To put it briefly; it is now the custom to say that most modern blunders have been due to the Common Man. And I should like to point out what appalling blunders have in fact been due to the Uncommon Man. It is easy enough to argue that the mob makes mistakes; but as a fact it never has a chance even to make mistakes until its superiors have used their superiority to make much worse mistakes. It is easy to weary of democracy and cry out for an intellectual aristocracy. But the trouble is that every intellectual aristocracy seems to have been utterly unintellectual. Anybody might guess beforehand that there would be blunders of the ignorant. What nobody could have guessed, what nobody could have dreamed of in a nightmare, what no morbid mortal imagination could ever have dared to imagine, was the mistakes of the well-informed. It is true, in a sense, to say that the mob has always been led by more educated men. It is much more true, in every sense, to say that it has always been misled by educated men. It is easy enough to say the cultured man should be the crowd’s guide, philosopher and friend. Unfortunately, he has nearly always been a misguiding guide, a false friend and a very shallow philosopher. And the actual catastrophes we have suffered, including those we are now suffering, have not in historical fact been due to the prosaic practical people who are supposed to know nothing, but almost invariably to the highly theoretical people who knew that they knew everything. The world may learn by its mistakes; but they are mostly the mistakes of the learned.
—G.K. Chesterton, “The Common Man“
The first important lesson from the past year is that this revolt against the experts is not a fringe phenomenon driven by QAnon loons, hysterical anti-vaxxers and other untouchables. It is widespread and its consequences are already profound. On the surface, people are simply rejecting the authority of institutions such as the CDC, which now openly advocates for racial preferences and places political calculations before the public good. But beneath that rejection, there is a cultural shift at the level of animating beliefs.
For millions of people, a disenchantment has broken the spell which upheld their faith in rational, scientific knowledge as the best means to tame the natural chaos of reality and administer the business of society. On top of all the other disenchantments undermining America’s founding myths, this one erodes the foundation on which the entire technocratic regime of modern society rests.
“I don’t know if there even is a virus!” I have to hand it to the incompetent public-health experts — if you can get my mildly-hypochondriacal mother to say things like that, you’ve really done a stellar job of screwing things up. To be sure, I understood that statement to be less of an epistemological manifesto and more a simple expression of frustration. The Lady of the House’s mother, though, is a former nurse, and she’s all in on the Great Barrington Declaration. Apparently there’s something of an Underground Railroad in their area for virus-skeptics — safe places to shop where anti-maskers won’t get ratted out, names of known snitches, etc. It would be a lot easier to feel exasperated by this had we not been treated to a year of galling hypocrisy from the people who opportunistically claim to be against this sort of “anti-science” behavior. But what do I know? A year ago, had you asked me, I would have guessed that something as serious as a global pandemic would have acted as a brake on our desire to wallow in virtual-reality kulturkampf. Instead, it turns out that the pandemic was an accelerator, and many, perhaps most of us love kulturkampf enough to risk our lives over it.
Pace this fellow, I think that there have been two parallel societies with different sets of foundational truths for a long time now; the pandemic was just the match tossed on a kerosene-soaked pile of debris. Probably this sort of tribalism has always been the norm, and the brief postwar interlude of a rational, technocratic, mostly-unified society will forever be the Garden of Progressive Eden from which we were cast out by our refusal to heed the experts. A myth for people who fancy themselves too sophisticated to believe in myths, in other words.