Quote of the Day: Stupid People and Conservatism

Further to yesterday`s post on Matt Taibbi`s article about the Tea Party in Rolling Stone

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

This is a well-known and often cited quote from John Stuart Mill in a letter to the Conservative MP, John Pakington, March 1866.  The issue Mill was addressing?  The unwillingness of the Conservatives to extend women the vote.

Adam Gopnik on the meaning of the quote:

After [his wife] 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.

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2 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Stupid People and Conservatism

  1. Ed Lemond

    Gopnik, in his book Angels and Ages: a Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, mentions that Mill, though he never visited America or much wanted to, followed the American Civil War with intense interest, believing that “the whole futurity of mankind” depended on it. Gopnik says, “What was at stake in this war for Mill was not only the end of slavery but the survival of liberal democracy itself, and the test of its survival was whether it could enforce its own laws against a morally deranged minority who didn’t like them …” My own thought is that there’s a sort of civil war going on in America at the moment, unhappily, and the morally deranged minority is having a good run at prevailing. Adam Gopnik will be in Moncton October 29 and 30, sponsored by the Frye Festival and the University of Moncton Alumni Association. See http://www.frye.ca for details.

  2. Michael Happy Post author

    The latest polling on Palin and the Teabaggers is interesting. The percentage of those who approve of the Teabaggers and think Palin is qualified to be president is identical, according to at least one poll: 22%, which is much lower than many people might think. The problem, as we’ve seen, is that the power of both Palin and the Teabaggers to disrupt the public discourse and demoralize the majority is pretty considerable, especially because they have Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and talk radio acting as megaphone and echo chamber for them round the clock. And, then, of course, there’s the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated corporate money pouring into Republican coffers via front groups of “concerned citizens” — not to mention the fact that Republicans have become quite adept at stealing elections by various means of precisely targeted fraud. All very disheartening. The right is playing with a lot of factors undeniably in its favor, not least an unspeakably lazy and complacent press, who are no longer watchdogs but fattened lapdogs whose livelihood now derives directly from the moronic political theatre in which they themselves are featured players. It’s no wonder Frye says that “fascism is a disease of democracy,” and with the Teabaggers, Fox News, and the Republicans all working in concert with corporations possessing virtually unlimited resources, the extent of the sickness is appalling to see.

    However, Fascism may be a disease of democracy, but it’s not necessarily fatal. This awful minority with its coporate funding is intimidating — but also rdiculous and self-defeating with its infantile lies and endlessly clownish paranoia. There are signs that a solid majority of the American public is already pushing back. If there’s a Republican takeover of Congress in the midterms, they might start pushing back much harder, particularly as the Republicans are now exclusively the party of corporate interests with absolutely no interest in the public good. These are the people, after all, who won’t extend employment benefits to workers in a job market where there’s only one job for every five of them. Let’s see how long people are willing to put up with that kind of governance.


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