There is a scene in one of Leo Frankowski’s Cross-Time Engineer series in which his main character – a time-displaced engineer trying to prepare Poland for the Mongol onslaught – comes across a rampaging Mongol party and a bunch of merchants.
In this scene, the Mongols order the merchants to kneel and present necks. And then start beheading them.
Frankowski’s character intervenes and slaughters the raiding party of Mongols, saving the merchants, then asks the merchants why they obeyed the order to kneel, knowing they’d be slaughtered. “Because otherwise, they’d do something worse,” the merchants say.
I think of that scene every time I’m in Europe and dealing with the “local style” — or even here — interacting with the kind of government bureaucracy that expects us to kneel and present our necks.
By and large here it’s not advanced to the point of making us fully helpless, unless it’s in specialized areas and circumstances, like say New Orleans after Katrina.
Remember this is the civilization that conquered most of the world. And yet, they will passively suffer abuse at the hands of “their betters” in the fear that if they do anything worse will befall them.
Eventually this settles into a sort of low-grade malaise, the feeling that you can’t do anything on your own without the help and direction of those “who know.”
I’m used to this in Portugal, where half of my – admittedly often impatient – suggestions to deal with this or that get met with “It’s not how it’s done” or “you can’t take it in your own hands” or “but the experts say.”
For instance, last time I was there I found that instead of upgrading the outdated electrical supply to the village, a supply so inadequate that it gifted us with brownouts every summer in a society with no air-conditioning or heating in most houses (so presumably the electrical supply crashed because it was warmer and people stayed up later with lamps on) the authorities were going house to house and changing the electrical board. Changing? Oh, no, limiting how much electricity you could get. In my parents’ house we quickly found out we could short the entire board by turning on a fan while mom was ironing. Or causing the electrical water heater to go on while we had more than two lamps on.
I’m not exactly sure what that kind of limiter on electrical usage would do in the U.S. Oh, sure, you’d get half a dozen people who’d go along with it. Most of my fans – you know who you are – would pretend to go along with it, and then defeat the limitations in various ways. And a not inconsiderable number of people would be up in arms, and possibly very short of literally up in arms. In Portugal, this was met with “we have to do it to prevent global warming.”
Now they might believe in anthropogenic global warming more than we do. Not only is the society more stratified and traditional, but their press is still more controlled, and the miracle of a few guys in their pajamas reporting the news hasn’t happened. But I don’t think so. Not really. They are not stupid. It’s just that faced with the prospect of what a government that controls practically everything, they decide not to fight for fear of what the government might do to them.
I’d forgotten how much the rest of Europe was also like this. I haven’t traveled through the rest of Europe in long enough that the last time I did it was with a Eurorail student pass, and we still needed passports at every border crossing. Also, back then my experience of the U.S. was limited, so it was a matter of having no room for comparison.
But the trip to France was enlightening, or more precisely the trip back.
On the train from Nice to Paris, a six-hour journey, it became apparent that our carriage had no air conditioning. Even though the outside temperature was in the sixties, the (first class, and expensive) carriage was completely sealed. You couldn’t open the windows, the doors sealed. And the sun shone. We were soon in the upper nineties and climbing.
I got up and with my limited French confidence (I used to be fluent in French, but it’s been 30 years, so I find myself thinking I don’t know the right word, even when I do) managed to corner some women about my age who were discussing it at the end of the carriage. They said the carriage had no air conditioning, this was a known problem and they weren’t going to do anything about it.
There were several elderly ladies in the carriage who looked like they were getting ill.
I don’t remember whether it was my husband or I who found this out, but we discovered that if one of us stationed himself at each end of the carriage and bodily prevented the doors from closing, we got some air circulation and lowered the temperature by a good 10 degrees, too uncomfortable but not baking.
For a while we did that, then we discovered that pressing the button would keep the door open for a few minutes, so we could return to our seats. Our seats were in the middle of the carriage. The carriage was packed. People agreed that the air flow made the carriage cooler. Yet, Dan or I had to keep getting up to press the button.
Finally the continuous opening of the doors (I think) triggered some alarm, the conductor came and I yelled at him (I’m fairly sure it was me and not husband, who, as usual when I go “excitable Latin” stands by with the stolid look that says “do whatever she’s telling you to, or I let her do whatever she wants.”) and he disabled the doors closing. He also told us we could not move because the train was sold out, and that it was known that air conditioning didn’t work in this carriage. He also gave us two bottles of free water a person.
Guys, here, even Frontier (which admittedly is not a government entity while I suspect the Chemins de Fer is) would feel forced to give you at the very least free unlimited ice cream, or at least ice, and perhaps fans, and almost certainly comp part of your passage. It’s likely even United would do that.
But the best part came during my “extra security” interview in the airport, where the nice, genial, skilled-at-his-job interviewer told us it was our duty to complain because maybe it would affect some change. Otherwise, of course, they would do nothing, and he himself had endured that trip in the defective carriage many times.
Pause and think about it for a minute. This is an official in a governmental department, and he’s imploring foreigners to complain so that what anyone would consider an intolerable situation in his own country will be fixed.
It made me think of nothing so much as P. J. O’Rourke’s assertion in one of his books that half of what was wrong behind the Iron Curtain could be fixed with a bottle of all-purpose cleaner, a roll of paper towels, and an American to use them both.
I’ve been in situations like what he described – an unbelievably dirty public accommodation of some sort – and been, metaphorically speaking, the American with the all-purpose cleaner.
Most of the time it gets me a look of complete shock from the natives. Often they all agree – as in the train carriage – that I made the situation better, but they’re astonished I did it at all, and refuse to help it themselves, probably because they’re afraid it will only get worse.
Sometimes this is vocalized as “don’t do that. You’ll upset the authorities,” even when what I’m doing is minor, innocuous and couldn’t possibly upset anyone who has nothing invested in making the situation worse.
These are the same people, btw, who were horrified when my first son was delivered without insurance and assured us that they had it so much better.
The problem, though, is that they have become used to the idea of the government as a parent. There is, in the human brain, a vast area slotted for “parent” or perhaps “ape band leader.” And there are things that come with it. When you surrender your authority, your responsibility, your sovereign individuality to someone who “looks after you” you surrender your autonomy with it.
Sure, you get “free” health care, and after you become convinced you need it, or after all other alternatives are taken from you, you will take whatever that “health care” dishes out. Because what’s your alternative? If they send you home with painkillers instead of treating your cancer, what are you going to do? Complain? If you do that they might take the painkillers away. They might do worse than kill you.
And if you complain that the carriage is dangerously hot and they sold it to you as though it were a functioning air-conditioned first-class carriage? Well, if you complain, they might do worse. Or even they might ignore you, knowing you have absolutely no chance to do anything against them. I mean, are you going to sue an entity owned by the government? (I’m almost sure the Chemins de Fer are, though they might be only supported by the government in the sense our post office is.)
As the government grows vaster and more able to give you everything you want, it’s not only that they also become able to take everything you have. It’s more that, faced with their vast power, you have no choice but to shrink. Little by little what you think, what you want, and what you need, even, become less meaningful.
The government machine – of which you might by then be a part – run by bureaucrats who, each of them, try to avoid work and responsibility, since their pay is the same in any case, stands ready to swallow you and reduce you to irrelevancy. Sure, if you kneel down and submit, they will behead you. But what if you don’t? They could do something worse.
This is the corrupting power of socialism, the secret, corrosive nature of a government out of control.
Europe and the other countries of the world who’ve gone down that path stand as a warning.
Sure, personal responsibility is scary and often uncomfortable. The alternative is giving up all your power to disinterested bureaucrats.
What they ask is not your money or your life. The endgame for government control is usually both and your willpower besides.
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