By now we all have probably noticed the strange phenomenon of people who are highly accomplished in their own fields but who fail to exercise even a modicum of common sense when opining outside them. I’ve been reading Thomas Sowell’s wonderful Intellectuals and Society, which explores this curious circumstance with his usual thoroughness and insight (even though Sowell himself could be called an intellectual, which makes it rather ironic).
In light of the recent strategic arms control treaty between Russia and the US, the following hit home with me:
Bertrand Russell, for example, was both a public intellectual and a leading authority within a rigorous field. But the Bertrand Russell who is relevant here is not the author of landmark treatises on mathematics but the Bertrand Russell who advocated “unilateral disarmament” for Britain in the 1930s while Hitler was re-arming Germany. Russell’s advocacy of disarmament extended all the way to “disbanding the army and navy and air force”—again, with Hitler re-arming not far away. The Noam Chomsky who is relevant here is not the linguistics scholar but the Noam Chomsky of similarly extravagant political announcements…
Visiting the United States in 1933, George Bernard Shaw said, “You Americans are so fearful of dictators. Dictatorship is the only way in which government can accomplish anything. See what a mess democracy has led to. Why are you afraid of dictatorship?” Leaving London for a vacation in South Africa in 1935, Shaw declared, “It is nice to go for a holiday and know that Hitler has settled everything so well in Europe.” While Hitler’s anti-Jewish actions eventually alienated Shaw, the famous playwright remained partial to the Soviet dictatorship. In 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, Shaw said: “Herr Hitler is under the powerful thumb of Stalin, whose interest in peace is overwhelming. And every one except myself is frightened out of his or her wits!” A week later, the Second World War began, with Hitler invading Poland from the west, followed by Stalin invading from the east.
It goes on, but I think you get the idea. The stupidity of supposedly smart men (and women!) can be simply stunning. And that stupidity is not random; it tends to almost always go in the same direction, that of failing to understand the workings of the totalitarian and tyrannical mindset.