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Incident on a frozen pond

" … I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed,
The woven figure cannot undo its thread." Louis MacNeice

Just before noon on New Year’s Eve, I decided to join my father and my nephew and niece for an afternoon of ice-skating. I felt that it might help improve this unshakable but light cold that has had me coughing for more than a week. Since it was the first time on skates this year, my feet hurt at first, and because of my cold I seemed incredibly short of breath, but I knew that both would pass. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, both complaints were gone.

My father and I spent the most of the afternoon trying to convince my nephew of the importance of stickhandling the puck (primarily by playing a game of keep-away). I guess kids are kids, he didn’t care for the fundamentals, he wanted to play hockey so he could score goals.

About midafternoon, a girl broke through the ice. She had wandered to a thin section of ice, but fortunately the water was ankle deep. The adults (there were only three of us), skated as close as we dared and tried to coax her toward the shore which was less than four feet away. She was having none of that, so her father crawled forward and offered her a hockey stick for her to grab onto. About this time, I heard a police car’s speaker crackle, "get off the ice!" We weren’t about to pay attention to that order. A few minutes later, the girl had managed to crawl to her father, and her father carried her off the ice. At that time, the police officer got out of his car and moved toward the pond. He again ordered everyone off the ice. Despite all arguments, at what we felt to be an extreme measure, he repeated the mantra that it was just "common sense" that the ice was unsafe. We complied, because the pond was on town property, and there were no legal eagles there to counter that the policeman did not have the authority to make that demand (or to get a pass in telling him he was an idiot and still avoid arrest).

Some observations and suppositions:

  • It was unpardonable that the father did not keep a close eye on his daughter.
  • In any case, there was no sense of urgency. The policeman may not have realized that the girl was in the water at the first crackle of the car speaker, but he did not repeat his demand until the girl was safe. He did not leave his car to assist, nor did he call the fire department, which was just a few blocks away. Maybe he stayed in car in case the situation got worse, so he could make that call. But it is my understanding that police now carry portable radios. I seem to remember that he had a mike strapped to his collar.
  • As far as his true reasons for having us move along: perhaps the policeman was looking out for the interests of the town. Perhaps, in his mind, if the girl had died, the town would be liable.
  • Or maybe he was just covering his butt. He imagined he would be held culpable by his superiors or by the town.
  • Or maybe he was just following a strict interpretation of the rules (the town bylaws has the Fire Department check for the safety of ice, he reasoned since they did not check, the ice was not safe).
  • But none of these reasons were advanced. Except for the Milquetoasts, I would venture that almost all would concur that "common sense" was the most fallacious argument to be used. Except for clearly identifiable areas, the ice was safe. I was willing to wager any amount of money to bet that I could stay on that ice without falling through. I felt I held a royal flush against a hand that couldn’t make a pair, and I would want that pot to be rich. However, he had aces up his sleeve (the cheater). He had authority, but no argument. (Or maybe he felt it was unsafe for him — he was so circular he would have put Chief Wiggins, a Simpson’s character, to shame — sorry, I just can’t help myself).

Despite the claims that we’ve now become a more manly society since September 11, the social fabric does not change that quickly. As claimed by George Will, Americans are functionally conservative (reluctant to drastic changes), if not ideologically conservative. The nanny state is still in force. In The Woven Figure (from which I grabbed MacNiece’s quote above), Will quotes, "Toqueville warned of a soft despotism that ‘makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.’"

The nanny state is tangible, as laws are sought to protect people from themselves. Lawn darts anyone? It’s a wonder that they haven’t required horseshoes to be rubber. I have to wonder about a future where the laws are designed to protect recipients of the Darwin Awards.

And as we argued with the policeman, it seemed to me that we were as young teenagers arguing against stern parent. This is what I think galls most people who dislike authority. It is hard to retain a sense of dignity, when authority persists in treating others as less than equal.

It is largely in this sense that I objected to the security measures at airports since September 11 (or even since TWA 800). I felt that they were useless (did you pack your bags, sir?). I felt that arming the passengers (with guns or knives) would be a more effective security measure and would respect the dignity of passengers.

However there are differences in temperament. Some would take the more cynical view of human nature that would elevate the negative elements of society as much more representative of human nature, while others would have a more charitable view of human nature. Some would embrace security at the expense of liberty, while others would trust their fellow freemen and themselves to provide the necessary security and each would face the risks. It should be obvious that I feel that a more charitable view of human nature — rather than a misanthropic view — is more conducive to liberty. It also explains why I stress the moral and religious themes: I wish the charitable view to be the truth.

The cynical view determines that people cannot be responsible. That dangerous products should be taken from the market place. One skater on thin ice requires that everyone be taken off the ice. Similarly, a hunting accident or a domestic gun accident determines that guns be locked up or banned. We’ve heard it before, with cries for "common sense" gun control laws. Could the meaning of common sense be so plastic as to be dependent on a particular point of view?

But is the nanny state’s blanket of smothering motherhood ubiquitous? No, since sex is an entitlement. The radical Leftist elements of America would promote condoms over abstinence as safe sex, and hand out condoms in schools. But condoms are only 90-95% effective! I recognize that some would have me boost up the percentages a few points. But even so, with that chance of failure (not ignoring that their failure to protect against various venereal diseases is greater than the failures to prevent conception), I would not have been on that ice.

The difference is that sex is viewed as much more pleasurable than ice-skating. With pleasure, the risks are easily brushed away. In the same vein, in the debate over drugs, we would legalize narcotic drugs of risk, while ignoring that the strict testing of the FDA clamps down on drugs with a medicinal value. Would aspirin make FDA muster?

It is really a big deal to have been kicked off the ice? Is this one data point indicative of a trend? The answer to both is a qualified no. Jonah Goldberg complained that libertarians were too sensitive about the loss of rights, and his position was that technology had increased personal liberty. Several female commentators, such as Peggy Noonan, have applauded the return of masculinity. Real men are back. But both observations are of a certain perspective. Goldberg may value surfing for porn on the Internet more than a game of pond hockey. The resurgence of masculinity may just indicate a temporary tactical retreat by feminists forced by events, not a trend. Somehow I just don’t see that a Nineteenth or early Twentieth century constable telling folks to move along because there were minor patches of bad ice. More likely there was a caution about where not to skate. I see a trend.

I like things plain and simple. All the security I require from my government is that it prevents hostile foreign armies from landing on our shores and crossing our borders, and that it put criminals in jail. There is no dignity in treating a whole population as possible criminals or as probable patients. There is a difference between men and animals, between children and men. In such a free land, the freemen should strive to be worthy of that respect, where men are gentlemen and women are ladies, and where the words temperance and continence are not words foreign to their tongue. Where passions are held in check by reason. The nanny state that would tuck me in at night, that would coddle me from cradle to grave; the nanny state with its modern world full of dangers is too complex for me. I desire the right to fail or succeed on my own. Standing on my own two feet has importance. The government’s compassion is soulless. Truly, a government has no soul.

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