Josna Rege

185. Common Sense

In Education, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 3, 2013 at 8:23 am

John_Prine_1

They got mesmerized
By lullabies
And limbo danced
In pairs
Please lock that door
It don’t make much sense
That common sense
Don’t make no sense
No more
John Prine. Common Sense

We were raised on the common-sense meaning of common sense; that is, “the knowledge and experience which most people already have.” But the definition continues  “. . . or which the person using the term believes that they do or should have.” In fact, common sense is not common at all (in the sense of being universally shared), since it varies over time and from culture to culture. And it was only in graduate school (where you tend to learn that everything you thought you knew is wrong) that I learned that according to the brilliant political thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937—he had a lot of time to think while imprisoned by Mussolini) common sense is often conformist thinking that upholds the status quo. Gramsci credited ordinary people with being intelligent, even philosophers, but he saw “good sense” as making up only part of their thinking. He saw a large part of it, however, as having been “established by a process of consent to ruling class attitudes and interests which are thereby accepted by society at large as being in its own general interests” (Behler). This helps explain, for example, why people so often seem to vote against their own interests.

Common Sense is also one of my favorite songs by John Prine, who understands very well, through his own native common sense, the Gramscian meaning of the term. Although I adore just about everything John Prine writes, this song is particularly dear to my heart, because it talks about the disillusionment that comes along with the American immigrant experience and doesn’t just parrot the common-sensical idea of the American Dream.

They came here by boat
And they came here by plane
They blistered their hands
And they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream
That’ll never come true
Hey, don’t give me no trouble
Or I’ll call up my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle
With you.

And if I have any common sense at all I’ll bring this to an end now, before I get late for work.

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  1. Josna, this is a brilliant post. My mind just came alive as I read.

    “He saw a large part of it, however, as having been established by a process of consent to ruling class attitudes and interests which are thereby accepted by society at large as being in its own general interests. This helps explain, for example, why people so often seem to vote against their own interests.”

    What is said here is absolutely spot on. It’s precisely what people do. The ruling class creates the illusion that they have the peoples’ interest at heart and the people believe the illusion. They’re unable to discern the illusion and of course re-enforce power to the ruling class.

    The lyrics of the song are also brilliant. I have heard no better description than the one of
    “We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle
    With you.”

    Wonderfully perceptive and so profoundly true.

  2. Thank you, Don. I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. I love Gramsci and want to read much more of him. You might try his _Prison Notebooks_ if you haven’t come across them before. I did want to make sure you knew that the hyperlinked portion of that passage you quoted is someone else’s words. To make it absolutely clear, I’ve put the passage in quotation marks and cited the author (something I penalize my students for failing to do–shame on me!). And I’m delighted that you appreciated the John Prine lyrics. I think he’s brilliant, and that particular line you quoted is one that I’ve always been able to visualize. (Have you listened to the song? I’ve included a hyperlink to it in the last paragraph.)

  3. You remind me here to reread Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” his diatribe against the king of England. My guess is that the sentiments he expressed would apply to American oligarchs today and that he would be reviled by, for example, the school system in Texas. Hmmm, must follow through on this.

    • I thought about including “Common Sense,” Sarah. But I must admit that I haven’t read it and besides, I was trying to be brief! I’m interested in how he used the concept of common sense in his argument. An anticolonial activist probably seeks to draw people together with a new, shared common sense that goes against the dominant colonial discourse.

  4. I hadn’t heard “Common Sense” before but I’m listening to it as I read. “Angel from Montgomery” is one of my favorites.

    • Oh yes, what a moving song that is:
      “But that was a long time
      And no matter how I try
      The years just flow by like a broken-down dam.”
      That first album of his is chock-full of winners–one amazing song after another.
      Hope you like “Common Sense”–brilliant, but sad. I think he was pretty depressed when he was writing the songs on that album.
      It’s nice to hear from you again. This is fun!

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