"It [government] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
Getting Over the Wall
When I was in high school, our class went on a retreat to a camp in the woods. The idea was for all of us to get to know each other, build up our relationships outside the academic environment, blah blah blah. We did the standard group activities, including the 'trust fall.' This is the ice-breaker in which everybody locks hands with a partner, and then each couple stands shoulder-to-shoulder with another couple. With the rest of the class so arranged, a person climbs up on a ledge and falls backward onto the interlocked arms of his classmates. (On our visit to the camp, the unthinkable actually happened: The kids near the front weren't paying attention when a particularly heavy student 'trusted' them, and he went right through their arms and onto the ground. At least they somewhat broke his fall.)
But the event that I remember most clearly was the one in which the whole class had to get over a giant wall. I don't remember how high it was, but it was pretty high. There were no ropes or (as I recall) any crevices in the wall, making it impossible to climb. And the trick was, once someone went over and climbed down, he or she couldn't help the others get over.
Now what happened (and this was the whole point) was that immediately 'the class' started debating how we were going to accomplish this difficult feat. But as you can expect, really what this meant was that the popular boys started arguing among themselves, with occasional input from some others (maybe a pretty girl here or there would suggest something). It wasn't too hard to get the thing going; some of the football players pushed a strong yet light guy up, as I recall. But the problem was, how were we going to get the last few people over? In other words, as more and more people went up the chain and were hoisted over by the strong guys remaining on top, the class needed to start thinking carefully about our 'exit strategy.' If we sent over the wrong people at the wrong time, then we'd be stuck with a group of people at the end making completion of the task impossible.
Now as you can imagine, there was another group besides the popular boys and the sheep who did whatever they said. I'm talking about the group composed of cynics like me, who stayed off to the side and surveyed the unfolding scene with amusement and disgust. We remarked to ourselves how the people running the show were morons, and how the class ought to do things if it wanted to be smart about it. We were all quite confident that, due to the idiots in charge who couldn't see the problems looming five steps ahead, the class would fail to get everyone over the wall.
At one point, one of the camp administrators came over and asked us why we were so aloof. One of us explained that the others were just being stupid, because of reasons XYZ. Of course, the administrator said, 'Well then why don't you guys go explain the problem? You don't want the class to fail, do you?' Naturally, we answered, 'Because even if we tried, they wouldn't listen to us.'
* * *
It recently occurred to me that this episode typified the rest of my life. Whether it's in politics, economics, or even evolutionary biology, I'm usually standing off to the side with my fellow outcasts, laughing at the 'idiots in charge.' Those of us in our little cynical group can see so clearly the ignorance of the conventional wisdom, and it's so obvious that the current trends will lead to disaster. And yet, just like in high school, most of us don't even bother trying to convince the sheep (let alone the people in charge), because we think nobody will listen to us.
I think we need to change our attitude. Even though we might be correct in our pessimism, we still have to try. We can't simply assume that the average person will be incapable of understanding, say, our warnings about the lack of an 'exit strategy' from the Middle East . As clich'd and touchy-feely as the whole exercise was, the administrator had a point: Didn't we want the class to succeed?
And so I would pose the same question to those of you who also find yourself standing off to the side: Don't you want our society (or country, or world, or family) to succeed? After all, if the U.S. goes the way of Rome , it will be much worse than failing to get the class over a wall.
Oh, I should mention one more thing that I think is entirely relevant: Even though we dissenters were perfectly correct in our complaints'even though the plan on which the popular kids settled was flawed and failed to take into account all relevant factors'it ended up working. That is, everyone in the class managed to get over that damned wall. If I remember correctly, what happened was that a really athletic kid was able to run and jump up, grabbing the legs of someone who had been hanging from the top. This surprised me (as well as the other cynics); we didn't realize he had that ability.
I think there's a lesson even in that aspect of the story. We cynics need to recognize that things are not as bad as our complaints would often suggest. For example: Yes, the Republicans are a bunch of killers. However, they're not as bad as the Nazis, and so certain antiwar activists need to tone down their rhetoric.
We will be powerless to change the course of events unless we get the great mass of gullible citizens to realize the flaws in The Great Plans cooked up by the people who win popularity contests (i.e. elected politicians). And the only way to do this is to tell them the flaws; they won't see them on their own. Last, when we do tell them, let's try and be polite. After all, if you've been helping push people up a wall for 30 minutes, the last thing you want is a sarcastic lecture from the elitists standing off to the side.