I just ran across an article that said hurricane Sandy reminds us how much we rely on governments to protect us. It even used the storm to say arguments criticizing the nanny state are wrong-headed. Geez. One doesn’t know where to start with statements like that. The government doesn’t protect us: we protect us. We establish various public institutions to carry out numerous cooperative activities, just as we form private institutions to carry out other cooperative activities. We don’t say that business corporations protect us, as if they have some sort of life apart from us. Neither should we ever regard government as some kind of abstract, protective entity that exists apart from us.
Yet we seem to have an in-built instinct to regard government as a replacement parent. When we leave home, who will take care of us? When we’re on our own, don’t we need someone to watch over us and help us out when trouble comes? The world is dangerous, and we don’t want to be alone.
If you’ve read The Jeffersonian long enough, you know this way of thinking is dangerous in the extreme. The state as it has developed is not your friend. Of all the threats you will face in your life – from nature, from criminals, from financial uncertainty, from people who act like your friend but turn out to be otherwise – an over-powerful, out of control state is the biggest threat of all. Little Red Riding Hood, acting by herself, could not escape the wolf – no matter how the wolf dressed up.
Consider other stories to see how deeply we crave and appreciate protection, both as children and as adults. Hansel and Gretel is a particularly scary tale, as an evil stepmother conspires to force the poor woodcutter to take his children out into the woods to abandon them there. Only the children’s ingenuity, courage, and perseverance save them: no one else will do it. Children love this story, frightening as it is, because brother and sister defeat the wicked witch on their own. They stick together and find a way out.
Hansel and Gretel had no guardian angel – not even their father would protect them under pressure. Cinderella was equally miserable, except her stepmother kept her close by. As Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters exploited her, abused her and ostracized her, she kept a cheerful outlook and hoped for better times to come. Her fairy godmother, equipped with all kinds of supernatural powers, arranged for her to meet the prince, so that one day she should be queen. Cinderella did have someone to look after her, and her guardian spirit came through.
The more we look for this theme of protection from harm, the more we find it in our stories. Lassie was so popular with children and families because its theme so consistently told this story. The heroic collie would brave anything to protect Timmy. Lassie rescued the vulnerable little boy from fire, flash floods, kidnappers, or whatever else might bring ruin. The dog looked out for Timmy and brought him through every danger.
One of the most compelling stories for young people in American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, relies on this theme. “Hey Boo,” says Scout as she recognizes Boo Radley standing in the corner. He has just rescued Scout and her brother Jem from Bob Ewell, who aimed to kill them as they walked home from a Halloween party. “Heck, someone’s been after my children,” says Atticus when he calls the sheriff. Shortly afterward, Atticus thanks Boo: “Thank you for my children.” Mr. Radley – the amazing guardian angel, the mysterious neighbor who stayed inside until he heard the children cry for help – responds in silence.
Dumbledore and Harry’s parents through all seven Harry Potter books, Odysseus when he returns home to Penelope in the Odyssey, Moses’ leadership of his people in Exodus: we can find this theme of protection and bravery everywhere. Our favorite stories show the theme’s power to compel our hearts and our attention.
Let’s return to government and the kind of protection it offers. You won’t find stories on that theme in our literature. I recently completed Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, a book that – like her others – has a lot of wisdom in it. By her account, the French serfs in the fourteenth century wanted so much to see their king as their protector. They knew the king and his nobles exploited them. Taxes, warfare, robbery, all kinds of injustice flowed from society’s top ranks down upon the poor. The underclass resisted and revolted, several times. Even so, they hoped the king would come through to protect them. The king even dramatized his protective role at public festivals. Despite all contrary evidence, the people perceived the king, ordained by God, as the sovereign power who could redeem them from apparently inescapable misery.
Here’s the last instance I want to mention, a story filled with so much horror for grown-ups they cannot stand to face it. Some months ago I watched a film titled Explosive Evidence, which investigates why two steel framed skyscrapers in the World Trade Center exploded on September 11, 2001, and why one skyscraper imploded. A segment toward the film’s end explores why people resist the conclusion that gravity did not bring these buildings down. “It can’t be true,” they say. One woman, when she realized how the buildings fell, took a long walk outside her office building. She said she could not stop sobbing as she walked block after block.
She became so upset because until then, she had thought of government as her protector. The idea that it could be anything else wrenched her world view, forced her to see that it did not necessarily act as a replacement parent. She felt as Hansel and Gretel felt when they overheard their stepmother persuade their father to take them into the wilderness to let them starve. But for that bit of eavesdropping Hansel would not have brought bread crumbs with him. From beginning to end, Hansel and Gretel managed to save themselves because they learned the truth, about their own home and about the witch’s home. Like the woman in Explosive Evidence, we must recognize the truth about where we live, and use our wits to save ourselves.