Friday, August 04, 2006

"Common sense" & the Simplification hypocrisy

Over at David Brin's blog Contrary Brin, there are always intresting threads on the rampant misuse of "common sense," primarily by Republicans, to uphold their own influence at the expense of changes that would benefit the vast majority of the world (such as technological changes sparked by the effort to counter global warming). In one, he quotes former GOP White House staffer Peggy Noonan as saying:

"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

Attitudes like this underlie and even create the kinds of blame games -- and, ultimately witch hunts -- I talked about a few posts ago in "Messing things up..." In those books, the fuel is religion, but as Brin & his readers note, the underlying problem is that some people have a vested interest in believing that if we win, they lose. Therefore, they feel they have to win at all cost, regardless of what that may do to our (and, by definition, their own) future generations or other long-term considerations.

Instead of blaming the truly responsible parties -- those who were unable or unwilling to negotiate or to look at the situation from someone else's viewpoint; those who put their own narrow wishes above the needs of the many -- the forces expressed by Miller's Simplification, or Brackett's New Mennonites, or any number of historical pogroms find scapegoats that are easy to identify. Ironically, those kinds of processes are often started by people who, by most reasonable definitions, are themselves intellectuals (for ex., Marx, Lenin, Neitzche), but achieve their bloodiest expression later under a second tier of leaders who are essentially thugs (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler). Anti-intellectual attitudes can be found on the fringes of the political spectrum under any label.

Noonan and many others are themselves intellectuals, and essentially recognize that their "zero-sum" perspective cannot survive over the long term if we as a species are to continue growing intellectually and technologically. So they hypocritically appeal to the mob mentality so easily created among those who aren't as well educated but see (accurately, in many respects) that the "eggheads" in fact have a less restricted life than they do. Zero-sum folks take that energy and target it at other people, pointing out the differences between "us and them" in terms of "their" failings (in Noonan's case, how "they" lack "common sense" or "morals" or whatever).

By contrast, people who see the benefits of a "positive-sum" approach take that energy and target it at the ideas and behaviors that are holding those people down, encouraging them to get educated, to question their situation, and to use their talents to benefit everyone including themselves. Instead of appealing to manufactured differences, it appeals to the common ground we all share. That is the basis of the practice of science, efforts for civil rights, and liberalism in it's broad sense -- expanding the numbers of people who are educated or at least feel like they're a valuable, equal part of the complex national (ultimately, global) community.

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