Seventy years ago, Chesterton remarked: “Since the modern world began in the 16th century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.”
I sometimes fancy this tendency to trust the experts got a big boost with the dawn of the 20th century and various oddities discovered by the guys researching quantum physics, relativity and all that. Since the dawn of these sciences with their various weird and counter-intuitive discoveries and their impact on the popular imagination, there has been a vague sense in the air that ordinary people should sit down and shut up while experts tell them what is really going on.
After all, it’s strange to think that space can warp, that light is both a particle and wave, that the very act of observing something affects the thing observed, and many other weird things.
So as the 20th century rolled on, a successful cottage industry of experts arose. Some genius would pop up periodically and propose some insane idea, point to their credentials, and then dare the hoi polloi to dispute them on the basis of crude, primitive “common sense.” Some would even dare us with some variation of “It’s true because it’s insane!”
So, for instance, Alfred Kinsey made preposterous and destructive claims about human sexuality.
According to Kinsey, deviant sexual activity is not deviant but normal and natural. Also, we were informed by this expert that children are sexual from birth and instructed that society should not stifle any sexual activity.
Normal people who said, “Kinsey is preposterous and destructive” were shouted down because Kinsey was a man in a lab coat and they were merely normal people.
It turned out that normal people were right and that Kinsey was getting his expert results from pedophiles and various other degenerates.
When I was a boy, normal people said that dropping acid and doing heroin, though praised by the elite as quite cool and consciousness-raising, was also going to destroy many lives. The cutting edge thinkers again told us that we were being pedestrian in clinging to common sense and continued to do so till they went into rehab in the ’80s and ’90s.
The same expert advice to ignore common sense was given by the geniuses who gave us no-fault divorce and abortion on demand. Common sense said that this would result in the destruction of the family, the abuse of children, and would cost millions of innocent lives. Deep-thinking counter-intuitive wisdom prophesied a happy future of relationships built on mutual consent and a paradise of “wanted children.”
Oddly, the common sense people called it yet again.
Now the counter-intuitive geniuses are at it again. The new book More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven Landsburg attempts to advance the proposition that social conservatism causes AIDS. We are informed by somebody a lot smarter than you that chaste and monogamous people achieve this unlikely result through the “sin of self-restraint.”
According to Landsburg, sexually promiscuous people are “socially beneficent.” Chastity and monogamy are “immoderate and socially irresponsible.”
If you doubt that, it’s because you are stupid.
I look forward to future rich insights from our chattering classes such as “Sobriety Causes Drunk Driving,” “War Is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery.” Or to quote another expert:
“All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.”
— Adolf Hitler, expert propagandist
Usually, if it smells like garbage, it is.
Mark Shea is senior content editor
- October 14-20, 2007