It Was Easy (2016Jun23)

Thursday, June 23, 2016                                          4:33 PM

We had it easy—our biggest worry, back in the day, was the commies shooting off their ICBMs and making a crater of the globe (with the help of our retaliatory strikes, of course). But it was called MAD for two reasons—the obvious acronym, Mutually-Assured Destruction—but also because it was literally madness even to contemplate—and everyone knew it. We could worry about a madman getting hold of a bomb and starting something that would quickly get out of hand—but that was a long shot, mentioned mostly in novels of the ‘thriller’ variety. And no one seriously expected our governments to find any rational use for their nuclear arsenals—MAD, remember? Purely defensive, or so we would have it—don’t start none, won’t be none.

We didn’t worry about the environment—most of the pollution, and all of the data, would come later. Rachel Carson had made an iron-clad research project out of proving that the American Bald Eagle and other birds were endangered by the use of DDT as a pesticide, which caused egg-shell thinning and premature hatching. But we all took “Silent Spring” as a special case, a one-off complication. We were still fine with lead paint and asbestos insulation. Even the ecologically-minded were unaware of the build-up of consequences our civilization was beginning to have on our environment, and on ourselves.

We didn’t worry about energy—gas was pennies to the gallon—‘cruising’, the act of driving one’s car around just for fun, was a popular tradition among American teens—we wouldn’t have our first gas shortage until 1976. And even as we worried over OPECs surprising stranglehold on oil production, our concern was mainly over reliable supply-lines and the economic implications of foreign-oil dependence. Catalytic converters were invented only to reduce smog in crowded, car-choked cities—we were still decades away from any concerns over carbon-footprints and greenhouse gasses.

We didn’t worry about recycling—the first recycling drives were reliant on the need to do something with all the garbage—we were busy picking up trash along the highways or vacant lots and it all had to go somewhere. Lots of it was bottles and cans—and so a push began to make them all deposit-return containers—to compensate the collectors. Recycling as a concept, as a way to mitigate against runaway consumption, came later.

We were focused on trying to “Make America Beautiful”. At the time, it was considered more important to raise the fines and enforce the laws against littering—doing something with all that trash that used to line the highways came much later. I can still remember a time when, on family trips, the end of a fast-food meal was the act of jettisoning all the trash out the car window, at speed. Nor did we have to undo our seatbelts to do it—nobody wore those things. Of course, without them, or a speed limit, Americans on the highways were dropping like flies. Today’s highway fatalities, while still the number four killer, are nothing compared to our old stats—today’s roads are baby-proofed in comparison.

We had worries—sure. But we trusted our leaders. We thought the world too big to be vulnerable to our industry. We thought that faraway people who hated the USA only affected our travel plans, not our national security. Everyone watched the same TV shows—everyone listened to the same radio stations—we were connected as a culture. And we still felt that oppressing women and minorities and the disabled was just the way of the world—and being gay was still the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. It wasn’t right—but boy, was it simpler. The fine judgments of the politically correct were still decades away—on the other hand, we didn’t laugh at its complexity yet, either. We were still busy trying to laugh it off, deride it back into invisibility.

Part of our difficulty with the present is that our many problems, and our social progress, contribute equally to the growing complexity of life. Complexity is a big problem. You give everyone a computer network that they can carry in their pocket and what do they do with it? Well, some of us plan trips to Mars, sure—but most of us use it to meet for drinks or play games. You offer greater complexity to the human race and only a few will dive in—the rest will look for the ‘easy’ exit, like Twitter, Snapchat, or Angry Birds.

Complexity is a deceptive indicator—we don’t want our problems to become more complex, but we are okay with the needs of social justice making our interaction more complex. Well, perhaps we’re not ‘okay’ with it, not all of us, certainly—but we accept its inevitability. It stands to reason that making sure we override our assumptions, forcing the equality of persons who may have never enjoyed equal status—is a complex process. The political correctness of our speech is nothing compared to the complexities of legislating equal rights, not to mention enforcing that legislation. And all of this is working against the inertia of generations of handed-down bias and hate.

Certainly it would be easier to get rid of all that hate—then we wouldn’t need to legislate social justice. But some things need to be brought out in the open—people can be childishly secretive, especially when their hearts tell them there’s something not quite right about their behavior. Domestic abuse, child abuse, corporal punishment—these things are still problems that trouble us—but the numbers are way down. Not so long ago, beating your spouse or your children—that was a personal decision you made behind the privacy of your own front door. And if things got bad enough that the authorities became involved, they turned a blind eye to whatever madness the head-of-the-household was indulging in. Now it is recognized as the felony it always should have been—and for the most part is treated that way (though pockets of ignorance persist).

My point is that if such obvious evil has traditionally been hugged to the patriarchs’ bosoms throughout most of history—if denying them that outrageousness is so relatively new—then we can see how much more difficult it is to try to limit prejudice and bias (merely mental violence) in our daily lives. The fact that some people ridicule political correctness just demonstrates how small they see that evil as being. They target the most progressive view possible, which admittedly can often have paradoxes and growing pains from being so new a concept—and deride the least thought-out aspects of it, as if that negated the value of social justice itself. Niggling whiners—they cherry-pick the weakest faults of the new, yet have beams in their eyes when it comes to the monstrous faults of the familiar, old ways.

Evil has time on its side—and tradition. Human civilization grows like a goat-path, retaining every kink and twist of its caveman days—the push for social justice is an attempt to straighten some of those pathways. And not only because it is right—though it is justice we seek—but also because society is more efficient when it affords choice and opportunity to every individual, when the weak are not oppressed by the powerful.

Human nature is on the side of evil—we are naturally greedy, selfish, and demanding creatures. The history of legislation is the history of people trying to outmaneuver the rules—so of course it becomes very complicated. Everyone has got an excuse why they should be exempt from the sacrifices implicit in fairness. Even those who benefit from new legislation will sometimes seek ways to get more than their fair share of opportunity. We are none of us saints—even the downtrodden have urges. Make a rule, any rule—and you’ll find you need to make five more, to modify the first—then ten more, to modify the other five.

In truth, legislation only enables the bare bones of justice—it is only when our culture has absorbed the spirit of the law and begun to live in that spirit, that the rules work properly—and, ironically, that’s when the rules become extraneous, their job completed. Take seat belts—people began using them to avoid getting a ticket—now they do it for safety, and teach their children to use them, too.

Even seat belts have their complexity. At the advent of seat-belt legislation, many complained that wearing the original lap-belt was as likely to cause harm as prevent it. The head rest and the shoulder strap were added, which made seat belts effective safety measures under virtually any conditions. It wasn’t until after these improvements that seat belt legislation could be enforced (because the cops could see the shoulder strap)—but it also made wearing seat belts the sensible thing to do.

Yes, everything was easier in the old days—but not better. We often yearn for simpler times—but they were simpler because they were dumber—we were dumber. Nobody used to use a keyboard—except stenos, secretaries, bookkeepers, and keyboard players—we wrote things down with a pencil—and if we needed two copies, we wrote it down twice. Nobody knew how to connect up wires on appliances—if appliances needed wires, they came with—or an expert installed them. Now toddlers hook up their own video game consoles. People used to disappear from our lives forever—just by moving far away. If you really wanted to, you could write them a letter (with your pencil), glue a stamp on it—and a bunch of people would pass it back and forth until it ended up in a mailbox. Imagine. You can still do that, you know—I wonder if anyone does?

We didn’t worry about climate change—oh, it was happening—we just didn’t have a bunch of satellites collecting sensor readings on the atmosphere over years of time—or recording time-lapse proof of the shrinking of the polar ice and the glaciers. All of that information is very new—which is why backward-looking folks can pretend it isn’t real. Old folks call it new-fangled—but new-fangled information is still data—it won’t go away—we can never go back. Yet it’s hard to blame them for trying—I’d like to go cruising again, myself.

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