We honor experts so long as they confirm our pet theories. On every imaginable subject, people are earnest and eager to share their earnestness. Irony? There’s plenty of that, too, but not when it comes to someone’s obsession du jour. Interestingly the OED speculates that, though the origin of crank is uncertain, it may derive from the adjective cranky, “of capricious or wayward temper, difficult to please; cross-tempered, awkward; ‘cross.’” Cranks tend to embody those qualities and few are burdened with a sense of humor.
The Dictionary’s definition of crank is carefully euphemistic: “a person with a mental twist; one who is apt to take up eccentric notions or impracticable projects; esp. one who is enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an eccentric, a monomaniac.” Those final two synonyms, at least by connotation, are distinctly different. True eccentrics are England’s gift to the world. I associate tolerance for eccentricity, benign individual difference, with democratic societies. Eccentrics, I think, are not popular with pure-bred cranks. Monomaniacs, as the word suggests, are more strictly pathological. They are angry, joyless and potentially dangerous. You can’t have a conversation with a monomaniac. Among Hitler’s less malign qualities was monomania.
In A Casual Commentary (1925) Rose Macaulay devotes a brief essay to the subject of cranks. She shrewdly observes that “unsatisfied desire appears to be the essence of crankism.” I’m reminded of the Progressive Labor Party. At anti-Vietnam War rallies, its members dressed like door-to-door missionaries, in short-sleeve white shirts and narrow black ties. They were quiet and never smiled, and the rowdier elements left them alone. They were Maoists, the most dangerous of cranks. “Cranks live by theory, not by pure desire,” Macaulay writes, suggesting a handy way to diagnose them. They possess a “lack of proportion, the obsession with one desire or one principle to the minimising or exclusion of others; exaggeration, in fact.” Given life circumstances and one’s waning tolerance for the ridiculous, all of us are potential recruits to crankism.