Thursday, February 22, 2018


     No forest of hyperlinks today. No citations of news stories about which you’ve already read or heard more than enough. This will be one of my purer tirades, the sort I emit when it all gets to be too much for me -- and in case you’re not a regular Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch, allow me to inform you: that takes one hell of a lot.

     “To weaponize” is one of the more useful neologisms of the past few decades. Its meaning is clear: one weaponizes an item by converting it from its current form, in which it could not be used to harm others, into a new form in which it would be harmful, perhaps lethal. Needless to say (though, in keeping with time-honored tradition, I’ll say it anyway), we don’t speak of “weaponizing” something that’s already a weapon: e.g., a gun, a bomb, or a tank. The item in question must be relatively harmless before the process begins, at least by the standards that apply to normal usage. Weaponization obviously dismisses those usages and standards in the hope of coming up with something deadly.

     The rise of no-prisoners / no-mercy politics has been accompanied by the weaponization of a number of things we once regarded as harmless or benign. A brief list:

  • Sex.
  • Race.
  • Food.
  • The schools.
  • The weather.
  • The children.
  • The churches.
  • The news media.
  • Charity and charities.
  • Other nominally virtuous “causes”.
  • Entertainment, including various sports and their major spectacles.

     Those are the ones that come easily to my frazzled mind at this unGodly hour of the morning. There are probably others.

     In consequence, for any of these matters to occur in casual conversation is enough to ruin that conversation. The widespread desire to avoid any sort of unpleasant confrontation will make most people change the subject at once, if not excuse oneself “on the grounds of a previous engagement.”

     It’s a commonplace that we all have opinions. (“Opinions are like assholes; everybody’s gotta have one.” – Me) However, in earlier times a difference of opinion was safer than it is today. In our hypercontentious milieu, allowing yourself to express a “disapproved” stance can cost you some cases, everything you have. Ask James Damore.

     But a society in which an ever-enlarging sphere of ordinary matters is deemed a minefield where even an angel dare not tread is one that’s in danger of losing its cohesion. What follows is never pretty.

     Perhaps what I mean by social cohesion isn’t intuitively obvious. Nevertheless, it’s the most important characteristic of any society.

     Social cohesion is the prevalence of mutual trust among members of that society. If it’s high, even strangers will assume one another trustworthy, at least in routine matters. I’ve written about this before:

     It might sound implausible to younger Americans, but half a century ago the typical American would reflexively trust the word even of a passing stranger. We trusted one another because we knew ourselves, in the small and in the large, to be honorable men. It was a knowledge forged from experience and tempered by our recognition of a common moral and ethical foundation: the Judeo-Christian code of conduct.

     We believed in the manly virtues. More, we believed that those around us believed in them, too.

     Were there thieves, con men, and chiselers among us then? Of course. But their number was far smaller than it is today. The social-legal environment didn't yet incorporate all the inducements to dishonesty and chiseling that we suffer in the year of Our Lord 2009. Perhaps more important, we didn't yet endure the perpetual hectoring about how cruel, venal, and untrustworthy we are, from institutions that wax upon men's distrust of one another.

     We trusted our merchants and business associates. We understood free enterprise to be an inherently honorable, honesty-promoting thing. We trusted our spouses, knowing that the marriage vow was taken seriously by our communities and that a departure from it would be held against the violator. We trusted lawyers to represent us honestly and capably at need, and courts to return just verdicts and sentences. We even trusted politicians, which was the beginning of unwisdom.

     I was there. I remember. So don’t bother accusing me of hallucinating a fantasy about “the good old days” in defiance of your notions. That having been said, it’s the next paragraph from that article that should focus our attention today:

     Whenever and wherever men decide that they cannot trust one another to behave honorably, to meet their obligations and honor their commitments, or to cleave to fundamental moral principles about violence, theft, fraud, filial duty, and false witness, the sequel is always the same: we recur to the State, the institution whose sole instrument is force. We accede to laws innumerable, expecting them to substitute for trustworthiness in our fellow men. They seldom have that effect, for every law, however well intentioned and carefully designed, creates a black market in the behavior it forbids: an inducement for evil men to sell their willingness to accept the risks of violating it.

     That’s the price of the loss of social cohesion.

     It’s possible you feel confident, as you see a stranger approach, that you’ll walk away from the encounter unharmed. But that’s not trust. That’s confidence in your personal resilience: your ability to weather what’s coming. Trust is the assumption that you and the stranger approaching you share a common ethic: one that protects you from him and vice-versa.

     Some examples might help. Just yesterday morning, I went to Mass at a parish other than my own. It was the first time I’d been to that parish. As I didn’t know where to find the entrance to the chapel, I approached a woman in the parking lot and asked her to guide me. She, having correctly taken me for a fellow Catholic, smiled and did so with no stress apparent. That’s trust in action: a demonstration of the sort of interaction that’s commonplace when social cohesion is high.

     Compare the above to another episode from about three years ago. I’d just parked my Mercedes in a shopping-center parking lot, gotten out of the car, and saw a stranger approaching me. My hand immediately went to my weapon. I was confident that the outcome would be endurable, but my trust in the approaching stranger was zero.

     Today it would be unwise for a visibly well-to-do American in a place where muggings are, if not common at least not unknown, to trust someone he’d never met. Yet fifty years ago I would have trusted that stranger by default. I’d have granted him the “presumption of decency” that characterizes a society with high social cohesion.

     The weaponizations of so many things have put all of us on our guard. It might not be clear to my Gentle Readers what that means for our future. Take it from me: it ain’t lookin’ good.

     I occupy a difficult position: I see things others don’t, especially patterns and threads of causation. I write about them, when I can. (When I can’t, I declare a “day off.” I spend most days off trying to calm down before I pop a brain aneurysm. Harvey’s helps.) But one who describes a problem is often looked to for a solution, and that I cannot give you.

     I don’t know how to reverse it. I don’t know how we could reacquire the amiability and trust we once shared. I don’t know how we could revive the willingness “to agree to disagree” – i.e., to treat differences of opinion (or personal practice) on subjects of widespread interest as tolerable, even potentially educational. It’s wrapped in weaponized threads that are peculiarly difficult to sever, especially as the forces that have already weaponized so much of what’s common among us labor constantly to strengthen them and add to their number.

     I said this would be one of my purer tirades. I hope I haven’t disappointed you.


Mark Clausen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Clausen said...

Very timely, in view recent events and some of my more recent thoughts.

To my dismay, when trying to add to your list of things that have been weaponized, I discovered that I really couldn't think of any issues that haven't been.

One of your references, "Bring Back Our Country!" nearly made me weep while remembering all we have lost. I've had my concealed carry permit for over 10 years, now, but have only started carrying regularly in the last couple of years. I, too, have lost that sense of trust in my fellow... citizens. I was going to say "Americans," but it seems there are far too many people who don't first identify themselves as such.

When we "dinosaurs" are gone, our children and grandchildren will be left with something far less than what we had, but will like it because they would have no memories of what it was like to really live free.

(previous comment edited for clarity)

Linda Fox said...

The biggest thing that changed is the women.

Women have always been enforcers of morality and civility. In those Old Days, women were ruthless in keeping other women from acting dishonorably - a woman who made moves on another woman's man would have consigned herself to purgatory. She would have been pointedly excluded from all social occasions, her children would have been reluctantly included - at best - and her husband would have been similarly left out of social activities.

For that reason, few women transgressed.

Likewise, men were expected to behave themselves as gentlemen, at least in public. Whatever their faults, they were expected to support their family financially, keep their hands to themselves when in the company of other people, and otherwise act appropriately. That included sloppy drinking, cursing, and other coarse behavior.

When women started catting around, without penalty, and men felt emboldened to act like hounds, without recourse, society broke down. Sure, some watched from the sidelines, fascinated, but disapproving. Too many used that lack of penalty to unleash their Inner Stupid, and Let it ALL Hang Out.

Other aspects that changed:
- Taking a newspaper without paying for it - it was unthinkable when I was young
- Breaking a window without owning up to it, and paying for the replacement
- Walking across someone else's lawn
- Cursing in public

Those are just a few examples. Small things, most of them. But, taken together, little by little, they destroyed the society.

Women used to enforce civilized behavior - in other adults, and in children. Few take action to do so now. Too many of them excuse those behaviors, even become hostile when confronted by a lapse in themselves or their kin.