Economist / Shell Writing Prize 2002 Milksop Nation By Jack Gordon

I like thunderstorms. My dog does not. I never feel so impressed by planet Earth, nor so satisfied to inhabit it, as when a proper thunderstorm is in progress. I like the rumbling approach of the great cumulus cloud, the booms and flashes, the way you can actually feel the air pressure drop in the moments just before the first wallop of wind arrives. I like storms even though one tried to kill me a few years ago, late at night on a 36-foot sloop with its full mainsail still stupidly up, 20 miles from the nearest shore of Lake Superior. No thunderstorm ever offered my dog any harm, but they terrify her just the same. She whimpers and shivers. She hides in the bathroom. She crawls into people’s laps. She makes an insufferable nuisance of herself, and no reassurance can calm her. Call Roxie neurotic, but she just doesn’t feel safe. Then again, if “neurotic” refers to behaviour dictated by a fear that is unreasonable by prevailing social norms, then perhaps the word no longer applies. When the TV weather people in Minnesota, where we both live, interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to issue panicky bulletins concerning a thunderstorm detected (by Doppler radar) somewhere within 150 miles (but headed this way!), they always speak as if addressing viewers no better able than Roxie to assess the odds against being eaten by thunder or struck by lightning. Blowing threats out of proportion is, of course, the stock in trade of TV news, whether the menace in question is a summer rainstorm or the distressing stains revealed when an investigative reporter shines ultraviolet light on a freshly laundered bed sheet at an upscale hotel. But television reflects its viewers’ attitudes as well as shaping them, and clearly there exists a very large audience receptive to the never-ending theme: Life is meant, ever and always, to be safe—and you’re not safe. Enter Osama bin Laden. Twelve hours hadn’t passed since the first airliner struck the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001 before the talking heads on CNN turned their attention to the subject of how much freedom Americans would be willing to give up in order to feel more secure. I evidently missed the explanation of how they came to see this as the first and most obvious question written in the flames still rising from the rubble in lower Manhattan. As suddenly as the planes that had slammed into the twin towers that morning, the issue simply materialized in the vestments of the story’s anointed spin. At the time, it seemed bizarre. I had spent most of the day watching the footage of those same flames, and not once had it occurred to me that a logical response to the horror might be to sacrifice my freedom.

Sure enough, though, the newsies had it right. It was as if the USA Patriot Act signed into law by President Bush six weeks later (and denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union as “based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties”) were already drafted and ready on the morning of September 11th, awaiting only one final push from the lobbyists at al Qaeda. In retrospect, it’s hardly startling that the pundits—and the Congress—pounced so quickly on the idea of trading freedom for safety. Nor should it come as any surprise that the American public (80% of it, according to this summer’s opinion polls) would so readily accept the exchange as a sensible one, even when the freedoms to be surrendered are unspecified and when the explanations of why eliminating them will guarantee anyone’s security are not forthcoming. The TV weather people have us pegged. What Americans demand above all from their government, from their weather—from life itself—is that they be made to feel safe. For two decades and counting, we citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave have happily traded freedom for every scrap of bogus safety dangled before us. Indeed, we have devoted prodigious energy to inventing threats that demand the sacrifice of liberty, privacy and even basic human dignity. It hardly takes an international cabal of murderous fanatics to frighten us into making the trade. This is a country in which millions of working people submit routinely to random inspections of their own urine. Why? So that someone, somewhere, can feel falsely assured that no insurance claim is processed and no forklift in the nation is driven down a warehouse aisle by a weekend marijuana smoker. The act of contributing the sample must be observed by monitors to prevent the wondrous crime of urine fraud—a transgression unimaginable before the 1980s, when we obliged Ronald and Nancy Reagan by opening our bladders to public scrutiny in the name of workplace safety. From the other end of the political spectrum come the pusillanimous speech codes on our college campuses. These restrict permissible discussion so that tomorrow’s thought leaders may feel safe. Safe from what? From chance encounters with thoughts that might disturb their equanimity. We know perfectly well—television tells us so—that half of humanity lives in appalling poverty and that common pastimes on three continents include fleeing marauding bandit-armies and wondering where one’s next meal will come from. Yet here in America, the threat du jour—our own pet idea of a deadly menace to our health and welfare—is secondhand smoke. We’re not only able but eager to take this seriously, ordinances and all. In the entire state of California there is no saloon with a clientele so reckless and depraved that the law will avert its eyes and permit them to take the insane risk of drinking a beer in a building occupied by a person who might smoke a cigarette. Contemporary vacationers will be scandalized to learn that in Frank Sinatra’s heyday, diving boards were standard equipment at the swimming pools of the glittering hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. Even three-metre-high boards! The curse was lifted, thanks to a well-grounded fear of personal-injury lawyers, and the Strip today is proudly board-free. After all, someone might get hurt. Against that prospect, who would argue for the freedom to attempt a back flip in the gambling capital of the world? We’d sacrifice the right to choose what foods to put in our mouths if only the dieticians would settle long enough on which ones are safest for the bills to be pushed through our state

legislatures. Sugar or Saccharine? Margarine or butter? Wine or abstinence? Meat or no? There are germs on our kitchen counters that appear under ultraviolet light!

Something we’re ingesting is bound to prevent us from dragging out our worried lives for a full 90 years. Please, God, won’t the food scientists tell us once and for all what it is? Small wonder if Osama bin Laden expected the entire American edifice to collapse along with the New York towers the moment he showed us something genuinely scary. We gave him every reason to believe it would. How much freedom would Americans surrender to ease their fear? All of it. Take it! We’re afraid of it anyway. It is fashionable to remark that America “lost its innocence” on September 11th. This is balderdash. Our innocence is too deep and intractable for that. The thing we’ve really lost doesn’t even deserve the name of bravery. We’ve lost the ability to come to grips with the simple fact that life is not a safe proposition—that life will kill us all by and by, regardless. And as a society, we’ve just about lost the sense that until life does kill us, there are values aside from brute longevity that can shape the way we choose to live. The modern American attitude toward risk was captured perfectly 16 years ago in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle debacle. On January 28th 1986, a New Hampshire schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, and six other crew members were vaporised when Challenger exploded 74 seconds after lift-off from Cape Canaveral. The commentary leading up to the launch had been full of admiration for the death-defying heroism of “the first average American in space” and her comrades. But the national mourning period that followed the blast was characterised far less by grief than by astonishment and recrimination. Commentators and citizens alike were shocked—shocked—to learn that the bold adventure was, in fact, unsafe. Who was responsible for this outrage? Who made the faulty O-ring? Who killed Christa? It was as if the entire nation saw the fireball but nobody had so much as glanced at the space shuttle itself. The thing was then, and is now, a Rube Goldberg contraption of breathtaking audacity. It’s an airplane clamped onto the side of a highly explosive booster rocket, as if with a rubber band. What did we think the talk of bravery had been about? The shuttle is—or should be—a visceral reminder of a time when the term “American” was likely to describe a person who crossed the Atlantic in a leaky wooden boat, then climbed into a rickety wagon and drove it west across 2,000 miles or so of hostile and unforgiving ground until he either died or found a place to drop a plough. And who did all this even though, from a safety standpoint, the whole enterprise should have been illegal. The 1986-model American turned out to be a naïf rattled to his core by the discovery that an apparatus sponsored by his government, no matter how jury-rigged its appearance or how daring its avowed purpose, might be genuinely dangerous. By 2001, we’d had another 15 years to practice the arts of denial. The commentators and the portents all agreed that sooner or later, foreign terrorists would strike dramatically on American soil. But who could have guessed they might actually bring it off? Something clearly must be done, and if the first suggestion is to surrender to the nearest authorities any certificates of freedom that might be required—well, we’ve had plenty of practice at that, too. Safety is a fine thing, but as an obsession it rots the soul. If I should live to be 90, and I am called upon to attest to the other nursing-home residents that my life was about something racier than guessing right on the butter-v-margarine conundrum, I will speak of that thunderstorm on Lake Superior. I’ll describe the touch-and-go struggle to keep the boat pointed just enough off the wind to maintain headway, and the jackhammer pounding of a madly luffing mainsail trying to

spill a 75-knot gale. I’ll talk about the way we huddled in the cockpit with our eyes rigidly forward because looking aft would mean another lightning-illuminated glimpse of the dinghy we towed, risen completely out of the water and twirling like a propeller on the end of its line. Pleasant though many of them were, with the cheese and crackers and such, I doubt I’ll have much to say about the hours I spent on Superior with the sails furled, motoring in perfect safety through flat water and dead air.

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