The road to serfdom runs nowhere near my house

One more time: Freedom vs. security

3 minute read
Cape May sunset: Not a mugger or bureaucrat in sight.
Cape May sunset: Not a mugger or bureaucrat in sight.
I sing the praise of Harry Truman— not the president, but the Washington State mountain man buried at the bottom of what was Spirit Lake, which was consumed by the top of Mount Saint Helen's when the earth threw up on it on May 18, 1980.

Because Harry refused to leave his home— a home, authorities said, doomed to destruction by an impending volcanic eruption— he was hailed by his countrymen as an authentic American hero. Well at least by some of his countrymen. Others just thought he was nuts. After all, the government warned him about his likely fate and he ignored it.

I was reminded of Truman's fanatical heroism the other day at a Broad Street Review writers' party, beneath the crystal chandeliers of Caroline Millett Dunlap's Italianate Victorian townhouse in Powelton Village, where BSR's recalcitrant editor Dan Rottenberg held court to his dissident group of contributors.

One by one we lowly scribes came forward to pay homage and receive our comeuppance. As I approached Dan, a look of bemusement crossed his face.

"Are you still living full time down there"? he asked. "Down there" means at the foot of New Jersey, close to the ocean.

"Yes," I replied. "It's quiet and serene."

Dan was having none of my explanation for defecting from Philadelphia. "Yes," he replied, "unless you roll out to sea in a storm."

Of course I should have retorted, "Chances are you'll get mugged first." But you only think of these things afterwards.

Caribbean survivors

So on the way back home, I got to thinking about Harry Truman and his devil-may-care stance, my choice of living precariously and Dan's obliviousness to the dangers of his.

Things always look worse from far away. Remember in 1995 when all the people living on the Caribbean island of Montserrat were told to flee because of an impending volcano? Well, some of them did a Harry Truman: They stayed and are living yet under the palms. How many of those who bolted do you suppose are dead now?

Every year forest fires exhume thousands of acres. Is that a valid reason why no one should live out in the wilderness— or for that matter, the Hollywood hills?

Granted, a fatal fanaticism can be discerned in the hero-worshipping of a stubborn old man on a mountain. Many Americans still cling to the notion that we're masters of our own destiny, not pawns in a game. What better way to demonstrate our individualism than to thumb our noses at official warnings and politically correct standards? This is how the West was won, right?

Sunsets and lighthouses

But for me, the ultimate question is this: Is the illusion of individual self-sufficiency any more deluded than the illusion of collective security? The end will come to all of us some day, and in that case, why not live life to the fullest before you die? What are we preserving ourselves for? Old age and infirmity?

Those who'd rather err on the side of caution need to be reminded that cautious people make good serfs. There's something to be said for serfdom, of course. You don't have to make any decisions. You're relieved of all worries, like finding a job or a house. Who could ask for anything more?

Reasonable or night, Harry Truman lived his own idiosyncratic version of the American dream. My version includes viewing endless ocean sunsets over a lighthouse, storms be damned. Dan's might include walking to countless concerts and plays on mean city streets, muggers be damned. The important thing is to follow your heart, right?

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