Our Modern Hubris Factory 1

Why we tolerate the intolerable.

Some kinds of disasters arrive without warning, or at least with no signs that ordinary people can see.  Tornadoes, earthquakes, stock-market crashes - we may be dimly aware of them being more or less likely at a particular time, but contrary to the claims of psychics, they can't be foretold with any accuracy.

Most disasters, and certainly the worst ones, aren't like this: there are abundant warning signs for those with eyes to see.  The Civil War and both World Wars may have been far longer and more destructive than anyone expected, but everyone knew they were on the way years before they arrived.

Today's euro crisis is another such: anyone with an understanding of macroeconomics and of just how profoundly different the various European economies are could not help but know that one single currency couldn't possibly work over the long term.  Margaret Thatcher herself said so decades ago.  The euro is going to break up if not collapse entirely, it's just a matter of time.

Which raises the question: why, with giant world crises usually foreseeable, don't people do something about them?  We don't necessarily mean do something to stop them; this isn't always possible.

At the level of individual people and their families, though, there is almost always something you can do to flee the crisis.  A European could transfer savings to a bank in Switzerland, while ensuring that their mortgage was held by a local bank or credit union operating only in their own country.  Jews, devout Christians, and humanitarians had several years to flee Germany after Hitler came to power and before he locked everything down.  Some in fact did, some were too poor or poorly-connected, but many could have, didn't, and died.

How Much Worse Can It Get?  More Than You Think

The answer lies in the concept of continuity bias - that is, the idea that life will probably continue on pretty much as it always has with only relatively minor and incremental changes.  After all, for the overwhelming majority of us, that is exactly what has happened throughout our lives, the lives of our friends and relatives, and even throughout the lives of old folks we know.

Sure, there are occasional individual disasters - there may be a devastating car crash or house fire - but these are risks we know and can somewhat prepare ourselves for.  Most of us never encounter a true bolt from the blue.  Precious few have ever seen a sudden disaster that encompassed our entire community much less the whole country or world.

Perhaps this is why so many stayed in New Orleans for Katrina - after all, how bad could it be?  Lose power for a few days, live by candlelight, have a fun story to tell.

Wrong!  The ensuing disaster wasn't beyond imagination, but it was certainly beyond the ability of most people to believe in before it happened.

A German in 1935 might not like Hitler or the Nazis, and might feel ill at ease at the indignities inflicted on the Jews - but really, it couldn't go much further, could it?  After all, Germany was a civilized country, Europe was the cradle of modern civilization, and nobody wanted another devastating war.  Politicians bluster and threaten all the time, and it never amounts to much - except that time, it did.

The great Mark Steyn raises this profound point in a recent article:

I saw a fellow in a "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt the other day. He was at LaGuardia, and he was being trod all over, by the obergropinfuhrers of the TSA, who had decided to subject him to one of their enhanced pat-downs. There are few sights more dismal than that of a law-abiding citizen having his genitalia pawed by state commissars, but having them pawed while wearing a "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt is certainly one of them.

Don't get me wrong. I like "Don't Tread on Me." Also, "Don't Mess with Texas" — although the fact that 70 percent of births in Dallas's largest hospital are Hispanic suggests that someone has certainly messed with Texas in recent decades, and fairly comprehensively.

As we've discussed extensively, our modern TSA-ruled airports are the very definition of a police state, save for the mitigating truth that TSA goons don't shoot you down where you stand and can't permanently vanish you into a secret prison.  These are not insignificant exceptions and no sane person would seriously equate the TSA with the Gestapo or the SS - but equally, they're much more alike than anything the Founders would have tolerated.

Steyn's point is larger than the much-maligned TSA, though.

No other nation has license-plate mottos like "Live Free or Die." No other nation has songs about how "I'm proud to be a Canadian" or "Australian" or "Slovenian" — or at least no songs written in the last 20 years in a contemporary pop vernacular. And yet, underneath the attitudinal swagger, Americans are — to a degree visiting Continentals often remark upon — an extremely compliant people.

He's right.  The rare American who stands up to a cop generally suffers for his pains and gets no sympathy from any other American no matter how just his cause may have been.  Most of the time our cops are right, or are at least trying to do right, but if nobody ever stands up to the government, eventually nobody will even when it's dead wrong.

This is just as true for those who steer the ship of state as for those of us who are mere passengers.  They've been doing what they've been doing for many, many years now; why should they change?  It takes a strong, self-confident, independent thinker to say that the ship needs to be turned around stat, and even more effort to actually do it.

In the next article in this series, we'll talk about why are elites are steering us onto the rocks.  It's not because they're evil and hate America, nor because they're plain and simply idiots - mostly, they are none of these things.  They suffer from a different intellectual bias entirely.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Our leaders do suffer from a different intellectual bias than the rest of us, that being the innate desire to control. Rewind in your mind if you can to the kids that you went to school with. The ones who were always running for some office were not the doers, the athletes, those working, those involved in hobbies, helping people, etc., they were the ones who craved attention. They were typically books smart, the teachers liked them and they were compliant with the rules of the schools, they didn't rock the boat but they wanted to lead. This is where we get our local, state and national leaders, from the schools. The problem with this is that most of these people do not know or understand what it takes to make a living, they only know that money magically shows up out of thin air.

The policy wonks' policies that Mark Steyn encountered at the airport is atypical of these folks. No real world experience, just an idea hatched out of a meeting of other self proclaimed intellectuals, they are, after all, the brightest and the best, haven't they been leading the rest of us all of their lives? It may be time for the rest of us to have to get our fingers dirty and enter into this inner sanctum of policy making. For one thing we do not need a leader that is re-elected time and again to an office. The person becomes average at best by virtue of being trapped into being obligated to everyone and accountable to no one. Taking the example of the obergropinfuhrers of the TSA what sane person would come up with a solution like that? Strip searching an 85 year old grandmother for a bomb? Get real. If we have a problem with terrorists then a profile of the potential terrorist is called for. It's going to make a few people mad but life is not fair. Is it fair for one man to be born blind and the other sighted? To inconvenience the many to be fair to the few is just tough luck.

December 8, 2011 12:26 PM
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