Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Get Off My Lawn

I was listening to an interview with Chris Arnade, author of Dignity from a few years ago, about front-row America and back-row America, which he considers the real divide, not race or even income, though the latter especially correlates. I have the book on wish list, but will be borrowing it from my son instead, hopefully soon.

I was quite impressed with Arnade. He started as a PhD in particle physics, then became one of the original quants on Wall Street, even though he was (is?) a socialist. He now walks across various American cities, including small cities like Altoona or Holyoke or (I think) Albany, GA, taking photographs, mostly of people, and stopping in to McDonalds, bars, or storefront churches and just talking to people.  He calls them the normies, as contrasted with himself and the people he has generally known in his life. He sees this as partly statistical: the vast bulk of humans across time were not trying to get ahead, they were just trying to make a living, nor did they much worry about that. For most of humanity, becoming slightly more prosperous was possible through luck or cleverness or effort or risk or connections, but little more than that. Nor was great tragedy surprising. Life is, and you try to get by.

He mentioned that many of them mostly just want to be left alone by the big people in life.  Their experience with them is not good: those look down on you, take advantage of you, call the police on you, have laws which make you do things you don't understand or don't let you do things that seem okay to you. The farthest down don't vote, because why bother?  It's all the same either way.  If you register to vote you might get called for jury duty. Just have nothing to do with those people.

It reminded me of a line by an Important Conservative Columnist who wrote "Saying 'get off my lawn' is not a political philosophy," to which one commenter replied "Actually, it is. It is both childish and profound. More the latter, thanks." That sounds like a guy who wants people to get off his lawn. I found that arresting.  Clearly, the commenter was going for drama in both directions and exaggerated, but the point is a good one. Let me take it apart, just a bit.

"Get." The small man has authority to tell even the greater what he can and cannot do. In this case it is related to laws of property, and we have long included rights to the molestation of one's own person as well. Though property itself is sometimes despised as a right these days, it was the leverage point for many other rights. "I know he's a damned Quaker, Ezekiel, but he owns the property." Similarly for property or goods or even businesses that women or blacks inherited. People may not have wanted them to, or even passed laws against it, but ownership was a claim strong enough to fight off competing intentions. The societies which preceded ours and birthed it did not want to give that one up - and so let the others go. The principle has expanded, so that now citizenship even without owning property, or even residency or simple existence have rights that must be respected. This seems obvious to us but is in no way even common, let alone universal elsewhere. Powerful people can do whatever they want in most places.

"Off" He has not gone looking to tell other people what to do, he is noticing a person who has infringed on him and inserted himself where not entitled without permission. "Get out" would carry a similar meaning while saying "get on" or "get in" is a bit different. They are more aggressive than protective.

"My" There are whole volumes written about the concept of property, and how much the society around us has provided us the opportunity. and therefore deserves some credit and has some implied ownership. Even kings and emperors were thought and are thought to have some limitation on their rights of ownership, however much they keep trying to exceed those. We are at minimum deeply indebted to the people who came before who created the circumstances under which we own things. But they're dead, and what do we owe to other people now, even in our own society? 

Slight digression: It may be argued with some force that none of us is very much independent and responsible for our own condition, and pretending that we can live off on our own without depending on or bothering others is an illusion. Even if you tramp off into the wilderness, the boots you wear and the axe you carry were made by others, and farther back the land was secured by the efforts of others, as far back as removing the major predators that would outcompete or even eat us centuries ago. "You didn't build that" has a great deal of truth in it. Yet those who came before, er, came before, and aren't giving us orders at present except in the indirect sense of bequeathed culture we wish to adhere to. Confusing that further is treating whatever rights your society or community has as equivalent to what the government's rights are. Even if the former does have claims, they may not always extend to the latter. As I said, volumes have been written about what "my" might mean.  But we can at least say in simple form that it has meant more in America than other places, and reducing it would be a change. As with "get," powerful people, either individually or in collective, can do what they want to you in other places, sometimes dramatically so.

"Lawn." A lawn is optional, not necessary for survival.  You put it there only because you wanted it. That turns out to be okay. A person on your lawn may not have done any damage to your ability to get food, stay warm, find a mate, or make a living.  It doesn't matter. You can still tell them to get off. This comes up in other large rights, sometimes unnoticed. Self-defense is invoked in the right to bear arms, and that is of course the strongest claim. But I think you should be able to go out and fire guns just because you like things that go boom, or want to see if you can hit a target just for fun. The obvious counterclaims that you can't do that just anywhere in a way that endangers others are valid, yes. But you get to do it just because you like it, like having an aquarium or playing an instrument or...caring for a lawn.

"Get off my lawn" turns out to contain a lot of rights in it. The motivations of why an individual says it are not the important part.  If they are childish, or irritable, or pigheaded, so be it.  There are others exercising the right who are none of those things.  And more importantly, it is the right to be able to say it that is important.


Grim said...

Well articulated.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I thought of you and Tex and chuckled a few times while writing this.

Thos. said...

WRT your slight digression: I would add that - granting, arguendo, that 'I didn't build that' - the people who are being credited with my present success are not the same ones who are making demands on my behavior.

If "these that had gone before" had made clear statements that they were making investment X in my future, and that I was therefore expected to do behavior Y in exchange*, then I'd feel some obligation to either go along with that, or at least provide an answer for my choice not to.

On the other hand if the people who are demanding that I do what they want because 'I didn't build that' are not the ones who allegedly DID "build that", then they have no business making any such demands of me.

* I admit that there are some examples of people making this exact sort of argument - most often in the sphere of religion. You won't, however, find me holding my breath to see if any of the "you didn't build that" crowd are lining up to honor those demands.