[Viewpoint] The power of common sense

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[Viewpoint] The power of common sense

All Americans know that a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1776 is what helped spur independence for their beloved nation. The 48-page booklet, called “Common Sense,” was written in plain and simple language, and it expounded on the tyrannies of the British monarchy and aristocracy in arguing for freedom from colonial rule. The common folk and politicians alike, inspired by the pamphlet, joined the Founding Fathers to fight for independence from Britain.

The original title had been “Plain Truth” but was changed to make it catchier. The implication of the eventual title was that anyone who searched for greater freedom and riches should bear “common sense.” The pamphlet became a hit, selling 100,000 copies in the first year. Even two centuries later, it remains as a must-read text in the United States. The story is often cited to elaborate on the power the phrase “common sense” has on people.

Software pioneer, entrepreneur and scholar Ahn Cheol-soo ended the buzz as abruptly as he created it over a possible run for mayor of Seoul in the October by-election. Despite polls showing a wide lead for the popular soft-voiced dean of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, Ahn, in a brief news conference along with Park Won-soon, founder of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, said he will not be running and would instead support Park.

Ahn became a political star overnight ever since he hinted at the possibility of running, confounding both the ruling and opposition camps. Mainstream political parties panicked at Ahn’s sudden rise.

Ahn took a novel approach to politics. Instead of the traditional conservative versus liberal equation, he reasoned common sense against nonsense. In conversations with Yoon Yeo-joon, a former minister of environment who has repeatedly urged Ahn to enter politics, Ahn did not agree with the former’s argument that balance and reason were what differentiated conservatives from liberals. He instead said he believed the political yardstick should be common sense. “On security, I am conservative, and on economics, I am liberal. Then what am I: a conservative or a liberal?”

Instead of parking one’s beliefs on an ideological spectrum, Ahn would prefer whichever way is more rational. If he were to join politics, he would have passed beyond stale ideological disputes and been guided by common sense in pursuing policies.

Common sense is generally defined as beliefs that most people consider prudent and as shared knowledge and judgment. It need not be learned or require special knowledge and effort but should come from natural experience and judgment. Greek philosopher Aristotle explained that there is a higher-order capacity that rules man’s five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch - common sense. The five senses are united and guided by the sixth control tower of common sense.

The power of common sense comes from justice and universality. A person would be considered out of the ordinary if referred to as lacking common sense. We often accuse unreasonable opponents of losing their senses.

Historian Sophia Rosenfeld, in “Common Sense, A Political History,” wrote that common sense is perpetual and universal, overriding any ideology by its irrefutable, flawless form of wisdom. She argues that good sense is often the best solution and that the average person knows best, warning against elitism and populism. But common sense is mostly abused by politicians for propaganda purposes and extremists to justify their causes. Former President Roh Moo-hyun’s political banner cry, too, had been creating “a world where principle and common sense can work.”

Ahn may be bringing up common sense because mainstream politics functions in a way far from horse sense. His explosive popularity in the polls not only underscored the alarming level of public disgust and distrust in mainstream politics but also the fact that there are many who sympathize with his beliefs.

Young Koreans are stymied by the rigidity and absurdity of politics as usual. They abhor the nonsensical actions of both conservatives and liberals. Different common sense exists in the extreme poles of Korean politics. To tweak the old adage, the problem of common sense in Korean politics is that it is not so common.

Polls have shown that Park is no match for Ahn. Yet Ahn bowed down and instead fielded Park to serve as mayor. Some suspect Ahn may be harboring bigger political ambitions. But no politician would have done what Ahn did. Ahn has only augmented his image by making such a difficult decision. Regardless of his future, Ahn, from his short appearance on the political stage, left a deep impression on the public to ruminate on the true meaning of common sense.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myong-bok
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