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The Science of Idiocy

Daniel Flynn exposes the Intellectual Morons -- though inexplicably includes Leo Strauss in the mix.

By 10.20.04

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Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas, by Daniel J. Flynn (Crown Forum, 304 pages, $25.95).

ATLANTA -- John Adams once caustically described ideology as "the science of idiocy." Dan Flynn has given us a kind of diagnostic manual by case study of this strange science. While there have been others of this genre -- Paul Johnson's Intellectuals comes immediately to mind -- the world of intellect, alas, seems always ripe for another catalogue of its ongoing parade of fraudulence, perversity, pretense, quackery, and rarefied deceit.

Some of the subjects of Mr. Flynn's study are familiar enough, and have been exposed to the satisfaction of most reasoning men: Who still clings to the idea that Alger Hiss was innocent of espionage? What credibility does Noam Chomsky really have left after predicting a "silent genocide" of "3 or 4 million" when the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan? Other subjects, however, will be less familiar; and thus their exposure more shocking, and indeed, more valuable. Flynn even demonstrates that the great Paul Johnson, in a moment of weakness, endorsed the fabricated probity of one charlatan.

But what emerges as a central theme throughout this book is invincible loyalty, or frightful credulity, of many of the various charlatans' defenders. Chomsky, we learn, is the most cited writer on earth (according to one study). There is an Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College in New York. Rigoberta Menchu's thoroughly discredited autobiography is still assigned to undergraduates across the country as nonfiction. Men will go to their graves defending the indefensible.

A catalogue of the indefensible, this book can be difficult to read; it is a long litany of outrages, usurpations, prevarications, manipulations, and general mendacity. It left this reviewer in a sour mood. It calls to mind St. Paul's vivid warnings in his Letter to the Ephesians: "that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." The chapter on Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex researcher who Flynn demonstrates beyond all doubt was a mountebank and a pervert, and perhaps a criminal, is positively sickening -- any father, upon reading it, will feel at times that the man deserved nothing less than to be dragged out into the street and shot. That he has exerted such a potent influence over the modern American mind is sufficient proof of the power of well-marketed and well-timed fraud to subdue reality.

"Stupid" is not the proper word for many of the ideas examined here; malevolent or wicked comes much closer. Paul Ehrlich, in his fanatic search for a way to arrest the "population bomb," proposed sex education, unlimited abortion access, sterilization, and suchlike; he went on to call for coercion to implement his program: "Obviously, such measures should be coordinated by a powerful government agency. A federal Bureau of Population and Environment should be set up to determine the optimum population size for the United States and devise measures to establish it." The mind strains to imagine something more fundamentally monstrous. Margaret Sanger's endorsement of foul eugenic racialism was known to this reader; her ferocious anti-Catholicism was not (though it is a perfectly logical constituent of her mad ideology). W. E. B. Du Bois was a segregationist, a Communist, a sympathizer with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany -- on the whole a despicable record of folly and malice.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL, PERHAPS, is Flynn's chapter on Leo Strauss. Alas, his treatment is generally superficial. It is very difficult to see how Strauss, whatever his peculiarity (occasionally bordering on outright weirdness), can be justly set beside eugenicists and Communists, reprobates and liars. Flynn lands a solid blow, I think, when he suggests that Straussian esotericism can quickly degenerate into a kind of right-wing deconstructionism; but his critique fails because he fails to really confront Straussian scholarship in its substance.

For example, Flynn scoffs at Strauss's argument that the force of John Locke's teaching was in fact a subtle and powerful attack on the doctrine of Natural Law -- that Locke was with Hobbes and Rousseau and the modern "contractarians," and against the Christian philosophers descending from Hooker and the Schoolmen. But Strauss was not alone in this judgment. Even as independent a thinker as Willmoore Kendall had argued thusly, and indeed, argued it in plainer language. Nor does the mere fact that Jefferson leaned heavily on Locke to compose the most famous passage of the Declaration of Independence mean that the Founding Fathers were indeed Lockeans, as Flynn implies. Kendall rejected this opinion as well -- even to the point of repudiating his own doctoral thesis on Locke. The question of Locke's posture vis-à-vis the Western tradition of political philosophy, and the question of the Founders posture vis-à-vis Locke -- these remain open questions; and, as Flynn has not set himself to heavy lifting of political philosophy, he sheds no light on them (or on any like them).

For Flynn, it is Strauss's method that is most dubious. "As with a lot of what Strauss says, the thing that jumps out at the reader is not necessarily his conclusion, but how he got from point A to point B." Flynn does not much care for Strauss's ideas about "secret writing," and he provides some vivid examples of the strange lengths to which Strauss and his students have pursued these ideas. But Flynn does not account for why these ideas have gained such purchase among scholars. To use the example of Locke again, it is a fact that we did not possess a satisfactory text of his Two Treatises of Government until the mid-twentieth century. It is also a fact that for hundreds of years the Second Treatise was thought to have been composed after the first, when, as we now know, the reverse is probably true. The "philosopher as detective" method of reading (in the Straussian formulation), though fraught with peril, is not without merit, for the profound reason that one of the largest problems in philosophy is discerning what a given philosopher actually meant to say. To admit this is not to descend into postmodern incoherence, of the kind Flynn ably describes in various chapters, but merely to confess the severe limitations of the human intellectual condition.

The Strauss chapter illuminates what troubled this reviewer about the whole book (aside from its gratuitous title): the lack of a systematic analysis to tie together the strands of description and exposition. What do Herbert Marcuse and Margaret Sanger, Ayn Rand and Rigoberta Menchu, Leo Strauss and Alfred Kinsey, Gore Vidal and W. E. B. Du Bois have in common? Some were scholars, some publicists, some polemicists, some novelists; "intellectual" becomes a broad category indeed with this disparate crew. Flynn has certainly exposed a number of outrageous frauds and loathsome impostors, which is a valuable service in its own right; but he has not really even attempted to penetrate into deeper causes of (1) why intellectuals are so susceptible to such stupidity, and (2) why they are able to propound it with such impunity. To return to the "science of idiocy" analogy again, Flynn has given us some solid data to work with, but the analysis and theorizing is left for others.

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About the Author

Paul J. Cella III lives in Atlanta. He runs the website Cella's Review.