Ed Driscoll

Deviation Standard

In contrast to his lighter, humorous pieces, Jonah Goldberg has good meaty essay on “the overthrow of the reasonable man”. He begins by arguing, unlike what is typically written, the wheels did not begin to come off liberalism in the 1960s or ’70s, but much earlier–a generation or two, with the rise of pragmatism. Jonah’s concluding paragraphs are particularly interesting:

Today that corrosion takes a predictable form: the overthrow of the reasonable man. Now, I’m not talking about liability or torts or any of that stuff, because I don’t know much about it. I’m talking about the larger societal standards that come with the erosion of authority and how they creep into our law and our culture. The reasonable man was a composite, a statistical average of the aggregate human decency necessary to sustain a society. The reasonable man’s behavior was the group average of moral conduct in a very moral country. Today, all of our arguments are about how much the society must bend to the behaviors and attitudes of the man of the fringe, the outlier, the arrow that sails farthest from the bulls-eye. Schools are paralyzed by the question of what to do about the atheist, the homosexual, the handicapped, while the average kids–i.e., most of them–are given short shrift. Abortion has stalemated the political system for a generation because the debate must be over what to do in the extreme circumstances; the famously horrible trinity of abortion legalizers everywhere: rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Roughly 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in one way or another, but every year we must haggle about what to do for the thin-skinned atheist who withers from the glare of a nativity scene.

Take free speech. Holmes defended free speech on the grounds that more voices in the marketplace of ideas would be more likely to yield a more concrete answer to the central problems of life (think of a billion monkeys banging on typewriters: the more monkeys you add, the more likely it is they’ll write something worthwhile). Hence, the debate used to be about how much regulation and censorship we should allow at the periphery. The logic was simple: the more you protect at the fringe, the safer our core freedoms would be. Like setting-up outposts on the frontier, we would police the barbarians at a distance so they would never make it to our homes and temples. So we would debate how much pornography the society could tolerate, on the assumption that a society that debates the legality of hardcore gay porn won’t even think of touching the right to criticize the government. But that’s been turned on its head now. Free speech for the deviant (be that in a statistical or moral sense) is total and the only debate now is how much we should regulate political speech during political campaigns. Today Thomas Paine’s Common Sense