George Sarant

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I recently saw a decidedly dopey television program which purports to show what would happen if the power suddenly went off everywhere. The government conveniently disappears and something called the militia represents the bad guys, (although in the real world the militia is usually something that maintains order) and people behave violently and selfishly. Younger audiences seem to have bought into this nonsense, but I’ve seen enough disasters to know that people in this country do not revert to savagery.  We don’t inevitably descend into what Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all.” 


To be sure there are those who behave badly on gas lines, or when stores are out of necessities. But generally, as we’ve seen in the great storm that just hit the Atlantic coast, people if anything become more cooperative with others and helpful to their neighbors. Indeed when the government failed to come through, volunteers from everywhere did.


However, this is by no means a universal behavioral characteristic, insofar as there are many countries where personal trust is very low and anarchy can indeed arise, but America is not one of them. There may be some communities where such things might happen, but by and large this country is blessed with a very strong civil society. In what is normally the most anonymous place in the country, New York City, people remarkably come together in a crisis. 


It may be possible, at some point, for an enemy to actually disrupt the electric grid unless we shore up our electronic defenses, and we are indeed very reliant upon electricity. However the fallacy is that the government would somehow disappear and chaos would ensue. But the state would not suddenly disappear, and although it might not be able to do a lot of the things it does now,  it could still perform its most basic functions. There was civilized life before electricity, and this country had a well-established democratic government in the 19th century before Edison’s inventions. What we do electronically today was done mechanically, albeit much slower and with greater effort.  Nevertheless everything in our wired world is predicated on the civilization which preceded it, and it is more likely that we would simply revert no further back than that, rather than fall apart. Furthermore human ingenuity would soon enough develop technologies appropriate to the situation, which would improve life before long.


However such a general, nationwide apocalypse is unlikely to happen if basic precautions are taken. There may be disruptions that make it seem like that, such as the terrible storm the east coast just experienced, where after two weeks there are still areas without assistance, due to official ineptitude. People have been on their own, and many are still suffering, but they have not gone crazy. Citizens rise to the occasion, and where they can they assist their neighbors.  It is not inevitable that we would descend into chaos.  I’m not suggesting that human beings are inherently good, but at least most people in this society have been inculcated with the spirit that Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, reflected in free association, spontaneous organization, and cooperative group behavior; and that was long before our electronic age. 


Written by georgesarant

November 11, 2012 at 10:12 PM


with one comment

For much of my adult life, initially as a college instructor and then mostly as a senior administrator of an organization almost everyone called me Mr. Sarant. Now that am that much older and unaffiliated, I keep getting addressed by strangers as “George.” I find this annoying coming from someone young enough to be my son or daughter, particularly in situations when I am a customer and due a certain amount of consideration. Sometimes I get irritated enough to ask if we are having intimate relations given that we are apparently on a first name basis. But most are clueless nowadays that they are being offensive. Unfortunately this seems to be universal now, and not just in the United States but in other countries with languages that have a polite form of address, which has largely fallen into disuse.

This may be nitpicking, but to me it is symptomatic of the wholesale coarsening of society. There is endless vulgarity on television, and total loss of standards of any kind, when virtually anyone can be rehabilitated via publicity no matter what they have done. There is no shame, and if there is no shame there is no honor. If there is no honor the bounds of deference and trust are reduced, straining social bonds.

Between television and social networks on the web there is hardly any separation any longer between personal and public, and younger people seem to find nothing unusual about this, though sooner or later they are likely to come across a situation that will make them rue the day they sacrificed their privacy. Things have changed radically. When I was growing up you didn’t curse in front of girls, though by the time I was in graduate school they found this quaintly amusing. Now anything goes. There are no standards, no expectations of restraint, and as a result dignity is increasingly rare.

Social restraints are more than custom. They have a functional utility. They mitigate the impulse to behave selfishly and without consideration of others, and thus make a cooperative society possible. We see this in increasingly anarchic driving habits, and other forms of everyone-for-himself behavior. Manners, politeness, and proper behavior are not just pointless conventions, but essential to social cohesion. Convention and tradition are what instill good habits and personal restraint. This is important because if we do not have personal restraint, the result is a necessary increase in external restraint and control, thereby increasing the sphere of the state and limiting aspects of life that properly belong to ourselves.

I’m not suggesting a return to Victorian values, although we could do worse. But even 1950s values would do, reflecting a time when almost everything was better than any period since. Good manners are what make a good society.

Written by georgesarant

September 10, 2009 at 10:03 PM

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