Source: Calgary Sun (Canada)
Pubdate: Tue, 23 Jun 1998
Author: DAVID FRUM -- The Financial Post



Let them ban booze -- the great journalist H.L. Mencken quipped at the
beginning of Prohibition in the U.S. -- and next they'll want to ban
cigarettes, jazz and custard pies.

If you stayed awake in high school English, you'll recognize Mencken's jape
as an example of reductio ad absurdum. Once upon a time, the reductio was a
splendid method of demolishing crank nostrums. No longer. Our cranks are
more robust than they used to be -- and none of the absurdities their
critics invent to mock them with can come close to the absurdities they
actually believe in.

The U.S. Congress is, for example, engaged in a great battle over a big new
tax on the vice at the head of Mencken's list: Cigarettes.

Opponents of the tobacco hysteria have tried to quiet it with, among other
arguments, Mencken's old taunt: If you want to tax cigarettes to deter
people from using them, what about fatty food?

I've used the french fry reductio ad absurdum more than a few times myself
in the tobacco debate, and I have always thought it a doozy. A regular diet
of burgers and fries is almost as dangerous a habit as smoking. After all,
if we're taxing people for failing to take good care of their health, why
single out smokers?

Alas, over the past few months, the french fry argument has begun to elicit
a disturbing new reaction from the anti-tobacco folks. Tax junk food? Hmmm
- -- that's an idea. There are few things in life more horrifying than that
sudden contemplative look on the face of a liberal as he ponders an
unthought-of new tax: A look half reflecting greed for the cash, and half
pure delight of discovering a new way to boss one's fellow-citizens around.

A few weeks ago, a senior editor at an influential liberal weekly in
Washington took up the cause. Conservatives, she wrote, are always saying
that after cigarettes, junk food will be next. Well, she continued, why
not? The idea had lodged. Shortly afterward, I saw the french fry tax being
debated by two talking heads on cable TV.

In Mencken's day, you could still hope to kill off ludicrous ideas for
social uplift by mocking them. But our contemporary version of social
uplift defies exaggeration, and any last feeble attempt to exaggerate is
likely to be taken -- not as a joke -- but as a suggestion.

I remember when we still argued over compulsory seat-belt laws. Those of us
against them warned if this sort of law were allowed to pass, we would soon
be asked to accept compulsory bicycle helmet laws -- and then
(hardi-har-har) compulsory tricycle helmet laws. Don't be paranoid, we were
told, and the seat-belt laws were enacted. But take a look at your local
playground: Every three-year-old there is struggling under the weight of a
crash helmet. And nobody thinks it's funny.

When Latin was removed from the public school curriculum in the '70s,
dyspeptic conservatives could grumble that at the rate things were going,
the schools would soon cease teaching spelling. Now that they actually have
ceased teaching spelling, what is left to predict?

The English-language equivalent of the reductio ad absurdum is the slippery
slope. But we are long past worrying about taking a step down the slippery
slope -- we are lying in a heap at the bottom, looking backward and upward
at 30 years worth of downhill skidmarks.

There is no place for the satirist in 20th-century America, the delightful
satirist Tom Wolfe has complained, because reality is always more
outlandish than anything he can imagine. Physicists tell us there exists a
temperature, absolute zero, beyond which nothing can be colder. I sometimes
wonder, as I watch one reductio ad absurdum after another, whether in
similar fashion we have not reached the point of absolute absurdity.

- ---
Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)