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Totems and taboos

By Lawrence Henry
web posted July 2, 2001

"Every age has its peculiar folly," wrote Charles Mackay, LL.D., in 1841, in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. When I was a boy in the 1950s, teachers and textbooks used to delight in exposing delusions. In one of my books, the author drolly recounted how a lecturer in Europe, recently returned from the New World, described that peculiar creature, the porcupine, "drawing his quills from his back with a cunning hand and throwing them like spears into the muzzle of an unsuspecting dog."

Funny stuff, right? Of course, on his trip to the New World, the lecturer had seen a dog, his muzzle bristling with porcupine quills, and had drawn the "logical" conclusion.

Today, one hardly knows where to begin describing popular delusions. Let's start in the state next door to mine, New York, where Gov. George Pataki just signed a ban on driving while using hand-held cellular telephones. This measure apparently enjoys some 80 percent support from the citizenry, who have decided, by George, they do not like cell phone users. I wonder percentage of the general population of New York State owns cell phones. About 20, I should suspect.

The New York legislature and the Governor's rationale for this ban is "safety." Never mind that the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety paid for a study of driver distraction by the University of North Carolina Highway Traffic Safety Research Center. Or that the study found that, of 284,000 average yearly crashes attributable to distracted drivers, those caused by cell phone distraction ranked almost dead last in frequency.

The AAA's press release says, "The study found that drivers were most often distracted by something outside their vehicle (29.5 percent) followed by adjusting a radio or CD player (11.4 percent). Other specific distractions included: talking with other occupants (10.9 percent), adjusting vehicle or climate controls (2.8 percent), eating or drinking (1.7 percent), cell-phone use (1.5 percent), and smoking (0.9 percent)."

As recently fired Prudential Securities political analyst Mark Melcher observed in an interview with Barron's, "Washington [meaning politics] is like professional wrestling -- it's all fake." Mr. Melcher echoes an observation of mine, written elsewhere: Money may be the mother's milk of politics, but self-righteous hysteria is its drug of choice.

The master propagandists of the early part of our century, including Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Goebbels, employed two primary techniques. One is called Pressure from Above, Pressure from Below. Using that technique, propagandists whip up fears, leading citizens to call for government action. The other, which serves the first, is called The Big Lie. Now, I wouldn't have survived long in Nazi Germany if I had written that the demonization of Jews was a Big Lie. We haven't quite gotten to that point here yet - not quite.

But there are two Big Lies in contemporary discourse. The first - you might call it the trial for all the rest to come - is the one about second-hand smoke. Blame it, if you like, on Hillary Clinton, who hung a no-smoking sign on the White House, a signal to all the totalitarian apparatchiks in the land - and, more important, a signal to the delusion-prone that it was now Okay to Be a Jerk. She knew exactly what she was doing.

You can find literally dozens of purportedly "scientific" studies of second-hand smoke. If you look honestly at all of them, you find about three-quarters compromised by political bias. Of the remaining studies, no consistent result has ever been found. There is, however, a consistent outcome. Anything that contradicts the current hysterical delusion gets ruthlessly suppressed.

The second Big Lie is global warming. It follows much the same pattern as the first. One pro-warming activist said in print recently, with unusual honesty, that "You have to believe in global warming. You have to believe that people caused it. You have to believe that governments should do something about it." Okay, there's one position. For the masses, that's the delusion. As a description of the will to power, that statement should ring as clearly as any Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, and for the same reason.

Here's the other. It doesn't play as well in the Okay to Be an Jerk fraternity, but here it is, from Richard Lindzen, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a participant in the most recent and comprehensive study of global warming. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled. We are quite confident (1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and clouds). But--and I cannot stress this enough--we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. That is to say, contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy discussions."

Mr. Lindzen's phrase "almost nothing" echoes what, to me, is the most important phrase in the Constitution, repeated frequently in that document: "Congress shall make no law…"

There is a reason why the big contemporary delusions all point toward more centralized government, more government control, and less freedom. We are not smarter or better educated or more enlightened than the people who founded this country - rather the opposite.

When it came to freedom, the founders were not nice guys at all. And neither should we be.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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