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Intellectuals versus Common Sense: ‘George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish only an intellectual could believe them’

In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell takes America’s “public intellectuals” on a well deserved trip to the woodshed. He makes many interesting claims, including this one: “The unarticulated cultural distillations of mass experience over the generations are often summarily dismissed as mere prejudices [by public intellectuals].”

“The unarticulated cultural distillations of mass experience over the generations.” What is Sowell referring to? Why, common sense, of course.
In fact, every book and every article Sowell has written is replete with common sense. Sowell is a true master of common sense. I have written two books with “common sense” in the titles, Common Sense Nation and Reclaiming Common Sense, and Sowell is one of the most important influences on the way of thinking found in those books. My grandparents got me going on the common sense good foot, C.S. Lewis revealed to me the depths of it, Thomas Sowell taught me the range of it, and the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid articulated common sense in a way that brought clarity over its range and its depth.
I quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the epigraph page of Reclaiming: “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” My grandparents had that. Sowell has, and C.S. Lewis and Thomas Reid had, in addition to their common sense in an uncommon degree, an uncommon ability to articulate common sense. They made it possible for you and me to realize we rely on the wisdom gained over the generations in nearly everything we do — though we almost never notice that we are relying on it when we do!

Sowell was the rarest of the rare — a public intellectual not at war with common sense. Public intellectuals generally make a name for themselves by defying common sense. Here is Sowell again:

George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be so foolish. The record of twentieth century intellectuals was especially appalling in this regard[.] … Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler all had their admirers, defenders, and apologists among the intelligentsia in Western democratic nations[.]

We have seen plenty of that in recent years. Public intellectuals rallied around two of the most astonishingly foolish policies that can be imagined, one toward Iran and one toward Communist China. We were told endlessly that enriching these enemy states would make them more like us and therefore less of a threat to us. Obama’s decision to underwrite the mullahs of Iran financially, and the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama policy of transferring America’s industrial base to China was supported by a consensus of foreign policy “experts.”

We have been here before. Between WWI and WWII, public intellectuals kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition to national defense efforts. Here is Sowell again:

Intellectuals played a major role in creating the atmosphere of both military weakness and political irresolution within democratic nations, which made a war against those nations look winnable to the leaders of the Axis dictatorships. In addition to thus helping bring on the most devastating war in human history, intellectuals so impeded the buildup and modernizing of military forces in democratic nations in the years leading up to that war — demonizing military equipment suppliers as ‘merchants of death,’ being a classic example — that this insured that American and British armed forces would often be outgunned in battle[.]

How did those public intellectuals manage to create this dangerous state of affairs? They did not have to present analytic or empirical arguments to overcome common sense. They did it by means of what Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity.” Phrases like “merchants of death” did the trick in the 1920s and 1930s. Promising that lavishing wealth on the mullahs and on the communist leadership in Beijing would bring these dictatorships into “the community of nations” to the benefit of all worked in recent years and is still heard today.

What you and I know by common sense is most of what we know and most of what we need to know to be a sovereign people, a people capable of ruling ourselves. We know by common sense that weakness invites aggression. Knowing that would have enabled us to see through the verbal virtuosity of the public intellectuals in the period leading up to WWII. Similarly, when has building up your enemies’ strength on purpose ever been a good idea? That is even crazier than inviting aggression with weakness.
My witty friend Bob Godwin gleefully mocks the folly of public intellectuals — he refers to them as “the tenured”: “their whole mystique is based upon the essentially gnostic idea that they possess some special knowledge inaccessible to the restavus.” If the tenured are going to dazzle and astonish us with their policy recommendations, they must go against common sense. That, it turns out, is the royal road to becoming a prominent public intellectual at the center of the controversies of the day, whether the topic is disarmament before WWII or global warming, the Trump/Russia brouhaha, the Wuhan flu, or abolishing the police these days.
By their steady drumbeat of bad ideas, public intellectuals define what we as a nation must do and what we cannot do, again and again to our detriment. Consequently, you and I need to put the pronouncements of public intellectuals to the test of common sense, always.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World, and Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea. Both are published by Encounter Books.

Image: Hoover Institution

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