A casual glance at a dictionary shows the definition of kneejerk to be “automatic” or “reacting in a readily predictable way.”
The term comes from the physiological phenomenon in which a neuro-signal induced by a light, focused strike just below the patella (hence “knee”) races to the spinal cord, only to be immediately fired back to the powerful quadriceps muscle at the top of the thigh. The muscle quickly contracts, yanking the lower leg with it in a sudden upward movement (hence “jerk”).
Most importantly – and this is key – the brain is completely bypassed, which makes “knee-jerk” a fine pejorative.
In full deprecation mode the term is usually coupled with “liberal,” a word that defines those for whom fair play, social justice and an all-round aura of simple, vacuous niceness seem to be entirely reflexive. Yet it can just as easily be attached to “conservative,” which describes those who spend a lifetime trying to unlearn the apparently inborn traits mentioned above.
A good example of knee-jerk interchangeability came after The New York Times gave prominence this past Sunday to a story about US think tanks that receive funding from foreign governments. The countries mentioned in the piece ran the gamut from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to Norway, China, Japan and Germany. The question left lingering like a bad odor was whether the think tanks end up skewing their findings to suit patrons.
As of noon Israel time on Tuesday, there were 708 comments in the talkback section of the Times’s online edition. Almost all expressed deep concern about the dangers of these supposedly independent research institutes going on to lobby people in government about what US policies ought to be.
Typical was the talkback that lamented the growing sense among liberals everywhere that “[m]oney, not citizenship or individual humanity, will be the driver and influence of politics.” It led 422 readers to click “Recommend.”
Only one comment, a very short one, scored higher. It was by a serial talkbacker whose toes seemed to smash straight into the ceiling because a certain country he is known to despise was not listed: “Odd,” he wrote, “that there is no mention of Israel in this article.” With 526 readers clicking “Recommend” for a remark having nothing at all to do with the story, the talkbacker’s toe-prints clearly were not alone up there on the paper’s liberal ceiling.
The same article, though, made the legs of Israeli right-wingers jerk upward just as vigorously. One of the think tanks it mentioned was the Brookings Institution, which received from Qatar “a $14.8 million, four-year donation” that “helped fund a Brookings affiliate in Qatar and a project on US relations with the Islamic world.”
Brookings? Isn’t that where former US Middle East peace envoy Martin S. Indyk is a honcho? (Indeed, Indyk, a Brookings vice president and director of its foreign policy program, was quoted in the piece.) Qatar? Don’t they back Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalists? (The next day, the Times gave similar prominence to an item with the nicely cadenced headline: “Qatar’s support of extremists alienates allies near and far.”) I could almost hear the mutterings deep in the bowels of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office, that the emir of Qatar himself probably had picked up the bar tab that night last May when Indyk was overheard in a posh Washington watering hole ranting about Bibi’s obstinacy in negotiating with the Palestinians.
ALL OF US have toes we’ve stubbed on the ceiling. That’s because we have deeply entrenched opinions that nothing will shake loose, not even a gun in the back or the sight of US President Barack Obama in a beige summer suit.
These viewpoints are like the neuro-signals racing from the knee around the spinal cord and straight to the quadriceps without first heading up to the cerebrum with a few crucial questions: What just happened? Why did it happen? What does it mean? What should I do? Of course, some freethinking neuro-signals are good for us, like when our hand inadvertently touches a hot stove or our eyes note an incoming fist. But stoves and fists make up so little of daily life that we should start sending more of our opinions north with some crucial questions of their own: What’s going on around us right now? What’s going on a bit farther out? Is there anything new and noteworthy and, if so, what does it mean? And finally, what should I do about it? In some cases, you can be sure the answers will be, respectively: Don’t ask! More of the same! Nope! Keep doing what you’ve been doing! But in other cases there’s a good chance the replies will be different, so it makes sense for us to interact with our cerebrum on a regular basis to seek out a second opinion for our opinions.
It would be nice to send all of them as often as possible, but as that might interfere with our work, family life and unflagging support for Beitar Yerushalayim, we need to institute a kind of triage system. One of the best ways of doing so is by assigning each of our opinions a value, for example of the monetary kind. (Hear me out, please.) When I encounter an especially strong or vociferous viewpoint, particularly one that comes with a certain upward kick, I often ask the person expressing it whether he or she is willing to wager something substantial to back it up – say, a year’s salary.
The person’s face usually says it all – that I’m crazy. Actually I’m not; the wager involves nothing on my part. But if what the other person says proves to be false, he or she owes. Big time. Call it unfair, but I’m not the one throwing around opinions I purport to be absolute (not today, at least).
Try it. Even about things that appear to be shoo-ins as facts. Like whether George H.W. Bush is the 41st person to have served as president of the US. Everyone calls him “41” to differentiate him from his son, George W. Bush, who is “43.” The history books do, too. But then ask whether Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms in the late 19th century, is counted once or twice. I’m willing to bet (although not a year’s salary) that all of a sudden you’ll be uncertain.
No reason to be ashamed. I had to look it up, too. For the record, Cleveland is counted twice, at 22 (1885-1889) and 24 (1893- 1897), so Bush 41 is actually the 40th person to serve as president of the US, and his son the 42nd. (For those who suspect this is a double trick question, Gerald Ford is also counted, at 38/37.) The point is, if asked, I never would have said I was absolutely sure that Bush 41 was the 41st person to serve as US president.
But enough trivia. What about meaty matters, like whether the Palestinians are sincere in their professed desire for peace? A lot of us seem to know the answer.
And here’s where it gets interesting: When there’s a historical record, you can always Google it. But when it’s an open-ended question that will require more history to be played out, we cannot quite obtain an absolute answer. So here we tend to be even more sure of ourselves – and willing to bet the bank.
SOMEONE SHOULD come up with one of those cranial scan results shared so often on Facebook and label it: “This is your brain in knee-jerk mode.” Chances are there will no bright colors. It might even show nothing at all, indicating something like the neural withering they warn us about if we don’t do enough crossword puzzles or read a Herman Melville novel every decade.
That should wake us up.
Either that or someone should invent a restraint mechanism for our lower legs for when the neuro-signals are running free. At least there will be no new toe-prints on our ceilings.