Friday, December 4, 2015

The Most Dangerous Notion

     But we were not a “Lost Generation.” We were worse; we were the “Safe Generation.” Not beatniks. The Beats were never more than a few hundred out of millions. Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy’s poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn’t think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren’t rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. “Security” was our unspoken watchword....
     About then I made a horrible discovery. I didn’t want to go back to school, win, lose, or draw. I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or “security.” There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.
     Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest in supermarkets and exurban subdivisions and tonight is the PTA supper don’t forget dear you promised.

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road]

     Certain ideas, once firmly embedded in men’s nests of unexamined premises, are toxic enough to poison an entire nation. Such ideas should, of course, be recognized and resisted from the instant of their introduction. However, they aren’t easy to recognize, as they take the form of nostrums and “obvious” desiderata. They’re even harder to resist, especially when they have the windpower of high public officials or a gaggle of attractive celebrities behind them.

     Probably the most toxic of all such notions is safety, which policy wonks sometimes call security.

     There are actual human beings, possessors of licenses to drive and the acknowledged “right” to vote, making statements such as the following:

     “My right to be safe outweighs your right to have a gun.”

     Not only are these...persons not being locked up to protect them from their own idiocy; they’re being listened to – by substantial numbers of Americans! – as if they’d said something with actual moorings in reality. Get that? Large numbers of people actually believe they have “a right to be safe.”

     How on Earth did this state of affairs come about? Can anyone who’s ever had to slice a vegetable or cross a busy street sincerely think that “safety” is a real attribute that a living human being can possess? Is it possible that so great a fraction of the populace was so smotheringly over-mothered?

     Incredible as it may seem, the answer is yes:

  • They exist.
  • There are a lot of them.
  • They really, truly believe in “safety.”
  • And they’ll have it, by God, over our dead bodies.

     As Heinlein noted in the opening quotation, there is no such thing as “security.” (Add the qualifier national and you produce one of the great fatuities of our age.) It means nothing. It has no definition with which any real-world situation can be associated. Yet it has come to dominate huge swaths of our national discourse.

     Do you doubt this? Try it on for size. Imagine a situation in which you are “safe” from:

  • All possibility of deliberate violence;
  • All possibility of accidental injury or death;
  • All possibility of disease or physical degeneration;
  • All possibility of exhaustion of the necessities of life.

     Can you match any configuration of real conditions to those four desiderata – simultaneously? If so, write it up and send it to me; my imagination sometimes fails me, which is a terrible thing for a novelist, and anyway, I can always use a good laugh.

     Heinlein isn’t the only writer to denigrate “security.” Look up Jack Williamson’s classic novelette “With Folded Hands” for a sermonette of another variety, but just as powerful. Williamson’s story makes plain that acquiring absolute safety from certain potential harms invariably involves the acceptance of other hazards, usually of equal or greater magnitude.

     Yet this unattainable state utterly dominates left-liberal political thought. Try to name an aspect of “progressive” policy advocacy that’s not rationalized on the grounds of “safety” – usually, safety for some, from a specific avenue of potential harm, at the expense of others’ rights. However, in its guise as “national security,” the phantasm also plays a substantial part in the thinking of much of the political Right.

     And it is endangering us to a degree few properly appreciate. Indeed, most Americans don’t sense the danger at all.

     Few indeed are the thinkers willing to grapple with the perniciousness of the safety / security shibboleth. One, generally unappreciated by persons uninterested in his best known specialty, was the late Herman Kahn:

     It is generally acknowledged that in the unlikely event nuclear weapons did become generally unavailable, a nation that retained even a single weapon would represent a terrible threat to the rest of the world. Consequently, some supporters of disarmament simultaneously support a world government that would have a monopoly on nuclear weapons. The practical problems of this alternative, namely the possibility that such a government could itself become oppressive, or could be taken over by an oppressive group, are rarely considered.

     Another, sadly even less well known than Kahn, was the late Aaron Wildavsky:

     Trial and error is a device for courting small dangers in order to avoid or lessen the damage from big ones. Sequential trials by dispersed decision makers reduce the size of that unknown world to bite-sized, and hence manageable, chunks. An advantage of trial and error, therefore, is that it renders visible hitherto unforeseen errors. Because it is a discovery process that discloses latent errors so we can learn how to deal with them, trial and error also lowers risk by reducing the scope of unforeseen dangers. Trial and error samples the world of as yet unknown risks; by learning to cope with risks that become evident as the result of small-scale trial and error, we develop skills for dealing with whatever may come our way from the world of unknown risks.

     Wildavsky’s thinking on Type I and Type II risks – the latter being those that emerge consequent to an overemphasis on the former – was essentially unanticipated by political science in his time. A good example arises from one of Wildavsky’s favorite subjects: the imposition of “safety precautions” on nuclear power plants. He argued compellingly that beyond a certain point, efforts to eliminate a Type I risk – e.g., a reactor meltdown – would magnify one or more Type II risks – e.g., the inadvertent functioning of a safety device cutting off power to hospitals and convalescence homes, thereby endangering highly vulnerable residents – that would otherwise have been negligible. (Consider the classic “little boy who cried ‘Wolf!’” scenario for a more pedestrian example.)

     You cannot have perfect “safety.” No one can.

     This morning, long-time favorite Mike Hendrix waxes wroth over the currently most prominent left-liberal “safety” campaign:

     Headline from a screaming fascist ninny: “My Right to Safety Outweighs Your Right to Own a Gun.” No, actually, it does not, you gutless pussy. And your right to delude yourself into thinking you’re safe while abdicating your obligation to take responsibility for your own safety most certainly does not outweigh my God-given right to effective means of self-defense as specifically and clearly enumerated in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution–still the supreme law of the land, if merely nominally and observed almost totally in the breach nowadays.

     If there’s any notion less rational and more dangerous than the proposition that taking guns away from the decent and law-abiding somehow makes us all “safer,” I can’t think of it at the moment. (Wait one, I just thought of one: letting the government have all the guns! Cf. the Herman Kahn quotation in the previous segment.) Perhaps even stupider is the suggestion, heard now and then outside an insane asylum, that in a hostage situation, a good guy with a gun “would only make things worse.” Yet these are statements we can hear from Leftist mouthpieces each and every day.

     Jack Williamson’s Humanoids, whose ruling principle is “To Serve and Obey, and Guard Men from Harm,” would surely please such left-liberal / “progressive” idiots. For a day or two, at least.

     To some extent, the neomasculinist movement is a reaction against the Nanny State and its Safety Nazis. The masculine man accepts that life is a dangerous business. While he might not embrace adventure and danger for their own sakes, he is open-eyed about the inherent riskiness of reality and the need to confront it from a position of personal strength, resource, and endurance:

     While most of the world is running downhill to pursue immorality, degeneracy, and base pleasures, the self-actualized man must instead climb upwards along the harder path that makes him a better man today than he was yesterday. He must instill within himself a code that creates right action and right thoughts to separate himself from the hysterical masses, allowing him to operate on an elevated level of consciousness and existence.

     Aristotle’s cardinal virtues were prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Eastern philosophies teach self-control of desire. Stoicism tempers desire and aims for mental fortitude against misfortune. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau taught self-reliance. It’s important to examine the great men of the past to construct a living code that can aid men in the present, because it’s certain that a consumer lifestyle with authoritarian deference to false prophets fails to lead to male virtue or character advancement. Such progress can only come from deeper thought and self-examination.

     Needless to say, you’ll find no neomasculinists on the political Left. Among other things, Leftists abhor confrontation for any reason. They have rejected the manly virtues:

     Two things qualify a masculine homo sapiens as a man:
  • Knowledge of right and wrong, and the willingness to fight for the right;
  • Knowledge of his own obligations, and the willingness to meet them.

     A man must learn "where the line is": the line that separates behavior that must be tolerated from behavior that must not be. He must be willing -- personally willing -- to fight in defense of the former and against the latter, though it might expose him to risk and cost him injury or death. He must be ready to swallow his distaste and protect the rights even of persons he finds repulsive, if they have harmed no other human being.

     A man must learn proportionality and restraint. Biology has optimized the male body for purposive aggression, sudden acceleration and focused violence. These are not things to be deployed in their 200-proof strength against trivial or unworthy targets. A man doesn't kill the bounder who steals his parking space, his business idea, or his wife. Even a punch in the nose is excessive for infractions like these.

     A man must learn never to shirk a freely contracted obligation. If you've said you'll do it, you do it. No excuses. Conversely, if you have failed to meet an obligation, you must admit to it and try to do better next time.

     A man must learn not to whine about disappointments, reversals, or the ways of women. Especially about the ways of women. They're not men -- thank God -- and we can't fairly hold them to manly standards.

     A man must learn reverence in the presence of the numinous. The fact that each of us is a part of an infinitely greater whole manifests itself in innumerable ways. Learning to let it in, to cherish it, and to use it to buttress oneself in times of darkness is critical to attaining the endurance the world expects from a man.

     Last and most important, a man must transmit the manly virtues to his male children. relics of a benighted era that must be firmly and permanently banished.

     And they think, if they can only do so, that they will be “safe.” Which is why they hide in concrete towers while producing virtually no progeny, losing political ground with each passing day, and in every other respect sliding inexorably into the dustbin of history.

     Choose your side...your risks...and your way forward.


Butch DuCote said...

Welcome back Fran! Great article.

Butch DuCote said...

Welcome back Fran. Great article. Seems that the public is not buying the gun argument with 185k background checks on black Friday alone. There is hope!

Anonymous said...

Another virtuoso post

Bruce Fauth said...

Good one Fran. Recently (especially since Paris and even more so now with San Bernadino) I've heard several of the ever most 'meek and mild' musing "Do I need to buy a gun?" Looks like they answered their own question with the Black Friday background checks number. Look for even more to consider a firearm under the Christmas (yes, Christmas, not 'holiday') tree.

Publius Huldah said...

"Certain ideas, once firmly embedded in men’s nests of unexamined premises, are toxic enough to poison an entire nation. Such ideas should, of course, be recognized and resisted from the instant of their introduction"

Your writing here is wonderful!