Some people are just stupid. And then there are, as Daniel J. Flynn puts it, smart people who “fall for stupid ideas.” When you frame the debate that way it is possible for your opponents to turn it around on you (“Oh yeah, you think my ideas are stupid? Let’s talk about your ideas for a moment”). But what Flynn does attempt is to be somewhat evenhanded, at least insofar as he gores a few sacred cows on both ends of the political spectrum – Alfred Kinsey’s questionable scholarship in the context of his surveys of American sexual practices; Peter Singer (the “father” of the animal rights movement) and his notion that it is wrong to eat an animal but not to have sex with it; Leo Strauss and his neo-conservative disciples who were willing to overlook inconvenient facts to accomplish a bit of nation-building; Margaret Sanger and the “real” foundations of the abortion rights movement, and many more.
Here’s how Flynn begins:
When ideology is your guide, you’re bound to get lost. Ideology deludes, inspires dishonesty, and breeds fanaticism. Facts, experience, and logic are much better at leading you to truth. Truth, however, is not everyone’s intended destination.
This is a book about morons. The morons that we’ll meet don’t have tobacco juice dripping from their chins, sunburned necks, or any other stereotypical manifestations of dimness. As the title suggests, Intellectual Morons focuses on cognitive elites who embarrass themselves by championing idiotic theories, beliefs, and opinions. It is a quite pedestrian occurrence for stupid people to fall for stupid ideas. More interesting, and of greater harm to society, is the phenomenon of smart people falling for stupid ideas. Ph.Ds, high IQs, and intellectual honors are not antidotes to thickheadedness.
I found Intellectual Morons entertaining, amusing, and somewhat enlightening. At the same time, Flynn frequently surrounds his substantive charges with information and claims that in a legal context one might consider unduly prejudicial. For example, valid challenges and questions regarding the scholarship used by Alfred Kinsey in his sex surveys are interspersed with graphic descriptions of Kinsey’s rather bizarre sexual practices to the point where Flynn seems to be saying: “Kinsey was wrong, and here’s why, and even if he wasn’t wrong, he was a pervert so don’t listen to him.” The second part of that line of reasoning is of course faulty at best; Flynn is on stronger ground when he suggests that Kinsey was perhaps seeking validation or affirmation of his own preconceived perceptions about sexuality rather than merely recording them. And one has to admit that some of the objections to Kinsey’s landmark studies – for example, that Kinsey excluded entire categories of the population or otherwise skewed the analysis (for example, by categorizing prostitutes at times as “married women”) – do raise questions about the validity of some of the conclusions.
Personally, I found Flynn’s examination of both Paul Ehrlich (the doomsday prophet of the environmental movement) and Peter Singer (the ostensible “father” of the animal rights movement) to be fascinating. What is most intriguing to me is that these two men – especially Ehrlich, who has arguably never seen one of his predictions come to pass – remain darlings of the purported intellectual elite. Indeed, with each of them – and with the case of Rigoberta Menchu, an alleged “illiterate” Guatemalan peasant whose autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu, is a standard text on many college campuses despite numerous questions about the “truth” of her story – they are stridently defended by intellectuals and members of the academic establishment. Their ideas supposedly represent some sort of ideological diversity and are thus immune from criticism or challenge – and those who do question them are suddenly labeled as intolerant or worse.
While Intellectual Morons takes a few shots at non-leftist figures like Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, in the end it must be admitted that this remains a book by the author of Why the Left Hates America and it reflects that fact. The majority of his ire is directed toward leftist figures whose ideology he regards as harmful. In that regard Flynn skewers a rogue’s gallery of leftist thought, scoring a few direct hits and occasionally running into trouble in terms of making personal attacks instead of sticking with the facts (for example, Margaret Sanger is labeled “a world class liar” before readers are even introduced to her). Those able to overlook some of Flynn’s more vociferous commentary may well find some valid criticism of many of the radical viewpoints that have been cleaned up a bit by intellectuals and offered out for public consumption.
UPDATE: Daniel Flynn, author of Intellectual Morons, operates a blog at Flynnfiles.com.