May 10, 2004
Fail Safe

Humanity's love for social stability is matched only by the capacity for self-delusion that is required to perceive it. Worse still, like infants who think the pain never ends we wail and cry of apocalypse and collapse whenever some event tears through our colorful curtain of lies. Naked prisoners, unemployed workers, corrupt politicians, scandalous corporations, all and more are too often seen as the buboes of a diseased culture, the stench of a body politic struck dead on the highway of history.

The truth, as with most axioms of "conventional wisdom", is quite the opposite. These are not symptoms of corruption and decay heralding end times. They are instead indications of a living, breathing, healthy culture. But why does it so often seem the opposite?

Corruption, graft, thievery, rape, murder, and mayhem are not exceptions in our societies. They are the rule in the ever-more-complex cultures humanity has created for itself. Throughout history, one after another would stumble upon some new improvement in warfare, production, or organization, set up a society of plenty and prosperity, only to have it crumble from within due to the rot nobody wanted to talk about. Time and again glittering monuments to humanity's progress would become vine-choked dragon's teeth rotting in the noonday sun. This tragic cycle would repeat over and again for perhaps fifteen thousand years.

The first innovation that helped break the cycle was English... a rule of laws to which even kings of divine right must pay heed. A century later a group of English colonists took the next logical step, one that had been advocated for centuries but which no one ever had the nerve to implement. Essentially, with their written "Constitution" they institutionalized free inquiry, making it possible for any unreasonable crank who didn't care about the stability of a society to turn it all upside down, or at least try to, any time they pleased.

What resulted was not an elegant powerhouse that smoothly exploited its way to world dominance. Instead, a bickering, poorly educated, surly mob was handed the reigns of power, and the resulting chaotic mess became a scandal of the civilized world. "Old" Europe quietly laughed into its collective handkerchiefs as a group of trailer trash, slaves, untouchables, and lunatics lurched from one ridiculous crisis to the next.

There were, of course, just as many hoodlums, thieves, cranks, and lunatics in the world as there were in the United States. The difference was we kept ours where we could see them, and by exposing them were able to stop them before they could do too much damage.

The rest of the world continued to yearn for quiet and stability at the expense of all else, with utterly predictable results. Europe unleashed apocalypse, surviving only to suddenly find itself prostrate before, and then rebuilt by, the rabble from across the sea they made such sport of a century before. Asia fossilized under the weight of its own narcissism, ultimately to be consumed by Western barbarians, then destroyed by wars of its own making. Today Arabia toys with its own annihilation by playing spectacular stunts on the only culture capable of wiping it from the planet with the press of a button.

All in the name of stability, of a smooth culture, of something clean and quiet, something that's admired, something that doesn't make noise. I learn about Enron and Tycho and feel depressed, but I also take heart because, in the name of quiet, the next logical steps result in apparatchiks, plush dachas for a few, and empty shelves for the rest. I read about Watergate and Iran-Contra and what the definition of "Is" is and I'm disgusted, but I'm also pleased, because, in the name of stability, to ignore them would slide us down a slippery slope that ends in red armbands and thunderous, mindless chants. I look at the pictures of naked prisoners and I'm repulsed, but I'm also relieved because without them, in the name of quiet, mothers crawl in a pit on knees cut by bone looking for the doll their child was carrying when they disappeared one night.

In spite of what we'd like to believe, the United States is not composed of saints, is not without bandits, is not free of people who enjoy base violence and humiliation. We are not immune to failure. The difference is we have mechanisms to stop these people, expose them, and remove them from the commanding heights that they have so woefully abused. We are able to correct our failures. It's not quick, it's not clean, it's not always even very fair, but it does work. It fails safe.

Personally, overall, I'm quite happy with my ugly, messy, noisy, inefficient, and embarrassing country. Anyone who isn't simply hasn't considered the real alternatives.

Posted by scott at May 10, 2004 03:56 PM

eMail this entry!

Well alright! It would seem you're finally back on track writing things I can read without wanting to scream and throw things.

Posted by: Pat on May 10, 2004 06:55 PM

well spake!

Posted by: mark on May 14, 2011 04:34 PM
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