Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Subsidized paranoia...

This Yahoo news story discusses how the Puli government is considering developing a microchip wristwatch for swimmers to wear next year at the Sun Moon Lake Swimming Carnival. This year, as I mentioned before, a swimmer disappeared. This story reports that his body has been found. He was a 27-year-old Malaysian engineer working in Miaoli. He is the fourth casualty in the 28 years the Carnival has taken place. I feel pity for the man and his family and I have prayed for his soul. At the same time, I find myself peeved at the "technophilic" anxiety generated by his death. Presumably, making swimmers wear a locating device will prevent future deaths. But there's no such thing as guaranteed safety. Swimming is inherently dangerous and swimming with thousands of other people in large open water--you shouldn't get in the water if you're not prepared not to come out of it. I understand that the "research" into the safety devices is a political action, since the government has to show its concern, and nothing says concern better than a new gizmo. I also understand that no one may really think such devices totally prevent casualties; they lower the odds of casualties, which is all the government can be expected to do.

But then the question arises as to just how low the government is obliged to make the odds. If everyone admits the best we can do is lower the odds of death, then why not just accept the odds as they stand? Already the event planners have set up safety buoys every 50 meters, dispatched rescue boats to troll the waters, assigned rescue swimmers to swim among the masses, and required all entrants to wear a safety bob and bright, insulated swim cap. How much safer do the measures have to be? Presumably, "so safe" as to prevent death, which is where the gizmos come in. But what if the device fails and a swimmer still ends up missing? Do we then need to attach a locating device to each locating device? Or what if the device falls off someone's wrist and they go missing? Any number of things can go wrong, so the only rational way to prevent every possible death is to call the whole thing off.

I think what bothers me about this news is that it signals a typical (liberal?) shallowness that stems from a more fundamentally secular fear of death in a world without eternal life. Can you imagine if runners in Pamplona were required to wear tracking devices or body armor, so as to prevent injury and death? I certainly can't. The mortality of the running of the bulls is very much what makes it so alluring. If it were non-lethal, it would be a non-event. Let's each of us get inside a giant, bullet-proof hamster ball, secured by ropes and soft cushions inside, and bounce along as the bulls run through the alleys. How pathetic. Sounds like a dreary missing scene from The Sun Also Rises. More taxpayer money spent on hot air and "making the people feel secure."

Jacques Maritain makes an interesting point (I may find a citation when I get home) that the transcendental reason people are, historically, so careless and adventurous--so reckless with their lives--, is because they instinctively know they are immortal by the life of their soul. But I wonder if it's that simple. After all, it doesn't take faith to try Jackass stunts and do city drag racing, or even drink yourself to death, for that matter. That kind of self-destructiveness may stem from the opposite "faith," namely, that which induces our culture instinctively to sense that we are all just meaningless effluvia of the endless evolutionary chaos. And yet I think there is a difference, and that Maritain's point stands in a qualified sense. People of Christian faith will (and sometimes do) "waste their lives" in the eyes of others, because they believe a life poured out at the altar of divine love ultimately finds itself again at the throne of theandric immortality. People without such faith can be just as reckless and profligate with themselves, I suppose, but in fact they are just sublimating the divine nisus with a desire to "live on in glory" or "live on in the memory of others" or "live on in the benefits reaped for future generations." I think persons devoid of a sense of glory--which is an icon of immortality--would be stingy with themselves. Insofar as our world is seeing a progressive evaporation of glory--for example, in the nauseatingly commonplace intellectual device that recalls how Kepler, Darwin, Marx, Freud, et al. "knocked human nature off its pedestal" by showing "we are not so special after all"--, our world is seeing an increase in paranoia and pettiness. People are obsessed with public safety because they are secretly obsessed with their own triviality and baffling contingency. "How dare they not take better safety measures!" Yet, we might just as well ask, "How dare anyone take such risks if they think pain is the worst possible fate and death is the end of existence?"

Public service is predicated on a traditional belief in the good of propagating the human species and in allowing for the flourishing of a range of natural human goods. Yet, such a belief is rife with finality and teleology, neither of which has any place in contemporary discourse de jure. If we acted in accord with our reigning dogmas, such as that all social behavior is just an historical accident, intrinsically meaningless and aimless, and that "this life is all the life we get," then I see no coherent reason to campaign for public safety. If there is no essential human nature, there are natural human goods, and therefore no natural reason to protect those goods as a way of developing that essential nature. If there is nothing intrinsically valuable in the security of the biologically and spiritually procreative family, or in the health of the body and calmness of mind, then each of us is obliged by our evolutionary make-up--which is the only "natural conscience" to which our cultural ringleaders say we may adhere--to take whatever we can get before our time is up.

I suppose my basic dissatisfaction is that hand-wringing and finger-wagging about GPS devices and the like puts the cart before the horse. Or perhaps it is trying to put the cart up the horse's ass in a confused effort to make it go faster. People need to have a sense of immortality and peace of soul before they try to find a doodad that will take away all their fears. Once again we see technology being stroked like a talisman to soothe public unrest. Technology is undeniably a social good, but this incident has me wondering afresh what the longterm effects of technology might be on other social goods, such as vigilance and fraternity. For, if everyone in the lake knows that everyone else is safe in the hands of Our GPS in Heaven, and that "professionals" will rescue anyone who goes missing, then no swimmer has any reason to watch out for anyone else. As things currently stand, swimmers still need to be at least peripherally aware of signs of distress; little things, like flailing and screaming, or a mass of bubbles as a swimmer sinks, or a totally motionless face-down body drifting to the side. Hence, as things stand, there is a normative motive for the social good of vigilant fraternization (or fraternal vigilance). Once, however, Titan Technology intervenes, there is a normative motive to relax, to ignore others (benignly, of course), and, above all, to fixate at all times on how securely one's own microchip is attached.

Technology is man's great security blankey. And while it is often argued that God is just a social crutch--a security blanket in the heavens--, at least the Gospel has always woven its bloody thorns into the fabric of that blanket by saying both that all who would touch the hem of that garment are themselves individual bases for why the world needs the blanket and that they must die before they may rest in the blanket. Technology, by contrast, is barbless--Science is for Everybody and no one has to suffer anymore; being barbless, alas, also makes "Science" toothless; or perhaps makes it a Savior that denies there is anything from which to be saved. The only real security against death is life and the only guarantee of life is in the death and resurrection of Christ, not in technology or public safety measures or anything else. If human life is not seen as an arena in which people can and should develop their essential potentialities in a way ordered to their highest goal--to God, as their origin--then fiddling with safety measures is akin to fiddling while the Titanic sinks, or, worse yet, like drawing up plans for the Titanic without believing the ocean exists.

In any event, my practical suggestions for the Sun Moon Lake swim are 1) to limit entrants to 25,000 people and 2) to make every entrant sign a waiver.


Michael Turton said...

Your analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of a safety speculation is waaaaaayyyyy overblown. But I agree that participants should be limited and waivers should be signed.

This isn't just true of swimming, but of many activities here. Almost anyone can join a local bike race, for example, meaning that thousands of entrants crowd the road and 90% are duffers who think they are Lance Armstrong. Dangerous and stupid. And the Yenshui fireworks one inspects the safety devices and anyone can participate. Etc etc.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


Nice to hear from you.

Hey, if my analyses aren't overblown, what else would I do with my time?!

I have only occasionally been upset with logistical management here in terms of safety (e.g., the Sky Light festival in Pingxi last year was an outrage) but mostly I've adapted to the "wu wei" mentality of just getting people from A to B. Yet, what "gets me" is how, when that wu wei method results in, or just correlates with a bad accident ot fatality, people here seem to get all bent out of shape. And I'm like, "Well, duh, what did you…etc?"