As I strolled through the family room one day recently, just prior to the inauguration, I noticed that two men were arguing on the television. One seemed exasperated: "That’s ridiculous," he fumed.

"What are they arguing about?" I asked my wife.

"Oh, it’s something about a prayer at the President’s inauguration ceremony. The atheist doesn’t think there should be any praying at public ceremonies. The fellow who just called his position ridiculous disagrees, of course."

As one might expect, the atheist quoted the First Amendment to defend his position that the vast majority should not be able to express their opinion if it offends the small minority in this great democracy of ours. Now it’s possible that a rather simple-minded person, half-asleep, might, if unacquainted with the actual wording of the First Amendment, decide that it could possibly, at a stretch, have something to do with the offering of a prayer at a public ceremony. But once fully awake, and having spent fifteen or twenty seconds actually reading the Amendment, one would have to acknowledge that it is quite irrelevant to the matter of someone praying at an inauguration. Indeed, what made the atheist’s position so impregnable was its firm entrenchment in unreality. It is hard to argue against the absurd. If a person maintains that two plus two equals five, reasoning with him is impossible.

Orwell called it "crimestop," in his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

"Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to (an authority) and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."

Crimestop is especially popular among bureaucrats. Ask a pointed question of any one of them, and consider it miraculous if you receive a direct answer. Ask the IRS, for instance, how to correctly determine your taxable income, and you will almost surely receive in reply (if you receive anything at all) a form letter that does not bear any relationship to your question. Ask the local assessor how he can determine the value of your home in terms of "dollars," when that term has no legal definition, and no value assigned to it. His answer will probably be that you can challenge your assessment before the appropriate committee. He might even include a helpful booklet that outlines the procedures you must follow to do so. I once wrote to the mayor, asking if my home was part of the security tendered by the city in return for its loans. My reply was from the city treasurer, with whom I had worked on a parish committee years earlier. He expressed delight at hearing from me, mild surprise that I was still alive, wished me well, and said to call upon him again if he could be of further service. Plenty of questions; no relevant answers, if any.

Government is not the only organization practicing crimestop, however. Certain groups aligned with government, or government programs, do so as well. For instance, the group AARP recently had a full-page ad in the paper reacting to proposals that Social Security be "privatized." It read, in part, "Let’s not turn Social Security into Social Insecurity." The implication is clear: Social Security, in its present form, is secure. Anyone claiming to believe that is either mendacious or moronic, unless by "secure" you mean secured by other people’s property, seized from them by deception, or the threat of force. The ad also claimed that private accounts would "take money out of Social Security." There isn’t, and never has been, any money in a Social Security account. AARP is claiming that two plus two is five, and what’s more, it’s OBVIOUSLY five. End of discussion.

Protective stupidity is, in reality, devilishly clever. Asked any question that, if answered correctly, might diminish his power or influence, the bureaucrat or lobbyist will give an irrelevant reply. Pressure him, and he’ll perhaps quote the Constitution, and enclose a lovely, multi-colored pamphlet, neither of which responds to your question. If you persist, you may even get a letter which states that he, or his department, has already responded to your queries twice, and will not consider the matter further. So there! Should you be foolish enough to pursue the matter to court, the defendant will likely assure that judge that your problem is not that you haven’t gotten answers to your questions, but that you have not been satisfied with the answers that you got. It’s your own fault if you cannot admit that two and two are five.

In other words, crimestop, or protective stupidity, is simply a matter of wearing you down. In the televised argument about inaugural prayers, the proponent of the prayer might fume "That’s ridiculous" at the atheist’s position, but the atheist simply calmly repeats it again and again, while his opponent loses his temper, and, perhaps, his civility. But he cannot refute the atheist’s logic because there is no logic.

In the long run, it’s best not to argue with fools, or pretend-fools. The problem lies in the fact that the fools, or pretend-fools, run things. They’ve learned that ignorance, real or feigned, is their best protection against challenges to their authority. And they’re right. Arguing with them is like arguing with a wall. The Berlin wall, let’s hope!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.