The Biggest Danger to Our Freedom … [UPDATED YET AGAIN]

May 23, 2009 at 1:21 am (By Amba) (, , , )

. . . is, it strikes me, our incompetence.

The inability of so many of us (in the societal sense of “us”) to take care of ourselves, if we had to, in the most basic, practical ways; our dependence on the electrical grid (I felt so stupid reflexively flipping switches during the last power blackout), on experts, on supermarkets and the vast supply systems that fill them . . . this is at the root of “our” willingness to be taken care of and taken charge of by government.  It has trained us not to be the masters of our own lives, to be needy, willing, dependent.

Participating in these vast systems makes us at once more and less powerful and free.  We do not, each household of us, have to spend our days splitting wood and canning fruit, duplicating these basic survival activities and having little time or energy left to get beyond them.  We have recreational and intellectual lives that were limited to ancient aristocrats — or to children in the century or so since nonworking “childhood” was invented.  No wonder we grow up so late.  The educated “elites” can be particularly — harsh word — parasitic in this regard.

I remember visiting Romania in the 1970s and being astonished by the number of Jacques’ friends and relatives who, as a matter of course, and of necessity, could build, wire, and plumb a house, maintain their own cars, make their own booze, hunt and gather wild food and medicinal plants in the woods, raise and butcher pigs and chickens (callous skills my dislike of which I knew to be a luxury), and (the women) preserve food, cook and bake on a wood stove, make and repair their own clothing.  These were traditional skills that had not yet been lost in that country village, and they were a way that people preserved their independence under Communist privation and tyranny.

I wonder whether basic physical competence tends to breed political conservatism and independence.  People who can take care of themselves would rather be left alone to do so.  There were certainly a good number of American hippies who moved to the country with idealized dreams of self-sufficiency.  A lot of them came back.  Of those who stayed, and became genuinely competent, did their politics change?  Maybe not.  That would make short work of my theory.  But I wonder if many didn’t need to learn from their neighbors and end up learning more than just how to.

If you could put together a short course in basic survival skills, what would the essential ones be?  What would you equip people with to restore their sense that they could take care of themselves if they had to?  Do you think it would change their outlook on life?  Or can such things not be taught in abstraction from actual lived life?

UPDATE: In my inbox just now and surprisingly apropos, the New York Times waxes nostalgic for manual labor:

[N]ow as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses. . . . what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass.

[T]here is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their
natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.

UPDATE II:  In the comments, Edgewise.Sigma links to a proposal for a Museum of Skills — what would really amount to a video library of how-to manuals, as Icepick almost suggested, also in the comments.  (Ice said you would need to be able to read, but in some increasingly postliterate, shoot-me-a-YouTube sectors of our world, video would be safer, and having a known library of these would solve the problem of where to find them.)

People have been pointing out the disaster if the skills of farmers are lost as they are driven from the land. Other skills are being lost as our industries go off-shore. What of all the other skills we will need if ever we must defend our shores or can no longer import everything except restaurants and real estate?

We need videos made of all the skills that are disappearing, before the factories, tools, and workpeople are gone. The Arts Councils, or some other body, should divert their less urgent funding into ensuring that as each skill disappears overseas, some tangible and video record is kept so it can be resurrected if necessary. There could even be a register of surviving skillspersons – and an annual march of survivors – people who know how to make yarn or boots or a sewing machine or an electric kettle or a hotwater bottle . . or how to make machines to make them . .. There could be a television program, and libraries could have DVDs.

The author of this proposal is Valerie Yule.  And she turns out to be a completely fascinating 80-year-old Australian psychologist!  Described as “a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues,” she has a lot to say — bluntly, concisely — about the state of the world.

UPDATE III:Civilization . . . is a prison . . . but you get American Idol and Cool Ranch Doritos, so it’s not that bad.”

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