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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 99 of George Will’s splendid 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility:

Invocations of martial solidarity should grate on free people.

DBx: Indeed they should but they too seldom do.

George Will’s stiletto-sharp blade of wisdom here serves well to define much of what it means for a people to be a free people.

A free people have somehow managed to tamp down – far down – the instinct of tribalism that runs through nearly all of humankind’s history. Nationalism is one manifestation of the failure to keep this instinct tamped down. Another manifestation is identity politics. The tribe to which one pledges allegiance in the first case obviously differs from the tribe to which one pledges allegiance in the second. But the pledges of allegiance in both cases are rooted in the same emotion.

The difficulty here is that the emotion that gives rise to nationalism and to identity politics is not without its value to humanity. (Natural selection didn’t select for this emotion randomly.) This emotion is key to keeping families together and to inspiring us to cooperate to create and improve our communities – our neighborhoods, our clubs, our circles of friends who loyally help each other. But this emotion is sand in the gears of the extensive commercial order that makes modern life possible. Because recent history – that of the past few centuries – proves that humanity can keep this emotion confined to local, face-to-face associations and, thus, prevent it from interfering too much with the growth of arms’-length commercial arrangements, a free and prosperous society is possible. Yet it’s unclear if such a society – one that is necessarily cosmopolitan – is sustainable for long stretches of time.

A second element of the essence of a free people is this: A free people aren’t easily panicked. When we humans are frightened, we naturally turn inward toward those whom we know (or think we know) and away from strangers. We become more willing to be led by those among us willing to take charge and lead – or by those who are skilled at giving the appearance of leading even if nothing real of the sort is happening.

True and honorable leaders actually lead, and they lead only when and insofar as necessary. Such leaders neither fabricate nor exaggerate dangers to the group. But faux leaders – “leaders” – seeking power for the sake of power along with glory (and not infrequently significant material “rewards”) fabricate or exaggerate dangers. No effort is spared to convince the people that they are confronted by severe threats and are helpless unless under the command of the strong, the brilliant (today, the “scientists”), and the courageous. So people join together sheepishly, their amygdalae flooding their bodies with glutamate, into an easily commanded herd.

Beware of trade with foreigners! Look out, immigrants are in town! Industry and commerce are dooming the planet! The rich are getting richer and travel in different social circles! That Big Company is so horrible that it simultaneously harms consumers with poor product offerings and harms competitors by making its products too good for consumers not to use! Humans (who knew?!) can be made ill or even dead by pathogens spread among people interacting with each other!

Ironically, we humans are prone to create for ourselves true, ominous dangers when our natural instinct for being tribal combines with our natural instinct for survival and, hence, to seek from “leaders” protection from danger.


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