A “Holy Schlub” is a messianic figure found more and more often in our popular culture.
Their divine ability is not to turn water into wine but rather to turn ignorance into profundity.
They follow their guts and solve problems with “common sense” often showing up experts.
These figures are fun, and I find them as amusing as anyone else.
But I am also concerned.
In 2016 Michael Gove quit his job as UK secretary of state for justice to help lead the Brexit ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.
In a now-famous interview on Sky News he told host Faisal Islam the British public had “had enough of experts”.
“I’m not asking the British public to trust me, I’m asking the British public to trust themselves,” he said.
“I’m asking the British public to take back control.”
That same year the BBC sent reporters to dozens of Trump rallies to interview his growing supporter base.
They found a similar theme.
All this may seem to be recent but we have been lionising idiocy and ignorance for far too long for this to be a surprise.
Welcome to the age of the Holy Schlub.
King Ralph and President Dave
When I was young I was a big fan of two Hollywood movies.
King Raph and Dave.
At the time I didn’t notice the connection between the two but looking back it’s pretty clear.
In King Ralph an American lounge singer takes over the British throne after the entire royal family die in a freak electrical accident.
Despite knowing nothing about being king Ralph, played by John Goodman, is genuine and likeable. You root for him as he wins everyone over with his straight-talk, everyman charm, and “common sense”. He solves the conflicts in the story by staying true to his roots and shows up the “know it all” experts as out-of-touch.
In Dave small business owner Dave Kovic is acting as body double for the US President. But after the president has a stroke the chief of staff tricks Dave into becoming the real commander in chief.
Despite knowing nothing about being President Dave, played by Calvin Klein, is genuine and likeable. You root for him as he wins everyone over with … well you get the point.
At heart they are the same movie.
At first I thought the stories were fun. I liked the idea that anyone could step up and take on a task as big as running a country. I liked the idea that anyone who cared enough could be a leader.
These are great messages and I still like these ideas.
But what I don’t like is the way these movies portray ignorance as a strength.
You are not a bad person if you are not informed about an issue.
Nor are you stupid if you have not spent the time and effort required to be an expert in a field.
But it doesn’t make you a good person either. It especially doesn’t make you better than someone who has.
But this is what we are being told more and more often.
In this world the Holy Schlub who knows nothing about a subject isn’t equal to the experts — they’re better.
We know they are better because the Holy Schlub solves complicated problems experts can’t.
They do this by deploying “common sense”, even if they knew very little about the subject.
In the process they embarrass other people whose expertise, knowledge, and experience they reduce to a punchline.
There is a ludicrous scene in Dave where the titular character calls his friend to ask him for help. He has to cut more than $650 million from the budget so he doesn’t have to cut funding to the homeless.
The pair put their heads together and fix it in a single day.
During the scene the friend tells Dave that it “doesn’t make sense. If I ran my business like this I’d go broke”.
In a meeting afterwards Dave demonstrates that you don’t need experience in government to fix something as complicated as the US budget. A single friend who is an accountant and good old common sense will do.
I don’t know why but after writing that sentence I want to yell “yeee haw”.
In King Ralph the titular Ralph throws out diplomacy when meeting with the leader of Zambizi.
In a scene that hasn’t aged well he throws etiquette out the window, greets the King with “yo!” and bonds over beers and darts before the two end up throwing spears together in the courtyard.
It’s tempting for me to write my concern off as my own joylessness but I am still concerned.
Media commentators today barrage us with the message that scientists, politicians, and other experts are out of touch.
They lack the mystical “common sense”. You know better than they do. You might actually be their superior.
What else could Michael Gove have been saying when he told the public to ignore a laundry list of experts but instead to “trust themselves”.
By the way — he’s since started singing the praises of scientists.
The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows of the last 20 years. Commentators have declared it the show that “made nerds cool”.
Despite this many of the jokes are about the genius scientists being out of touch. The show’s only “normal” person — Penny — is constantly called on to help them with their issues.
To do this she uses he “street smarts” and … you guessed it … common sense.
In one scene Sheldon, a character who has a genius-level IQ, asks Penny for advice.
Her confusions about this mirrors my own and she replies; “this is about science why did you come to me”.
This is played for laughs but it’s a bloody good question.
Time and time again a Holy Schlub and their common sense come to the rescue of the show’s geniuses.
Instances of this trope in popular culture are growing.
It’s no coincidence we are also seeing this idea rise in the real world.
In the UK the population rejected the advice of experts and voted to Brexit. In the US groups of people said they elected Trump specifically because he wasn’t a political expert. Across Europe people are rejecting the advice of doctors leading to a 400 percent increase in measles cases from 2016 to 2017. In real numbers this means 5562 children dying in Romania, 5006 in Italy, and 967 in Greece. There have also been recent outbreaks in the US — a country that declared measles eliminated in 2000.
The media has been also bashing scientists and experts like a Cinco de Mayo piñata for decades.
This multi-front attack has been so effective that experts say the public is now “nervous”.
“They worry, ‘Are scientists trustworthy? Can industry be trusted?’,” Arthur Caplan, Founding Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University said.
All this comes at a time when not only are scientists giving dire warnings about the future of the planet — we are seeing it with our own eyes.
It’s also not only scientists saying this.
There have also been warnings from then-US Secretary of Defence in Trump’s White House, James Mattis, the Navy, or US National Intelligence Agencies. In fact, the military has been warning about climate change since 2003 in a report called,’Global Warming Could Have a Chilling Effect on the Military’.
These experts from different fields all recognise and warn about this danger. Meanwhile, a large number of people still struggle, despite their common sense.
You are not worse than someone who is better informed or more interested in an issue than you are.
But you ignorance does not make you better.
Until we stop lying to ourselves and telling each other that it does we will always be in the age of the Holy Schlub.