Character Building and Long-Distance Codes
by Daniel M. Ryan
by Daniel M. Ryan
I live in a basement flat in my parent's home, and have recently found cause for self-embarrassment. There is a family of raccoons which come and go as they please in the yards on our street; whenever I see them, I stand back from them, and let them do what they want.
My parents also have a dog, a purebred Shetland sheepdog named Phil. As soon as he saw two of the raccoons on the fence, he leapt right at the nearest one and began barking his head off. They stayed on the fence and turned tail up a nearby tree. I had to content myself with the thought that I'm less brave than a thirty-pound dog, one who another dog in the same weight class finds fairly easy to shove around.
It seems like I'm somewhat of a milquetoast, right? That I'm scared of a small risk of rabies, or that I don't have enough of an eye to tell a healthy raccoon from a diseased one? Or that I'm simply afraid of the risk of a little pain? Or that I simply don't know what a trap is, or how to use one?
I'm glad to disclose that the answer to all of these questions is "no." What got the dog looking braver than me is the existence of a municipal by-law, which makes any human who gets rid of one of those creatures, even through a trap, liable for a fine. If I take matters into my own hands, I become an outlaw.
This anecdote means little in and of itself. That family of raccoons, in and of itself, is not that much of a nuisance, and they do make the neighborhood somewhat picturesque. It isn't that hard to live with them; the only real inconvenience is the need to put out the garbage early in the morning rather than late the previous night. It seems a bit of an imaginative stretch to tie a by-law that isn't really hard to comply with to the much bigger embarrassment recently suffered by the Government of Canada when the logistics for a rescue plan to get Canadian citizens out of Lebanon went egregiously awry. It's the closest government-co-ordinated incident Canada has to the FEMA-overseen mess in New Orleans last year. What kind of connection could there be between the two incidents?
A subtle one, but one very definite. It can be identified through the use of George Will's maxim "Statecraft As Soulcraft," the title of his 1983 book, one written while he was a professor at the university I later went to, the University of Toronto. A few details from the more rural-based part of my upbringing will help make the connection evident.
I was allowed some latitude for judgement as a lad, but at the cost of my having to suffer some embarrassment, and the occasional physical hurt, through my own lapses of judgement. There were those lapses on my part, perhaps more than most because I am most suited for intellectual work. As a result, I do have a recurring case of "scholar's blindness" that does affect my performance more than my myopia, and the resultant lack of co-ordination between my glasses-corrected straight vision and my uncorrected peripheral vision, does. An earlier judgement lapse of mine resulted in a scar I still have. As the result of my too-enthusiastic attack on a branch pile with a suede saw, I managed to put a small slice on my left thumb's knuckle at the age of ten. Rather than setting up a lobby group, though, my father took a much more common-sensical approach: since I was the accident-prone one, I wasn't trusted with jobs with more responsibility than unskilled labor chores. My brother, being more sensible in his use of tools, got the skilled work.
This is character-building, as administered from father to son, in miniature: if Junior shows behavior that is less than sensible, then Junior is handed less responsibility. If Junior shows the requisite level of responsibility, then he gets the added responsibilities. So, if Junior wants a favored place, then Junior has to get on the ball; if Junior prefers not to get with it, or can't, then Junior doesn't get the favored place. This kind of easy, quick, and easy-to-justify style of rearing ties reward to performance. Almost instantaneously.
Lest anyone begin to think that I was raised in a manner consistent with seventeenth-century mores — being raised in a shop-home — there were some privileges which went with a sensible head, with the correspondent withdrawal of them being the "punishment" rated for not using one's head. This kind of discipline ties performance to the Law of Causality.
The first time I ever drove a snowmobile, I was seven; it was on a frozen lake. The next time I drove one, I was eight; it was on our rural-length driveway. Due to my ineptness in steering and somewhat wish-prone character at the time, I drove the (bottom-of-the-line in terms of power) snowmobile into a small tree. Needless to say, the third time I drove one was when I was ten — and I drove it ve-r-r-y slowly the few times I did so that year. No-one needed to tell me to do the last.
This three-season do-si-do was the result of experiencing the effect of my own behavior. The more indirect result of it was a kind of physical caution whose effect was that I never had a broken limb until the age of thirty-five, with the possible exception of a greenstick in my left pinky — I say "possibly" because I didn't bother to get it looked at. This reticence when it came to seeing the doctor, one which used to be known as being public-spirited with respect to public health care, is actually an aftereffect of having to pay for medical service back in the old private-care days. This kind of "public-spiritedness," needless to say, is long gone, as its source-spring has vanished from memory.
My brother was always the one who was more physically dexterous. Unlike me, his first display of boyish exuberance came off well, except when our parents found out about it. Our family got a steel rowboat, first with an antique 10 hp. outboard with a stick throttle and later with a 20hp. outboard engine with the same kind of throttle, in the mid-to-late 1970s. At the age of eight or so, my brother decided to give it a try by tooling around the boathouse while sitting on the outboard itself, with me in the middle seat keeping an eye on him. This stunt of his went down all right; no-one got hurt. A neighbor spotted it, though, which got my brother a bit of a talking-to. Lest you think that getting a child's boat implied that we were scions of privilege, I can relate, though experience, that it did double as a work boat. The rules of the lake were easy for me to learn thanks to a brochure of my father's, and breaking them didn't seem daring but stupid. Like the typical good rule, the consequences of breaking those were all-but self-evident. As a result, neither of us showed any resentment at learning to drive a car in accordance with driving regulations.
My brother and I were not at the top of the status-symbol pecking order in the locale; several kids around my age rated full-scale pleasure boats when I was about 11 or so. Any consequent shame, though, was easy to deal with, or to plan to deal with. There was the option of saving for a small pleasure boat of my own, made possible through me having a paper route since the age of ten, or there was the option of jazzing up what I had, which is what I pursued. An old car AM radio (a Blaupunkt hand-me-down) with a motorcycle battery was added to the old tub. Radios, after all, don't run without electricity.
When it came to summer-weather gas-powered land machines smaller than cars, my brother and I were not the most advanced for our age in the neighborhood. Two neighbor boys, brothers and friends of ours, got a dirt bike between them at about the ages of twelve and ten or so. Since they handled it without the maladroitness I myself had showed with respect to the snowmobile, they got one small, and low-powered, motorcycle for each the next summer. The first gas-powered all-season land vehicle I myself got to drive was a three-wheel all-terrain'er which arrived not long after my own thirteenth birthday, but my brother was the first of us two to drive it, thanks to my own demonstrated inexpertness with machines. A four-wheeler was added in 1984 to both the three-wheeler and a hauling trailer which got regular, if seasonal, use. It made transferring dirt and logs more convenient than a wheelbarrow did, I must admit. It also served well for night transportation to and from the inevitable later experiments with alcohol. When it came to supply acquisition, I myself used brass (worked since the age of sixteen) but one of my brother's close friends, the younger of the motorcycle brothers, showed a little more forethought in the matter.
The potential for humiliation did come with this style of rearing: just as there are physical risks, there are social risks, which sometimes resulted in embarrassment, enshamement, and occasionally tears. Having been molded to see rules as following from consequences, though, I found that these humiliations were relatively easy to get over, to shrug off.
I was raised in an age of transition. An older person would see that part of the rearing I had, given my later avocation for matters intellectual and my (younger) brother's demonstrated competence in matters physical relative to what I could muster, as making for a sad and mope-prone kid. The average person much younger than me would only see two born risk-takers.
Those of you in the latter category should know why your own assessment would jar so profoundly with those of your typical elders. It is the result of statist liberals' answer to the statist conservatives' War on Drugs: the War Against Risk-Taking, or the War on Risks. This "moral equivalent of war" was waged against activities that carried the hazard of injury, whether or not such hazards could be self-regulated through the exercise of good judgement. As a result, this "war" resulted in a lot of collateral damage, damage which was subtle and not easily seen, but which makes itself very evident when disasters, such as the Katrina hurricane (and, for Canada, the somewhat botched boat-lift in Lebanon) visit the human race. Through molding the soul to be rule-following but passive, through enactment of laws which refuse to allow scope for development of initiative, this kind of liberal, as a group, has tied law-abidingness to wreckage, or atrophy, of everyday initiative. As a corollary, cultivation of initiative is tied with living under the shadow of laws, with the effect of making such cultivation tied to a third kind of risk, over and above physical and social risk: legal risk.
It should be of little surprise that laws which have made most of the character-forming experiences I've disclosed above illegal will be treated by those, who want their kids to be raised with the same kind of sound sense they themselves have, as if those laws were speed limits and nothing more — as more of a tax than an infraction. This is the inevitable result of a certain kind of statecraft whose goal is a certain kind of soulcraft: to put the passive on an "equal footing" with the initiative-prone. The result is a dearth of initiative and surfeits of passivity, which both of the above emergencies have made very plain to the TV-watching eye.
Remember well those good, passive souls in (though not necessarily of) New Orleans. Look long upon the disorganized rescue attempt by the Government of Canada in Lebanon with a hapless Prime Minister trying to make things right through doing what he can alone. They are the logical products of the War on Risks. They are the analog to the "clean and sober" person who is the product of the War on Drugs. Since the War-on-Risks liberal is as stubborn a fellow as the War-on-Drugs conservative, those two kinds of people are the future, at least that part of the future that is available to outside view.
Remember too that the ones who will be expected to pick up the burden of risk-taking will have to develop that skill somehow. How else but in the back woods, out of the sight of the law and of "the public"? The War on Risks leaves them no other choice — no other choice than to develop practical smarts in tandem with the skill of dodging the cops. Better get used to it, and to the indirect consequences of it.
And, for those of you who have found risky excitement in skateboarding, roller-blading, dirtbiking, etc., enjoy it as much as you can...for as long as the legality of them lasts. Logic informs me that your activities are on the way out. (Did you remember your safety equipment?...)
July 21, 2006
Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] lives in Canada — is a Canadian who is living in the same city that the shadows of his four ancestral predecessors live in. He is currently working on a book on Objectivism and is occasionally helping out his father.
Copyright © 2006 LewRockwell.com