Wednesday, May 2, 2001

On Tuesday of last week, the Associated Press broke a major story: “Scientists Say Men, Women Not Alike.” On Wednesday, AP topped its own scoop by blaring the news, “Study: Parents Can Affect Teen Sex.” Then on Thursday, Reuters blew both stories out of the water with this blockbuster: “Women Want Security, Men Want Sex.” But wouldn’t you know it? Before the Pulitzer committee could file the paperwork, Reuters stepped on its own story by releasing the ground-pounding news: “Parents’ Sexual Orientation Matters, Study Finds.”

The reason you didn’t read much about any of this in The New York Times last week was that they were too busy managing the firestorm over their major expos: “School Bullying Is Common, Mostly by Boys, Study Finds.”

Because of my indomitable faith in the power of science to unravel the mysteries of the universe and an even greater faith in the press to stay on top of the situation, I predict we can expect more pioneering studies and headlines in the near future:

All joking aside, there’s a reason why the media, and to a certain extent the public, think common sense is news and the existence of human nature is a revelation. Since the 1960s, activist academics and ideologues popularized the idea that we can make human beings whatever we want them to be if we can just throw off a lot of cultural baggage.

Nowhere did this idea gain greater footing than in the realm of sexual politics. Feminists rejected the idea there was anything inherently different between men and women. A leading feminist ideologue, Colette Dowling, argued in her book “The Cinderella Complex” that attitudinal differences between men and women were totally attributable to the patriarchy.

Dowling’s recent book, “The Frailty Myth,” argues that even the physical differences between men and women are simply propaganda. Men aren’t naturally stronger than women, the patriarchy just rewards strong men. Women throw like girls because men won’t teach them the secret to it. “The much ballyhooed skill of throwing a baseball is learned,” Dowling writes. “Boys aren’t born with it.”

Years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote a wonderful essay called the “Great Relearning.” He first came upon the idea while reporting on the San Francisco hippie scene in 1968. “At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic,” Wofe wrote, “there were doctors treating diseases 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 reason all of these diseases turned up is simple. The thousands of hippie migrants seeking free love and communal living had deliberately “thrown off” all the accumulated “bourgeois” hang-ups of their parents. Which meant giving up on showers, sex with people you know by name and other “old fashioned” concepts of hygiene. This in turn brought back creepy-crawlies not seen since the age of toga parties.

Wolfe writes that Ken Kesey, the hippie guru and leader of the Merry Pranksters, led a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of starting Western civilization all over again. The buzz phrase was, “Start from zero.”

Fortunately, the counterculture never succeeded in staring from zero, but the idea is more popular than you’d think. If you repeated the headlines I listed at the beginning of this column in a faculty lounge - “Men, Women Not Alike,” for example - I guarantee some English professor would kick over her fern in astonishment.

The great relearning is happening, but at a depressingly slow pace. Take a famous headline in the 1997 New York Times: “Crime Keeps Falling but Prisons Keep on Filling.” The author seemed to think this was some sort of mystery when actually it’s like saying, “I keep eating pizza, but my belly keeps getting bigger.”

For most of human history, it wouldn’t be remotely shocking that crime went down as prisons filled. But the counterculture believes so strongly that prisons are antiquated and barbaric holdovers that a rising prison population and declining crimes rates seemed counterintuitive.

Indeed, pretty much every day some newspaper somewhere reports a story that would have had my grandmother saying (in Yiddish), “I need a newspaper to tell me this?” Especially the recent study showing that chicken soup is actually (!) good for you.

You can write to Jonah Goldberg in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at

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