The making of a curmudgeon

I have often thought that I’m regarded by my friends with a mixture of disbelief, alarm, and chagrin. I seem inexorably drawn to insert my opinion into any and all discussions I stumble upon. I mean well, but I’m afraid I offend too often and too blithely. I don’t regret my propensity to skepticism, but I often regret having offended someone I respect.

I don’t think this is a learned response. As early as the first grade, I got into trouble with the nuns at my school for spreading the word around the playground that there was no Santa Claus. I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t they been teaching us just that day what a terrible thing it is to lie? Apparently, some of my classmates had gone to them in tears, asking if it was true. I imagine the nuns consoled them, “There, there, of course there is a Santa, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”

I knew better; I had the news on the highest authority: my older brothers. Is it any wonder I started questioning everything else the nuns told me?

I’m a born outsider, literally. I was born in a refugee camp, and have never felt completely in my element, and I suppose this is a major factor in the way I relate to other people. It gives me a kind of distance that encourages my behavior.

To make matters worse, my father was an engineer by training, and a scientist by temperament. Instead of golf or bowling, he relaxed by reading science fiction and doing math problems. The first requisite of science is skepticism, and I learned it well. Too well.

He was also a deeply religious man, a Catholic who gathered the family around the radio to listen to and pray the rosary at the regularly appointed hours on Catholic radio. Naturally, when I got old enough to enter my normal rebellious years, I jumped on this contradiction in his example.

I did 12 years in parochial schools.  Once, in my sophomore year, I flunked religion class, for the sin of asking too strenuously how the Holy Trinity wasn’t just semantic trickery.  A certain native pig-headedness embroiders my skepticism, it seems.  My father was mortified.  He told me that he would rather I flunked everything else, but aced religion.  I briefly considered testing this theory, before coming to my senses; I had no desire to be sent off to a monastery.

Apparently, there were two rules:

  • Question everything
  • Accept Catholic dogma blindly

I could have chosen either of them to avoid the contradiction. For a number of reasons, I went with the first. Dogma is surrounded by walls; walls invariably yield to skepticism. And so, to this day, I am cursed with this compulsion to question everything. That’s not to say I don’t have my own blind spots, my contradictions; I would tell you what they are, but, of course, I don’t know, and wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped up and bit me on the nether regions.

Fortunately for me, my friends generally do not hesitate to help me out.

Born yesterday

I’m up in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, in a little gift shop near the great locks that pass ships between the high waters of Lake Superior and the lower Lake Huron, bypassing the St. Mary’s River rapids (sault in French).  A thousand-foot Great Lakes freighter is passing by, on her way to the locks.  A much smaller boat is ahead of her, looking for all the world like a leading dolphin, and someone asks, “Is that a pilot leading the freighter to the lock?”

“No, that’s your $10 million government boat,” answers the clerk, with a knowing smirk.  We’re supposed to smirk back in that knowing way we have when we don’t actually know, but suppose the speaker does.

“Coast guard?”

“Homeland Security.”  This with more of a smirk.  We’re all in the know here; the government can’t pull the wool over our eyes!

“I’ve heard,” the clerk continues, “that they can read your credit card from a mile away.”

That does it.  I’m all over it.  “Who told you that?” I ask.  “That’s ridiculous.  They would have to be within at least ten feet, and that’s only if your card has an RFID, which most don’t.”

That earns me an icy glare, and I just give up and leave.  The clerk’s ignorance of government snooping capabilities is apparently only surpassed by her smug certainty.  Never mind the “$10 million dollar boat” and whether Homeland Security had any business hanging around the Canadian border.

You see this sort of thing more and more these days, this smug rumor mongering, this assumption that we can see through the transparent lies of the government, or big business, or whatever dragons we’re onto.   Everyone’s a hipster these days.  But the skepticism of the hip has become the cynicism of the wannabe, a much easier posture, since it doesn’t require one to actually look into anything, to research it, to know it.  We’re engulfed in hipness, swept away by the deluge of the media we’re addicted to.  Music, film, even books all drone away on the exposure of Big Lies,  But in this anxiousness not to be duped, this obsessive non-rubeness, we are often fed only alternate lies, which, ironically, we accept without question.

By now, you may be thinking I’m in favor of government snooping.  You’re wrong.  I am concerned about it, and I believe we need to seriously consider laws curtailing it.  More to the point, we need to stop giving up all that information to the sacred Private Enterprise that is making it available in the first place.  But we need to get a grip on reality first.  Do you really believe all those loyalty cards are there to make life better for consumers?

Up here in the Soo, as it’s called, people love grousing about the government, which they are convinced exists only for the purpose of taking their money for no return.  Never mind that the wicked bogey-man government supplies virtually all of the employment here, what with the locks, the Air Force base, and the Lake Superior State University, just to name a few.

Well, sure, people say, but there used to be the carbide company, the coal company, shipping companies, all that glorious Private Enterprise, you know, that people worked for.

Well, those lovely businesses all left town, dear people, not because they weren’t making money, but because they weren’t making enough money.  The basic fact about business is that it is all about making the most money possible.  Those fabled mom-and-pop businesses that were run out of town by evil Walmart?  Before that, they had virtual monopolies on your bucks, and as often as not were  gouging you for them.  You knew that, of course, because you switched to Walmart quicker than a three card monte dealer as soon as you got the chance.  Essentially, you drove them out of business, not Walmart, which would dry up and blow away for lack of money if everybody who hated it would stop shopping there.

Same goes for big government.  We’re all for cutting spending, unless it’s something that benefits us personally.  A boondoggle is a project that benefits somebody else.  Let’s face it, we’re not deep thinkers on that account, either.

Similarly, we’re up in arms if the NSA misses a clue, and something gets blown up by terrorists, and then complain that they’re snooping too much when it turns out they’re tapping information we’ve happily provided to businesses, whose stated sacred charge is to get as much money from us as possible.

We cannot get reasonable government until we become reasonable ourselves, and we cannot become that by automatically believing or disbelieving anything.

I hate to spring this on you so late in your life, but you are going to have to work at democracy, if it’s going to make it.  Ignorance just won’t cut it.