heritage Foundation, The Claremont Institute, The American Enterprise, The CATO Institute, The Hoover Institute (let alone thinkers like W. F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, James Bowman, and Normal Podhoretz, just to note a small few) et al are complete imbeciles with nary an intellectual thought process between them....

"Pick any thread on TCS and read some arguments, its obvious."

No, it's not obvious. Simply because someone puts forth arguments with which you disagree is not an indication that those arguments are proffered by morons. To merely castigate arguments as being anti-intellectual just because you disagree with them is the typical Leftist tactic of attempting to dismiss a position as arising from a flawed source -- it saves the trouble of having to actually address it intellectually.

Moderates are where its at

"The problem lies with calling the idiots on the Left what they want to be called: "intellectuals"."

In no way is everyone on the Left an intellectual. Political affiliation has nothing to do with being an intellectual...

"Since when did mere academics ever earn the right to be thought of as "intellectuals"?"

...but academia IS how an intellectual is formed. They are people who study and learn for the sake of learning. The problem in your understanding is the definition the Right has created and standardized of college profesors, and teachers in general for that matter. By no means is a college profesor automatically an intellectual, but at universities and places of thought as such are where intellectuals are most likely to be generated.

Stop seeing everything as a stereotype and you'll see the nuances. But thats not the lesson the Right think-tanks offer. The Right's purpose is all stereotypes all the time. Black and white, no gray area. Its rooted in the method of argument by the Right.

(I'll be totally honest, I can do a lot less stereotyping myself. Thats a lesson I'll put to my own heart. In this very post I do it all over the place.)

"When did "intellectuals" become denigrated into people with silver tongues, all style without substance and having a lot of nothing to say?"

Again, it happened as the Right's propaganda machine turned "intellectual" into a bad word, and associated it with the Left. "Leftist elites" ring a bell? The definition of "elites" has suffered the same treatment. "Intellectuals" has not denigrated in my opinion, it IS NOT about silver tongues and style without substance. Why do you think it has? (answer?: right-wing authority has determined it for you)

This I believe is the purpose of conservative think-tanks. Not to be intellectuals, but to dumb-down the rhetoric so it makes sense and can be repeated by people who don't value reason, who don't ask questions of what they're told by their authority.

"The political Left is no more intellectual than most Congresscritters of any political stance are "elite"."

Agreed the political Left in general is no more intellectual than anyone else. But intellectuals of the Left are grounded in science and critical thinking, whereas intellectuals of the Right are something else. Intellectuals of the Right come up with things like Intelligent Design. I look at the traditional definitions of liberalism in this view and not the personalities today that make up the Democratic Party. Reid and Pelosi are horrible leaders!

And I would argue that Congresscritters are elites. They are rich and powerful, what else makes them elites? That doesn't mean they deserve respect automatically. In fact, I believe it means they have to do more to earn my respect than someone who is not rich and powerful. Wealth does not necesitate respect - thats a point where the Right is confused. The Right most definitely thinks a person automatically deserves respect and admiration if he/she is wealthy.

Its easy being extreme. Its all stereotypes and absolutes. Its easy to argue when you don't have to answer questions or accept truth and you're only mission is to keep the argument going so it seems like you're not wrong.

A Moderate WHAT?
"In no way is everyone on the Left an intellectual."

As witnessed by many of the posts which can be found on Leftist sites such as Democratic Underground, The Daily KOS, and Huffington Post -- not all are shining examples of philosophic insight and erudition. (Typical example: "Bush has to be impeached because he's Hitler, dude!" Now THERE'S some intellectual substance....

"The problem in your understanding is the definition the Right has created and standardized of college profesors, and teachers in general for that matter."

No, the problem the Right has with "intellectuals" who foster their credos through the venue of academia is the vast majority of such individuals are of a Leftist mentality and seek to indoctrinate that mentality into the uninformed minds of their young students. By embuing those instructors/researchers with the term "intellectual" it gives them the sheen of unimpeachable authority, and hence their Leftist views as impervious and empirically sound. Therefore when an "intellectul" is challenged on such views, it is viewed as the views of a cretin against the views of a learned scholar, no matter what the actual credentials of either.

"Stop seeing everything as a stereotype and you'll see the nuances."

As opposed to those on the Left who live to attack every Rightist as embodying a stereotype: stupid, greedy, uncaring, unsensitive, warmongering, gun-toting, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, etc. It's the hard currency of the Left's argumentative tactic.

"The Right's purpose is . . . [B]lack and white, no gray area. Its rooted in the method of argument by the Right."

The "black and white" stance taken by the Right is merely their believe and acknowledgement that there exist such things as ABSOLUTES, particularly moral absolutes; the "nuance" Leftists decry as missing from Rightist thinking is simply a euphemism for "relativism," wherein nothing enjoys the status of being an absolute -- it's all relative; "nuance" is simply Leftist code for "we don't believe in the concept of absolutes." There's nothing inherently superior in viewing all matters with the "nuance" of relativism -- to suggest that there is is to merely operate from a presumed position of moral superiority, whereupon a given argument can be dismissed without addressing it on its actual merits.

"This I believe is the purpose of conservative think-tanks. Not to be intellectuals, but to dumb-down the rhetoric so it makes sense and can be repeated by people who don't value reason, who don't ask questions of what they're told by their authority."

Gee, no broad-brushing there. Please cite some evidence of any conservative think-tank's agenda which serves to "dumb down" the rhetoric (what rhetoric might that be, BTW?). And of course, describing people on the Right as those who "don't value reason" certainly isn't resorting to stereotyping at all, is it... (groan). As for asking "questions of what they're told by their authority," you might apply the same standard to those who unquestioningly follow Al Gore's pronunciations as if they're gospel; Leftists are just as sheeplike as any other ideological alliance.

"[I]ntellectuals of the Left are grounded in science and critical thinking, whereas intellectuals of the Right are something else."

(Wow -- and I thought the Right were the ones who dealt in stereotypes....)What might that "something else" be? Is intellegence strictly a product of reason and critical thinking? Hmmm -- seems to me there's an awful lot of Leftist ideology based in nothing of the sort, and might uphold intuition and sensitivity as an intellectual virtue (hint: read the plethora of works on the Postmodern movement in academia and you'll find reams of Intellectual Leftists touting the necessity of throwing out reason in favor on intuition and feeling.)

"Intellectuals of the Right come up with things like Intelligent Design."

Those are not intellectuals, they are individuals seeking to use their religiosity as an explanation for things which science hasn't (yet) empirically explained. To suggest that those on the Right are all on board with the ID movement is another stereotype which the Left loves to exploit -- as a Rightist myself, I'm completely against the pseudo-science that is ID. But ID aside, please cite some of the other "non-reason based" things that conservative intellectuals supposedly all embrace.

"Its easy being extreme. Its all stereotypes and absolutes. Its easy to argue when you don't have to answer questions or accept truth and you're only mission is to keep the argument going so it seems like you're not wrong."

...As you've done throughout your entire post. I find it the height of irony that you excoriate conservatives for relying on stereotypes, then argue your entire post via the very method you claim to abhor. You've done nothing but talk in presumptions and broad generalizations, embuing your thoughts with some assumed moral superiority because you incite such notions as "nuance" and opposition to "extremes." As for the "truths" one is supposed to accept, I'd be interested in what you'd cite as some -- no doubt they'd vary from my own. But then, you'd apparently just say I'm dealing in "black and white" and that by virtue of that approach I'm necessarily in the absolute wrong.

FINALLY: As for the notion of "moderate," a moderate WHAT? "Moderate" is an adjective, a modifier -- you can be a moderate Democrat or moderate Conservative, even a moderate drinker. It doesn't in and of itself describe any set of beliefs or values (except perhaps moderation in all things.) When it comes to the exchange of ideas it's of no use whatsoever. It doesn't imply any particular policy preferences or pragmatic legal propositions -- it's simply a nebulous, feel-good term.

I am to tired to make this point. Thanks for doing it for me.

>"Intellectuals of the Right come up with things like Intelligent Design."

Intellectuals of the Left come up with things like speech codes, Political Correctness (i.e., Cultural Totalitarianism), Postmodernism Anti-rationalism, Multiculturalism (i.e, Relativism), class envy and resentment (i.e, Marxism), and a host of other intellectual atrocities.

The best defense of conservatism is a good offense
I agree that most conservative intellectuals are too clever by half, e.g. Michael Gerson with his "Heroic Conservatism", particularly when they let themselves become beguiled by the social engineers' Utopian blueprints.

But Mr. Harris neglects to discuss one strategy available to those who defend tradition: Undercutting progressive schemes and suchlike "experiments in living" on the rock-solid grounds that (1) govt. is incompetent, and Big Govt. is vastly incompetent, (2) every Utopian scheme of Uncle Sugar's New Deal, the Great Society etc. has introduced perverse incentives and dreadful knock-on effects tolling greater costs to society than the benefits enjoyed, (3) govt. can't spoof the indivisible trio of individual freedom, virtue and personal responsibility to provide happiness for all alike, (4) govt. builds the Road to Serfdom, at the end of which lies a facility above whose gates a sign reads: "Arbeit Macht Frei", (5) how can America's laws property and contract and the Americans who abide them be just but the economic outcomes they produce be unjust?, (6) etc. (I'm just getting warmed up).

The left excoriated the most politically successful conservative of the past century - Reagan - for being a simplistic dunce, yet he designed and built the ballista that conservatives used to reduce socialism's defenses to rubble. To my knowledge, the left has no defense to these engines of truth on the political battlefield, so let's keep those ballista humming, shall we? And by the way, Mr. Harris is right: there's no reason to redesign them.

Galbraith As Example
Your mention of Galbraith brings to mind one of the best evaluations of that economic nitwit, as produced by Emmett Tyrrell. It seems especially relevent in this discussion of "intellectuals":

"I take the forty-year dance of Dr. John Kenneth Galbraith as solid evidence that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time to make a princely fortune as a public thinker.... Dr. Galbraith is a stunning exemplification of what Lewis Lapham calls the Great Trick; he has managed to turn himself and all that he discharges into a highly lucrative commodity.... More than anyone else, Galbraith exemplifies the changed conditions of America. The Tennessee rube of yore has been replaced by the demieducated sophisticate.... Yesterday's yokel forked up his discretionary income for relief from bodily groans and spiritual fright; the intellectualoid looks to the likes of Dr. Galbraith and so has his fantasies nourished and his soul well greased.... No Arkansas cracker was ever more smug about his belief in the Good Book and the mule than Galbraith is about his imbecilic stew of Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and a half-baked Keynesianism."

An ample summation of the Leftist fascination with Authority On High, i.e., the pronunciations of the acedemic intellectuals which stoke their blessed ideological fires.

Academia-Increasingly an Intellectually, Morally and Fiscally disordered environment
"but academia IS how an intellectual is formed."

Actually, since "academia" refers to an environment, it would be more correct to say academia is WHERE an intellectual is formed.

But nontheless, many of the great ideas we use everyday were formed OUTSIDE of academia. Relativity, double entry accounting were the products of learned minds-but formed outside of the academy.

In any case, academia has increasingly become a close- minded environment, indeed the enforcement of intellectual conformity (explicitly in speech codes, punitive grading, etc. and implicitly through selective group recognition and speaker invitation) borders on fascism.

Faculties spend all their time in "publish or perish", leaving the unpleasant vulgarities of instruction and assessment to their apprentices-graduate assistants. Administrators spend all their time seeking ever expanding shares of the public treasury, instead of "minding the store". In part this is because for all of the pretenses of the Phd's that become university presidents, they lack any skills that would allow them to run their domains at anything approaching solvency.

Elaborate abstractions, particularly in the social "sciences", where the comparison of reality of with the academic abstractions finds the latter wanting. Of course, the narcissists defend their "work" with indictments of humanity.

Public finance of "high learning" has largely produced non-displicines (think anything that says "studies") and fiscal disorder.

It has never been the sole seat of the formation of intellectuals, on the current path it will be (or maybe has) inconsistent with intellectualism.

Small Exception
>"[M]ost conservative intellectuals are too clever by half, e.g. Michael Gerson with his 'Heroic Conservatism', particularly when they let themselves become beguiled by the social engineers' Utopian blueprints."

I'd argue that when Gerson et al invoke such fashionable blueprints they've abdicated the label "conservative," as that ideological stance entails given values and beliefs which are incompatible with such notions as Gerson advances; in that sense he's not representative of "most conservative intellectuals," as he's no longer truly conservative after abandoning those ideals. [And yes, it can be argued 'til the cows come home just what comprises True Conservatism, but I think most ideologues would agree that gov't expansion ain't on the list.] Now, a scholar such as Thomas Sowell, however, strikes all the abiding chords in his works and I contend represents the archetype conservative intellectual who's never "too clever by half," in stark contrast to those such as Gerson: pundits du jour who have no distinct body of work upon which to claim the title "conservative intellectual." He's simply an author advancing a (flawed) theoretical concept. Thus it's best not to be too broad when chastising the tendencies of "most conservative intellectuals" on the whole.

The rest of your post, however, I find spot-on.

More trustees, please
Conservatism bases its tenets on the sound theories and practices described in philosophy, the social sciences, the law, history and common sense. As conservatives, we are the trustees and beneficiaries of a great cache of treasure laid up by our intellectual benefactors, who discovered the sound theory and practices we draw on to counsel how one lives and governs wisely and well.

This being so, I consider the conservative intellectual to be one who adds to the treasure trove, e.g. Adam Smith, who showed us how spontaneous economic and social order emerges from private property rights, contracts and commerce, and F.A. Hayek, who showed us why economies can't be planned, and Aristotle, who showed us that virtue is necessary to happiness, and de Tocqueville, who showed us that a civil society locally organized around voluntary associations of free men dedicated to advancing social virtue is indispensable to personal and political freedom.

In light of the foregoing, I consider Mr. Gerson's latest work to be a self-styled intellectual conservative's misguided attempt to add to the conservative treasure trove. His work is misguided because it depreciates the value conservative intellectuals have previously stored up for us.

Thomas Sowell and his like, who guard our treasure hoard by rejecting for deposit the dross of Gerson's like while applying the value we've got stored up to bettering individual lives, our society, our economy and our polity, are to my mind not conservative intellectuals to the extent they do not lay up new treasure. Even so, the role they play as conservative trustees, investors and advocates may be even more important than that played by the conservative intellectuals. Therefore, conservatism and America benefit just as much from Sowell's efforts as they have from Smith's et al.

Semantics may keep us from agreement on this point, which is why I've tried to set out the roles different thinkers play in conservatism and the importance that intellectualism plays both in understanding and preserving the value of the treasure we've got stored up as well as adding to the same.

Point Taken
"I consider the conservative intellectual to be one who adds to the treasure trove.... Semantics may keep us from agreement on this point."

Yes, our difference would be fundamental on that concept, as I find your position somewhat limiting, yet I understand your basis of thought. My only contention would be that there is, I find, little to be added to the trove on the whole -- the conservative ideological structure I believe to be quite settled in its foundation (thanks to those fountainheads you cite), else it wouldn't garner the label "conservative," i.e, proven guiding principles to be upheld and defended. Therefore, what's left for intellectual consideration are simply interpretations as to how it can inspire particular policy prescriptions via the application of that ideological bedrock, where I find my definition of a "conservative intellectual" (i.e., Sowell, Buckley, etc.) to be of contemporary value.

Conservative ideology firmly rooted, innovative intellectuals of the sort you cite (Smith, Hayek, et al) will anymore be precious few and far between -- the body of their collective insights already forms the basis of a conservative theoretics; all else will simply be interpretative, with pragmatic application theory of same the relative task at hand.

As for Gerson, I think we'd readily agree he ain't no Smith/Hayek/Tocqueville -- a year from now he'll be on no one's radar, and his books will be the stuff of remainder bins. I also agree that his theory is a (perhaps unwitting) dismantling of the established conservative guide posts, which is why I'm loathe to attach the label "conservative" to his proffered positions.

I enjoy your posts.

Here's some clues
Most Americans do not accept the science or evolution.

"over the past 20 years the percentage of U.S. adults who accept evolution declined from 45 to 40 percent. [...] only Turkey ranked lower, with about 25 percent of the population accepting evolution and 75 percent rejecting it. In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and France, 80 percent or more of adults accepted evolution; in Japan, 78 percent of adults did."

70% of America goes to church at least once a year, with an attendance rate of ~40%

About 1/3 of all Americans favor the job George Bush is doing and roughly the same (30%) support the US invasion of Iraq...

63% of Americans think it is "important is it for a [presidential] candidate to have STRONG religious beliefs"

One survey found that...

"Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003"

"Seventy-two percent of [U.S.] respondents said the Iraqi people are better off now than under Saddam Hussein's regime"

"61 percent said the conflict has motivated more Islamic terrorists to attack the U.S."

"41 percent say the war has reduced the threat of another major terrorist attack in the United States"

Clarification Needed
I'm not sure I understand the point of your post. Are you saying that because those majority percentages you cited hold the beliefs they do they're thus objectively unintelligent for holding them?

And you call yourself a scientist?
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." [Mark Twain] 1

When Mark Twain made this statement his point was, of course, that numbers can be manipulated by the unscrupulous to misrepresent facts, to justify a particular bias, or fulfill a particular agenda. This requires the researcher to carefully evaluate the information s/he collects.

Nowhere is this more true than when collecting data from the Internet. While the Internet contains many useful sources of data from legitimate sources, there are also many sites containing unreliable or misleading information. As you surf the Internet evaluate the information you locate carefully by keeping a few basic priniciples in mind:

* Know your source. Unless the person or organization who developed the page clearly identifies themselves, view the information as potentially suspect.

* Authority Look for the most "authoritative" source of information. Electronic information can be easily altered. If you want legal materials, go to the issuing government or organization if possible. If you want a particular country's position on an issue, try their sites. If you are looking for statistics look carefully at the data source. If you can, go to the original source — e.g. the government agency, international organization, research institute, etc. — rather than rely on data mounted by a private individual. Most data is compiled from just a few sources, largely governmental. For example, most U.S. demographic or economic data comes from a handful of government agencies. The data is then manipulated to produce various tabulations. Know the original source of the data files (if possible use that source) and understand how the data has been manipulated.

* Is this home page selling a particular point of view? Information is a propaganda tool. Information produced by governmental organizations and advocacy groups is, by its very nature, an attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular point of view. A country may attempt to encourage foreign investment by putting only its "best foot" forward, by downplaying serious social and political issues, or it may simply omit information needed to make an informed decision.

* Check more than one source. Getting similar information from several independent sources doesn't mean you eliminate all bias, but it will help you sift out some of the more extreme views you might encounter.

* Do some background reading. Doing some background reading in scholarly literature can give you a solid basis for evaluating the information you find.

1. Twain attributes this quote to Benjamin Disraeli in The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Edited by Charles Neider. New York : Harper & Row, p.149."

Chemometrics, wasn't it? Doesn't that involve significant probability and statistical theory?

What do you intend with the 'lies' you cite?

No. I guess I'm saying that these are indicators of a conservative society.
One can be intelligent and go to synagogue, church, masque,... whatever. And one can be intelligent and still be wrong. This is simply a lack of knowledge, aka ignorance

One Step Further
>"One can be intelligent and go to synagogue, church, masque,... whatever. And one can be intelligent and still be wrong. This is simply a lack of knowledge, aka ignorance"

Oh, I see -- what you're actually saying is that the views those cited majority numbers represent are not due to lack of intelligence per se, but that they ARE objectively and empirically wrong, and therefore those who hold them are objectively and empirically ignorant. Gotcha.

And putting it that way is supposed to take the stink of condescension out it how...?

Truth is not a democratic decision.
Consensus is subject to a vote. Truth is not.

But (neo)conservatives do not even care if they are right or wrong as long as they can claim that their decisions are based on "traditional values" or "common sense".

Only to define the playing field before continuing.

What is the source of common sense and tradition?
The school of hard knocks.


'Liberals' continue to believe that socialism will work 'if only' the 'right' people are in charge.
Where is the evidence, the truth to support that fantasy?

Did you tell Al Gore?
All the AGW faithful believe truth can be determined by consensus.

Here is what I got from the article:

Religion may well be only the traditions of the survivors...e.g. Thou shalt not commit adultery because of the blight of venereal disease.
However, it would be unwise to reduce it to that.

Thou shalt not murder (abortion).
Who is doing the reproducin'?

Traditional Catholics, Mormons, Muslims.

Who isn't?

" `Statistics have proven there are twenty five bath tubs sold to every Bible.'"
`Whoever wrote the Ten Commandments made 'em short. They may not always be kept but they can be understood.'

`Everybody is ignorant. Only on different subjects.'

Traditional Catholics, Mormons, Muslims
In the end, being prolife has always been a survivable philosophy. I don't think that will ever change.

"American scientists are recognized to be leaders "
"The United States is the most religious of the advanced industrial democracies. At the
same time, American scientists are recognized to be leaders in many areas of scientific research
and application."

[Ain't freedom grand!]

"The analysis that follows will argue that while Americans respect science and scientists,
they are not always willing to accept scientific findings that squarely contradict their religious
beliefs. At the same time, such conflicts are not common in the U.S. today."

"There are areas that one day could become the source of
a factual dispute between scientists and some religious Americans. For instance, some scientists
publicly claim that the most recent research on the human brain shows that it and it alone is the
seat of consciousness and personhood and that this evidence disproves the existence of a soul or
spirit. If this idea were to become widely accepted and publicized, it could, and indeed probably
would, prove to be another area of conflict between religion and science. But currently, the
debate over “the death of the soul” is not stirring significant opposition from religious people and
groups, primarily because there is no scientific consensus on the issue..."

"Finally, there are religious differences of opinion about the ethics of some kinds of
scientific research and its application. In the field of bioethics, public opinion is divided about
cloning, embryonic stem cell research, end-of-life issues, and genetic testing. But here, the
disputes do not concern questions of fact, as they do in the debates over evolution and
homosexuality. Instead, the bioethics debates involve purely moral and ethical questions,"

"Among seculars and most other
religious groups, majorities believe in
evolution: this includes 59% of Catholics,
62% of white mainline Protestants and 83%
of seculars. But mainline Protestants and
Catholics who believe in evolution are
themselves divided over the question of
whether evolution occurred through natural
selection or was guided by a supreme being
for the purpose of creating human life in its
present form. Overall, 31% of mainline
Protestants believe in natural selection,
while 26% believe a supreme being guided the process. Among Catholics, 25% subscribe to the
idea of natural selection and 31% think evolution was divinely guided. Only among seculars
does a majority accept natural selection: 69% of respondents with no religious affiliation believe
that life evolved through natural selection."

"...religion is not closely related to views of global warming."

"Political variables are also strong predictors of views of global
warming, with Republicans and political conservatives
much less likely to believe that human-caused global
warming is occurring."

"The public image of science is generally very positive. Strong majorities of the public in
the U.S. express support for scientific enterprise and for scientists: 80%-90% of the public agrees
that developments in science have made society better, that most scientists want to work on
things that make life better for the average person, and that basic research is worthy of
government support even if it does not yield immediate benefits. Similarly, few believe that the
risks of scientific research outweigh the benefits (an average of about 10%-12% over the past 20
years). Fewer than one-in-five believe that the federal government is spending too much on
scientific research. And eight-in-ten say they would happy if a son or daughter wanted to be a
scientist. There are only modest differences among religious groups on these questions."

" Most Americans do not accept the science": False
"The public image of science is generally very positive. Strong majorities of the public in
the U.S. express support for scientific enterprise and for scientists: 80%-90% of the public agrees
that developments in science have made society better, that most scientists want to work on
things that make life better for the average person, and that basic research is worthy of
government support even if it does not yield immediate benefits."

“non-overlapping magisteria”
"Gould wrote about religion and science and hoped that the concept of NOMA could provide a way to prevent what
he saw as needless conflict:

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on
moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions
properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical
constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions"

Humility is fundamental to Christianity.

Is humility rewarded in science?

The funny thing is, Christ was obviously an intellectual
Not only did he have grand discussions in the temple, but he also boiled all the laws down to two; love God and love your neighbor. He said that all other laws follow from those.

And he's right.

But you have to think about it.

And that may be too difficult for some.

So they follow the letter of the law.

But they get lost beyond that.


Why not accept God's grace?
If you check out what the natives of Fiji and Tonga think about tradition, (see my post above 'Not so stupid party'), they stick with tradition until it doesn't 'work' for them anymore. Then they change it.

Today's 'intellectuals' remind me of children who don't want to listen to their parents when told to go to bed or brush their teeth.

Christ's two commandments are simple and common sense. So why are they so difficult to follow? Could it be that people are looking for loopholes?

The other aspect of Christianity, God's grace, is very difficult for many to accept. We are not worthy of God's love yet we are stuck with it.

The sooner we accept God's grace the easier it will be for us to follow the commandments of Jesus.

So why is it so difficult for us to accept God's grace?

There is no real truth in such things.
We live in a complex technical world were "common sense" rules do not apply. Tradition has only minor practical application in the modern world because our life-styles are very different than even a few generations ago.

Who are you
to use God's name in vain?

The real issue of abortion.
Pro-abortion supporters are reluctant to use a biological argument, that at conception, the embryo is a human being.

Many who are pro-life don't accept evolution, yet believe that as soon as those two DNA halves come together, a human life has begun.

The real issue of abortion is about justifying selfishness.


Why I can't accept god's grace.
For me it's the same reason I can't accept Bigfoot, the elves that live in the forest, holy mana, or that I'll get 72 virgins in heaven, or even heaven; because none of these things have been shown to even exist.

TCS Daily Archives