Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Right To Swing Your Fist Ends At My Nose

Neil Gaiman, writer of the most sublimely frightening fiction, was asked recently what scared him. His answer is illuminating and thought provoking:
The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It's like the feeling, sometimes, that you'd start talking to people and you're going, "I don't know if what you're saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don't know. And you're walking around being haunted by dead ideas... Look around and see where you are today." I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.
 A lot of the ideas bedeviling America these days are like that. They've died everywhere else in the world but the U.S. is like a haunted forest. And like the ghosts of a good story some of them look just like they did in life and others appear as horribly corrupted versions of themselves.

One of the most dangerous of those ideas is "rugged individuality"; the idea that, despite John Donne, every man is an island. It is manifested in so many ways in modern America. As just one example, there has been a lot of news recently about the return of whooping cough. Is it some new strain rising from the miasma of the third world for which we have no vaccine? No. It's been traced to the increasing numbers of unvaccinated American kids whose parents don't "believe" in vaccination.

Public policy should prohibit the current exemptions that allow these children to attend school. There they mix with the general population of children who are a) vaccinated (but no vaccine can be 100% effective), b) cannot be vaccinated because of medical issues, or - most shameful - c) unvaccinated because they and their families have no access to affordable health care. I cannot imagine how it could be in any sane definition of "freedom of choice" or "free will" for parents to be able to deny their children life-saving medicine. And what choice did the children have in being left defenseless against preventable diseases?

The point being that the parents' "choice" is now affecting you and me. To the point of this post's title, choosing to endanger the rest of the us is swinging their fist so that it makes contact with my nose.

Such magical ideas - that whatever choices one makes have no consequences beyond themselves - should have long ago died out. Instead they have become the centerpiece of so much thought in the US.

Think of the reaction to trying to regulate the pollution poured out into our air by industry. Think of the reaction to regulating gun ownership (only a gun without bullets cannot reach beyond the owner's reach). Think of getting the neighborhood guy with all the rusting vehicles in his yard, leaching chemicals into the groundwater (which winds up in the local pond or your drinking water), to clean up his mess.

Perhaps, at some point in the far past, this idea of "rugged individualism" was tenable. But no more. Not with 7 billion people on this one, small world. All of us who have to breathe the same air, drink the same water, live on the same land. It is an old idea, whose time to die is long past, but which continues to haunt us.

In future posts - maybe - I will discuss some of the other ideas that should have died out but hang on to haunt the modern world.