Monday, January 2, 2012

"Don't Engage": Don't Do It

Some asshole lit 53 arson fires around my neighborhood over the last few nights, and Sunday night was probably the worst of it. At 3:30 in the morning I was standing out in the street in flannel pajama pants and a ratty old army t-shirt listening to non-stop sirens and low-flying police helicopters, and smelling smoke from a few short blocks away. The asshole lit big fires in apartment carports, underneath buildings full of sleeping people, and some of those people were nearly trapped by the flames as the fires spread up the buildings.

So here's what the commander of the local sheriff's station said about it: "'We're on the ground, we're in the air, every asset we have in the county is put toward this,' said Sheriff's Capt. Kelly Fraser. 'Call 911 -- don't engage. Let us do the work. Let's catch this guy or these people who are doing this.'"

Someone is lighting fires under your sleeping neighbors -- whatever you do, don't engage. Back off and call for the intervention of government agencies. That's a whole view of society and mutual obligation, right there: be sure to do nothing but place a phone call, because you don't have a shiny piece of metal on your chest. But no worries, 'cause we can usually get there in three to five minutes.

This attitude is a historically recent development. It's not inevitable, natural, or irreversible. The bureaucrat's argument for the rest of us is "don't engage," and that argument has its own purposes. The exclusion of mutual obligation serves organizations that become more important if they provide exclusive functions; if you can't help your neighbor, the institution that can help your neighbor becomes more thoroughly indispensable. State power and institutional prestige find natural limits in a society with strong habits of neighborly mutuality.

Related, can we stop worshiping public figures as totemic bearers of exceptional wisdom?

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