On visiting San Francisco in 1968, Tom Wolfe stumbled across what he describes as a “curious footnote to the hippie movement.” Doctors at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic were treating diseases, Wolfe claims, that no living doctor had ever encountered before: “diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.”
The diseases returned, says Wolfe, because the hippies living in the communes wanted to sweep away “codes and restraints,” including those rules
that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using sheets at all, or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette.
By getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, and the rot, the hippies were “relearning” the laws of hygiene.
It is often said that for national security conservatives, it is always 1938. A corollary is that for us religiously-oriented conservatives, it’s always 1968. Our society is always having to be retaught the laws of moral hygiene.
Take, for example, a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that argues the “war on drugs” has also contributed to the HIV epidemic around the world. It references “the executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and other prominent scientific leaders,” and claims that
Criminalizing drug abuse drives addicts deeper underground and into the kinds of unsafe practices such as needle-sharing that spread infection. We have seen clearly that countries with the most draconian drug laws also have the highest rates of HIV infection among users.
Somehow the editors and the "prominent scientific leaders" they invoke managed to miss the fact, as Matthew Hanley recently noted in an article for On the Square, that there is no reliable evidence needle exchange programs reduce the incidence of HIV infection.
Why would anyone think it would? Giving clean needles to heroin addicts makes as much sense as giving clean toothbrushes to a Haight-Ashbury hippie: They'll still share it—both the needle and the toothbrush—with the bass player from Jefferson Airplane because they either don’t understand or don’t care about the hygienic consequences of their actions.
In response to this type of foolish disregard for the codes and restraints of nature and society, doctrinaire liberals and libertarians always proffer policy solutions that require . . . further disregard of traditional codes and restraints. How this leads to a better society is unclear. But they harbor no doubts that it would work if only The Man, and his arbitrary rules, weren’t holding everyone down.
Naturally, we religiously-oriented conservatives are skeptical. Unlike these Rousseauian utopians, we can’t even pretend to know how to build a healthy political and social structure. What we do know, however, is how to recognize a sick one.
Just as physicians define bodily health as the absence of sickness, conservatives view the absence of sickness as the best gauge of the health of the body politic. Our primary socio-political objective, therefore, is similar to that of medical doctors: preventing and eliminating moral sickness.
The media critic and educator Neil Postman used this same medical analogy in describing the proper role of teachers. In his essay “The Educationist as Painkiller,” Postman proposes that educators don’t try to make students intelligent (“because we don’t know how to do that”) but instead try to cure stupidity in some of the more obvious forms: “either-or thinking; overgeneralization; inability to distinguish between facts and inferences; and reification, a disturbingly prevalent tendency to confuse words with things.”
The physician knows about sickness and can offer specific advice about how to avoid it. Don’t smoke, don’t consume too much salt or saturated fat, take two aspirin, take penicillin every four hours and so forth. I am proposing that the study of education and practice of education adopt this paradigm precisely. The educationist should become an expert in stupidity and be able to prescribe specific procedures for avoiding it. . . . Stupidity is a form of behavior. It is not something we have; it is something we do.
Acquiring similar expertise should be the goal of all conservatives. Fortunately, the process for gaining such prowess is clear and well-established.
To become an apprentice of stupidity one merely has to pass through the stage of life known as adolescence. The lessons you’ll learn by observing the behavior of yourself and your peers provides the tacit knowledge of what stupidity feels, looks, sounds, and tastes like.
But to become a true expert in stupidity requires becoming a parent. The task of raising a child consists primarily of recognizing and preventing the myriad varieties of behavioral stupidity that children engage in—mental, moral, hygienic, spiritual. Whether it’s keeping a toddler from eating the contents of the cat’s litter box, preventing a teenager from fornicating with a lip-pierced lothario, or simply stopping the kid from sharing their Shasta with a hippie, parenting is a non-stop immersion course in counter-impudence.
This is why the natural family, the preeminent conservative institution and the primary conveyor of Tradition (the mores and habits of stupidity prevention inherited from previous generations), must be continuously protected from the pollution of our libertine culture. It's our first and strongest line of defense against the excesses of unfettered individualism. If we don’t preserve the natural family, we’ll all learn firsthand, as Sergeant Stryker said, that “Life is tough, but it's tougher if you're stupid.”
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
Matthew Hanley’s “Reducing Risk, Increasing AIDS” can be found here.
Tom Wolfe's "The Great Relearning" can be found at the website of The American Spectator.