Rusty wire and the wild ponies

by Carl Dyke

This is how Rachel described her childhood, in contrast to an article she was reading in the Funny Times (because it’s pretty funny) about how American pediatricians are trying to get warning labels on hot dogs because they’re a dangerous food. They’re dangerous because about ten kids a year choke on them and die, which is of course ten too many but makes any given kid choking on a hot dog and dying about a 1:6,000,000,000 shot. It’s sort of an amazing thing to think we need to take comprehensive positive steps to head off this danger, as compared to the subsistence farm where Rachel grew up at which rusty wire was unavoidably abundant and unsurprisingly devoid of warning labels. And the only ponies that could be afforded were the wild ones, and one of the first things she remembers is learning by trial-and-error how not to get kicked in the head by them.

Of course a decline-of-our-civilization-from-its-rugged-can-do-origins narrative would be easy here, as would a progress story about how much relatively safer our precious little darlings are. These are both pleasant affirmations of a worldview. And of course if we’re willing not to leap to judgment it’s more complicated than that. I’m reminded for example of JohnM’s comment awhile back remembering “an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” What, weren’t these children being abused? Clearly understanding only happens here when judgment is suspended and practices are examined in relation to situations, not preconceived ideals.

This came together with something I just skimmed on Slawkenbergius’ recommendation, Eva Illouz’s Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Eva suggests that “[t]he point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” Obviously I agree with this, and very well put.

But then in turn this came together with Dave Mazella’s great comment just now on the last post talking about how ‘hegemony’ is a “slippy-slidey concept… that… leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated ‘cultural studies.’ But that’s for another post,” which would be this one. Dave points to the danger of judgment, and perhaps more importantly action, indefinitely deferred. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx told us, and after several thousand years of philosophy who could disagree. Or as Erskine Bowles said recently, reflecting on his transition from finance and politics to academe as President of the University of North Carolina, “I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim.” C’mon ya eggheads, fire already!

Weber provides one answer. The ethics of the scientist and of the politician are different: it’s the scientist’s job to get knowledge right, the politician’s to act in pursuit of ultimate ends. Mixing those tasks just makes the scientist unreliable and confounds the politician in detail and nuance. Nor is knowledge an adequate guide to action; as Durkheim said (in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “[s]cience is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.” Still, more and more reliable knowledge is better than less and less reliable knowledge, no? And Orwell, Huxley, Hitler and Stalin showed us what happens when understanding is simply subordinated to politics, be they public or personal. Along those lines another option is the pragmatic tolerance and decency Rorty arrives at as the best way to love both Trotsky and the wild orchids.

Rachel points out, correctly, that the contemporary media-saturated world is a more immediately scary place than it used to be. A kid chokes on a hot dog in Dubuque and in minutes it’s right there on your news feed, as if it happened next door. But it’s not like the older world was less dangerous – rusty wire and wild ponies will kill you dead, and everyone knows it. What’s different now is that people apparently think it’s actually possible to intercept every possible danger. They don’t think their kids are going to end up stranded on an ice floe; the preciouses don’t need to be exposed to peril to toughen them up and make them resourceful in contingencies. Fate plays no part in our world. Hot dogs may be scary, but they’re finite and pragmatically manageable in a way that Satan, symbol of infinite jeopardy, never was.

3 Comments to “Rusty wire and the wild ponies”

  1. Great post, Carl. Sorry to be sluggish in replying. I have finally started writing up my current research and am trying to make a point to spend a couple of hours on that every day before I get tempted in other directions.

    But, enough of excuses. Your comments remind me of a thread now unraveling on Anthro-L. The basic question is why the U.S. is building these huge Fortress America embassies in Iraq and other places all around the world. One cynical answer is, of course, that they make a hell of a lot of money for the likes of Bechtel and Halliburton. But turning to the structures of feeling that win support for these projects, I’ve suggested a look at the deadly combination of desire for total security (the link to this thread) with the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. Put them together and Fortress America (facing outward) and Nanny State (facing inward) look inevitable to me. What do you think?

  2. Congratulations, John, and my compliments! You just described the procedure that actually got me a written dissertation after years of stalling. Maybe if you get especially pithy bits you could post them?

    I like your analysis of Fortress America and I agree it’s right on point. What’s interesting in American politics is how, as Lakoff diagnosed, that outward/inward government Janus splits pretty cleanly into conservative/liberal. So my liberal friends are baffled into paralyzing apoplexy by “hypocritical” conservos who say they want small gov’t but then sign a blank check for defense, while my conservative friends have a great deal of trouble taking liberals seriously as functioning adults when they want warning labels on hot dogs. In each case I think there’s a theory of risk and risk management: both ‘sides’ selectively perceive a set of risks too large, diffuse or mysterious to be managed by individuals, give those to the government to handle, and assign everything else either to individual discretion or ‘facts about the world’. But in each case, as you say, what’s currently shared is a notion that application of attention and effort can actually make all risk manageable, leading precisely to Fortress America + Nanny State as our politics oscillate between the two poles.

  3. Speaking of the Nanny State, I was just reading an article in Newsweek, which ironically I get because I contribute to NPR, in which the author links the autism/vaccine anxiety and preference for parental ‘intuition’ over scientific consensus to affluent, well-educated progressives who, in some sense, should know better. It turns out vaccination rates are way down in places like Marin, for example. Well for one thing, a little knowledge about science is a dangerous thing because the process of discovery is pretty lumpy and findings are generally provisional; if what you want is certainty, beliefs of various kinds are much more satisfying. But having lived and socialized with those Marin types for many years, I note that they’re the folks who bring us herbal teas, coffee-ground enemas, free-radical detoxification and a whole apothecary of the like. They drive the lifestyle up-market for Prii and organic foods and natural fibers. In short, they’re obsessed with pollution, in a generalized sense that alights easily on particular agents of threat to an imagined pure, natural state. Sometimes they’re even right.

    For them the greedy corporations are the agent of threat, just like for conservatives rogue states and terrorists are the agents of threat. And like conservatives, who take their part of responsibility for addressing the problem (about which they are sometimes right) by keeping guns on hand, these progressives use every personal means at their disposal to shield themselves and others from peril; but of course getting the government to help is just a logical extension of this responsibility.

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