Common senseless

Georgie Anne Geyer

January 05, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THOSE highly trained specialists who have done so much to enrich our lives in modern America have now mined for us two more rich lodes of thought. Let us consider them soberly on these first mornings-after of this new year.

The first study deeply concerns all of us: fat and diet. This landmark study was conducted by doctors at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York and published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Apparently feeling that they just might be being conned by a lot of fat-stuffers who soberly proclaimed that they faced "diet-resistance" (an inability to lose weight, to us), the doctors looked further. And they found that most of the patients were fat because they ate too much.

The second is not a study but the case of Westley Allan Dodd, who at this writing was scheduled for execution by hanging at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Dodd is the type of criminal our "civilized" country seems to have spawned left and right. He is a convicted child molester and killer. He strangled his youngest victim, who was 4, and hanged him in a closet. The other two children, 11 and 10, were stabbed to death.

Unlike most of these cases where the murderer is put away for 10 years and goes free, Dodd's case has come to mean even more than dying for his crimes.

Having been duly sent through every possible form and level of therapy, guidance and psychiatry, Dodd was finally named unregenerate and unsavable by the state of Washington. And the state has changed its laws so that in the future psychological factors will not be accepted as an excuse for sexual crimes.

The two cases have one element in common: They show the degree to which the country has lost its common sense (and perhaps, to some degree, is regaining it).

Would my mother on the South Side of Chicago have wondered a minute about such things? Hardly! Mother, who was cultured and beautiful but who had the savvy of a casino croupier, would simply say of our friend Fat Kenny: "He's got to stop eating so much butter." And of the then relatively few sexual offenders that we read about? "He's hopeless; he would be better off dead" (which is exactly what Dodd says).

Of course, now that we have all the conclusions from these experts, analysts and professional students of human behavior, we can know that our mothers were right!

But, seriously, why should we worry about such relatively small decisions and trivial lines of thought as these? Next to the mass slaughters in the world, the starvation and dying societies, are we not focusing too much on ourselves?

I don't think so. As one who usually writes about the world "out there," I say without the slightest equivocation that those countries that are healthy today are those that have not lost their common sense and who are rooted in the wisdom of the past. Even in tragedies, those countries have something to pull on for strength.

But the great American experience has always been threatened by several impulses. One is the inner need to believe that the past does not matter and can be wantonly discarded, that we can always start anew, and that the utopian society is ever possible. (That, of course, is the result of having inherited a beautiful and largely untamed continent and of being protected from the rest of humankind by two vast oceans.)

Another is the belief that technology can solve everything, even obesity, and that nothing is your own fault. "We have a moral relativism today and thus a blind faith in technology," says Father Thomas Gannon, my friend and fine Jesuit thinker. "The idea is 'If you can do it, do it!' And along with that goes the idea that 'If you believe it, it's a value.' We have no objective tests anymore; it is individualism gone rampant. What works for you is OK."

Neither of these popular and prevalent mind-sets -- whether technologically oriented or psychologically oriented -- works in practice. We are wasting too much time and money on "experts."

Of course, it is not so simple as saying that one person is fat because he is a glutton, or that a man is a sex offender because he is evil. But if we would at least begin with that proposition, instead of with others, we would not have to see our overly idealistic social programs and judgments failing so egregiously today for want of a little common sense.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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