Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:
It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.
The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.
We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith. Why are we intolerant of risk? Because we feel a lack of control. Why do we feel a lack of control? Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity. In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.
The police act on our authority and in our name. That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set. And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences. The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.
The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain. Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us. And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up! Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”
That is, indeed, our responsibility. How can we do less?
Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:
“…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.
“To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life. And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…
“There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.”
What most mass murderers — and, for that matter, ordinary murderers — share is a form of solipsism, a mental landscape in which other people have no innate value but exist, rather, merely as props to facilitate the action in the murderer’s own self-scripted and self-focused drama.
That would appear to be the result of a moral disease, not a psychological one.
To use an analogy that is, admittedly, intentionally, and consciously way over-the-top in order to make the point utterly unmissable:
Yes, Trump is Hitler. But, if the choice you offer me is to get rid of Hitler by embracing Stalin, can I be blamed for, instead, wishing that a pox descend upon your house as well as his?
It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means. But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.
But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?
In six parts:
For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:
Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!
In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?
Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!
Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.
But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?
You have to explain why that can’t work!
That is why America is more risk tolerant than other countries and societies in the world: because to guarantee security you must always sacrifice some amount of liberty; and, in assessing that sacrifice, Americans have traditionally factored liberty higher in the equation than have most other peoples.
Donald Trump betrayed us before a global audience — he dishonored us, as head of state rather than as head of government — by exhibiting a disdain for our democratic values, by demeaning the integrity of and trust in our institutions, by undermining our cultural and moral influence, and quite frankly, by playing, in our name and to our shame, the role of fool and sycophant to a petty tyrant.
If, as head of government negotiating and implementing executive policies, he were actually to act as an agent of Russian interest and against ours, then his behavior could legitimately be described as “treasonous”. But in the absence of evidence for that — and under the much more likely scenario that his abysmal performance represents merely a self-willed and negligent act of narcissistic defensiveness — the proper and appropriate term for his behavior is “perfidious.”
Since I gave Greg Weiner a shout-out for his New York Times piece about what it means to be an American liberal — and since the topic is dear to my heart — I’ll give David Brooks’ take on what it means to be an American conservative equal treatment. It’s worth reading.
For my part, anyone paying attention will know that I made my choice — conservative over Republican — many years and many presidents ago…