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Does Common Sense Have a Future? 03-11-2011

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Column by Jim Flynn

Ever since Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet “Common Sense” stirred our colonies to rebellion against the British crown in 1776, we Americans have harbored a delusion that we’re the keepers of a bottomless grail of “common sense.” We flatter ourselves.

Paine was an eloquent rebel, whose pamphlet convinced thousands of readers that Britain did not care about the colonies’ best interests, that the colonists were being fleeced and abused, and that they should declare their independence and become a sovereign nation. The colonists may have been motivated to unity and revolution by Paine’s “Common Sense,” but creation of the new nation was won by blood, sweat, tears, and divinely supplied good luck.

As our nation has grown, and the world has become more complex, some of us have recognized that common sense has become as elusive as a winning lottery ticket. Nonetheless, many citizens cling to a conviction that common sense is still as available as fresh air.

The best dose of reality was delivered succinctly many years ago by humorist Will Rogers, who said “Common sense ain’t very common.” (Truth is Rogers “borrowed” the thought from legendary seventeenth century satirical philosopher Voltaire).

What is this vague common-sense thing to which we refer so often and so casually? There are a number of definitions. The most common and popular is that common sense means good judgment. Based on experience or trustworthy advice, most folks accept that touching a hot stove should be experienced only once, but preferably less than once. There are exceptions. Some folks never learn, which is why our jails and prisons are full.

Common sense becomes more troublesome when we’re referring to what we know, think, feel, or believe to be true. We assume other apparently sensible folks are likely to know what we know, think what we think, feel what we feel, and believe the same facts of life that we believe. After all, that’s common sense. Isn’t it?

No, it ain’t! There was a time when the cultural and spiritual links among us were much more common than they are in this 21st century. Someone’s common sense has suggested we become multi-cultural instead.

Almost a hundred years ago, Will Rogers said “This country is where it is today because of the common sense of the big normal majority.” Some politicians might have taken that quip as a compliment. Not likely!

Rogers’ observation back then is particularly applicable to our present dismal circumstances. We got where we are because of the much ballyhooed common sense of a come-and-gone immoral majority. Now we’re suffering the vague and confused common sense of the move-on majority for change.

Our major political parties constitute a distinction without a difference. They both have obsessive spenditis intended to buy re-election. Perhaps we should grasp the irony in another Will Rogers’ observation: “Be thankful that we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”

Nonetheless, many among us still believe we possess common natural understandings which can solve all problems. They believe we have more than enough school buses on which to deport all illegal aliens. They think we can balance the national budget with more spending and less taxing. They hope there’s a way to become energy independent on at least six cylinders.

In other words our once solid common sense has melted into mushy nonsense. Not to worry. Common sense has always been overrated. It’s what we were supposed to know by the time we finished eighth grade.

One of our most thoughtful poets, Henry David Thoreau, said common sense is one of life’s mysteries. He also said common sense takes a hasty and superficial view of things, not a very reliable tool with which to govern a great nation.

A little common sense is still a valuable asset, however, if you do a lot of camping near a hot stove.