I was watching this video on Youtube about an old American amusement park and it got me thinking about something. I have grown up in a society that has eliminated risk. I think this explains a lot, when it comes to how we are responding as a society, to a virus that poses a negligible risk to healthy adults and children.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously explained that the problem with equality is that it makes any remaining form of inequality more intolerable. Give everyone an equal income and we become upset that some jobs have a higher status than other jobs. That’s why the Soviet Union would force scientists every once in a while to help sort cabbages. The more equality you get, the more measures people want to have taken against those who still seem to have some sort of privilege.
In a similar manner, the more safety we have, the less we become able to tolerate any sort of danger. There’s a popular post by The Last Psychiatrist, where he talks about how a train station was sued because a stairway is slightly uneven. There’s an equal distance between every step except one, so people fall and injure themselves. It seems strange to sue a train station for this, until you see the video of how many people fall at this particular point on the train station. We’re used to walking stairs on autopilot, so anything that disrupts the autopilot causes us harm.
We have safety built into our entire culture. The history of civilization seems to be the history of transferring obligations from individuals towards institutions, allowing us to start doing more things on autopilot. Indigenous people tend to have immense knowledge of how to help guide along childbirth and how to treat various forms of disease. In our culture, we shift that responsibility to a caste of medical professionals.
The strangest outgrowth of this phenomenon is that being sickly becomes a source of pride for people. We used to have infant mortality rates of around 20%, so if something was wrong with your body, it would generally bring your suffering to an end before you even learn to speak. These days, people can live decades, in bodies that don’t properly function: Defective immune systems, diabetes, there are all sorts of problems that people now have, that would have been guaranteed to cause death before the industrial revolution.
But rather than feeling ashamed of their sickness, people now take a perverse sense of pride in it and start to feel entitled. It’s other people’s responsibility, to live out their whole lives in a manner that helps you stay safe, because your own body happens to be incapable of keeping you safe. People put their illnesses into their Twitter biography, as if they were noble titles.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the concept of healthcare itself. If you’re bitten by an animal, it’s good that we have doctors who can disinfect the wound. If you break a bone in a fight or a workplace accident, it’s good that you can make a full recovery. But increasingly, what we’re doing is not helping people make a full recovery from an accident. We’re helping people survive in a state of ill health, who would otherwise be dead.
That’s a problem. Imagine we have a petting zoo for children, with room for twenty goats. The animals are healthy. At some point, a particular goat suffers dilated cardiomyopathy. Before we had medicine to treat this, the animal would die. Now it gets to spend a few more months, living in agony, unable to play with the other animals. Whereas we first had twenty goats who could climb around and play and do the sort of stuff goats like to do, now we have one animal that exists in a state of misery. Continue with this long enough and the petting zoo turns from a place of joy into a place of pain, anguish and misery.
That’s essentially the direction we’re taking as a society. Throughout most of human history, the majority of people alive at any given moment were children or young adults. Only a handful of people lived long enough to develop gray hair and become elderly, people held in high regard. There wasn’t really such a thing as “investing” or “social mobility”, because you didn’t have the time for any of that. The average Roman life expectancy at birth was 25. Filter out infant mortality and you’re still left with a life expectancy of in your middle fifties. Are you going to do a Phd that takes you until your early thirties to complete under such circumstances? Probably not.
When our life expectancy goes up, we become more risk averse. There’s more at stake. Dying of old age used to be very rare, but now it’s what we plan for. We work and save money, anticipating that we have to plan to live to reach our nineties. But as the average citizen grows older, life in general becomes more bleak. The things that bring us the most joy in life generally require youthfulness.
A society where 30% of people are children will have an entirely different culture than a society where 10% of people are children. The local amusement park shuts down and is turned into a golf court. You can’t earn a living designing toys or writing children’s stories anymore, your new job now consists of manufacturing medicine or assisting in a nursing home.
All the science suggests that children don’t spread the coronavirus, but they do spread something else: Children’s joy is contagious. Studies suggest that depressed women tend to have more children than other women, it seems to be the only mental disorder that increases people’s fertility. That makes perfect sense, when you realize that children’s joy influences our own mood too.
I think what we need to learn as a society now is to figure out that delayed gratification is not the supreme virtue. We need to learn to live for today and accept that there may not be a tomorrow. We need to learn to allow risk to return into our lives, we need to accept that we don’t control everything and that any moment may be our last.
That starts at a young age. We need to reopen Action Park. Yes, six people have died at Action Park because they drowned or were electrocuted and the park was run by maniacs who had no clue what they were doing. But people who remember Action Park don’t remember it for the deaths that took place. They remember it as a rite of passage. They’re a generation of teenagers who didn’t grow up coddled. They were exposed to real risks and it made them mentally stronger.
Normal healthy boys seek out danger. As a teenager I made molotov cocktails with a friend. I think the risks that teenage boys will seek out on their own are probably bigger than the managed risks of Action Park. You can tell that society took a wrong turn, when something like Action Park became unthinkable. When we now look at Action Park, we think to ourselves “It’s insane this was ever allowed”. But that’s because we’re looking at it from the perspective of coddled people.
Teenage boys who go to Action Park turn into adult men who don’t wear masks at Walmart. That’s a good thing. It’s men’s responsibility to laugh in the face of danger. Tribal cultures tend to have rites of passage for their teenage boys. You’re given a high dose of drugs, you’re sent off to go survive on your own, your body is ritually scarified, you’re expected to expose yourself to danger and pain. The closest equivalent we can produce to that within the constraints of a Western capitalist context is Action Park: Teenage boys are occasionally electrocuted, but it’s barely profitable enough for government officials to turn a blind eye.
The reality we have to deal with is that what we’re facing now is bigger than a particular virus. The question we’re trying to answer is how we should respond when faced with the Grim Reaper. We responded with submission. We effectively abolished our entire culture in an attempt to stave of death, although the success we seem to have had is negligible. But this is the wrong approach. The proper response to becoming aware of our own mortality is to laugh, when faced with the Grim Reaper we must laugh in his face.
We’re now taught that every action we take in life carries a risk of death. We’re made to feel ashamed of traveling, we’re made to feel ashamed of social interaction, we’re even made to feel ashamed of jogging in the park. But there once was a place, where teenage boys surrounded by blossoming teenage girls in bikinis, learned the subtle art of spitting in the Grim Reaper’s face.
Action Park might no longer exist as a physical place, but it still survives. If you pay close attention, you can still feel the action by placing your hand on your chest. Action Park survives in our hearts.