Jonah Goldberg

In his brilliant essay "The Great Relearning," Tom Wolfe recounts a "curious footnote to the hippie movement." In 1968, at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, doctors found themselves treating diseases "no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names." These maladies had such names as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the rot.

These afflictions materialized because those hippie pilgrims believed the Man had nothing to teach them, so they turned their backs on "bourgeois" morality, a category of knowledge that included this thing called "hygiene." So they enjoyed communal toothbrushes, communal sheets, communal sex, communal bathwater and communal, like, whatever. Living like Rousseau's noble savages brought back the twitch, the thrush and the rot because it was a grand lie that savagery was ever noble in the first place, and because a lot of that stuff your grandmother taught you about everything from washing your hands to not sleeping around actually had practical relevance.

Wolfe's essay has practical relevance, too. The recent elections are being interpreted - accurately or not - as a repudiation of religious conservatism. Obviously, this topic can't be settled here - or anywhere. But as it's Thanksgiving, there's a basic point worth making: Tradition matters. It matters whether you believe in God or whether you agree with that esteemed theologian Elton John, who recently called for a ban on religion because religion, according to Sir Elton, is bad for gay people.

I respect theological arguments for morality. But unless someone already believes in God, saying "because God says so" has as much authority as saying "don't do that because my umbrella stand says not to." The fact is that traditional morality has practical authority independent of whether God exists and whether we know His will.

Those hippies got the itch and twitch because they rejected what their parents taught them. They believed that we could act as if this was Year Zero and the world could be reinvented and reimagined from scratch. It's inconceivable that their parents knew what the exact consequences of rejecting traditional morality would be, but they knew on a dogmatic level that it was a bad idea.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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