We often don't recognize infringements on our freedom because we tend to be looking for guys in brown shirts. It's rarely that dramatic, and often significant infringements look much less dramatic - even appearing sensible at times.
One of the ways our general liberty is getting eaten up is creeping nanny-statism, a general softening of the culture away from traditional, energetic, stereotypically masculine views of risk and rewards.
I got to thinking about this because of the current football controversy. No, not the one involving players raping and sexually harassing women. The other one, about hard tackles and shots to the head.
Shots to the head are a bad thing. Last weekend, several players went down with concussions as a result of bad, helmet-to-helmet hits. As a guy who played rugby for 20 years, and a little bit of football before that, I can tell you that the solution for head shots is pretty simple. You ban tackling above the shoulder level, and you stiffly penalize players who spear, or lead a tackle with the head. It is nothing to get hysterical about. The problem is rules creep in a tough game, allowing players to push the boundaries a bit too far.
Thanks to the Sports Media Industrial Complex, however, we've been treated to a bunch of girly scandals this year. I don't mean that as an insult to women; I mean that ESPN is attempting to apply Oprah standards to the NFL and other sports as part of its effort to expand its marketing. So we're not hearing about which receivers are nearing historical marks, or who you should pick up for your fantasy team. Instead we're getting caretaker dialogue about breast cancer, how terrible head injuries are, and how players are hitting too gosh darned hard.
Sorry NFL and ESPN, but once again this is a corner of life I don't want feminized. I don't want women to girly up their grunting tennis games, I don't want Danica Patrick to get special rules because she's a girl, and I don't want to hear Bob Ryan's prissy handwringing about how it's terrible that football players get hit so damned hard. You don't like tennis, race, or football competition because it's too competitive and harsh, go find something else to do with your time and quit bitching and condescending to the rest of us about our bad manners. Seriously, Bob Ryan. Screw you.
It's a free country. A man wants to make a million taking hits - or a woman wants to make 20 million racing with the boys at 230 MPH and risking death - I'm in favor of it. There's a traditional value in the American spirit that values liberty, and the fact that with great freedom comes the possibility for great success. And great failure. That means a flaming, explosive race car crash, or leaving a pro football game with a crippling back injury. Those are the downside risks inherent in freedom, and daily life offers less spectacular (but still wonderful) payoffs, when we take little risks. A mountain descent, kayaking on a river, or getting a little hammered and smoking a good cigar - these are the things that make life pleasant. All of them involve a little risk.
Society as a whole is getting too risk averse when sports columnists are wetting their pants over football injuries. Seriously - I am not talking about rationally expressed concerns here. The tenor of the conversation is panicky - "oh, the game will just destroy itself. It needs radical change. People won't tolerate this."
Just because something is hard and comes with potential adverse outcomes, doesn't mean that it's a bad thing, that it needs to be radically softened up, or that people won't tolerate it.
As always, This Is No Time To Overreact!
What football needs, plain and simple, is to bring back the old fashioned spearing penalty that prohibited leading with the head, and maybe consider the wrap tackle (normal in rugby) to slightly reduce the initial shock of the contact. These aren't the radical changes the prissymen are asking for; they're tweaks to a game that is over a century old, which has been just as rough (albeit in different ways) for just as long. We don't need to burn the village to save it.
What does this have to do with you?
You ride a bike, correct?
You know, a lot of people think that's really dangerous, right?
Are you aware of mandatory helmet rules for kids? That seems pretty reasonable.
What about people who think that because bikes and traffic are sometimes a dangerous mix, that bikes oughtta be restricted to the sidewalk, or bike lanes? That's over the top, right?
What about people who think of mountain biking as an extreme, destructive sport, one that should be banned from public lands because it is so reckless and dangerous?
Do you see where I'm going with this?
The same impulse that causes Bob Ryan and Tony Kornheiser to get their panties in a wad about a weekend's worth of hard NFL hits, is the same one that drives people to think there's no good reason to ride these dangerous bikes - or jump from a plane, or go deep sea diving, or anything that could possibly put a person at risk. Tony Kornheiser is a great example; the guy hates bike riding for a million reasons, including the fact that it's a silly way for an adult to put themselves at risk.
The well meaning effort to reduce risk in our lives - for our own good of course - is sometimes called paternalism. Less couth people like me call it nanny statism - the elevation of government rules and social conventions that cause all our institutions, including government, to act like we're infants and they are a strict wet nurse. The paternalist instinct is found on the right and the left; each political party manifests it a little bit differently. But there is a strong and ascendant tendency toward it in today's society.
What the NFL is browbeaten into doing about Brett Favre's tasteless (but not criminal) sexual proclivities, or hard hits or head injuries, may seem remote from cycling. But it is not. The same nanny statist impulse that gets hysterical over a handful of NFL concussions and sexting, making a mountain out of those molehills, will also get hysterical about bikes, and salt in your food, and outdoor smoking, and pretty much any damn fool thing that strikes its fancy.
No man is an island; and no man's hobbies are isolated from all other men's hobbies. The way the NFL is treated, and the hysterical attitude that a lot of our opinion leaders are taking toward it, will not be restricted to the NFL. The presence of this attitude in sports is just a symptom of its presence in all of society - look up the Alar scare, and the current thimerosol hysteria, and past efforts to ban football, and efforts to put airbags and seatbelts on motorcycles. There is no effort to rationally discuss risk and reward, and why we might tolerate or even encourage risk-taking as a society.
All these silly notions are of a piece. They are aimed at saving you from yourself, even where it means protecting you from statistically unlikely happenings (like the 1 in 100,000 chance of a bad reaction to a vaccine). We tend not to think too much about it when the government or some worthy non-profit nibbles away at another person's freedom, or works to change social attitudes about somebody else's hobby and pleasure from adventurous and energetic to fearful and beaten down. But if we wait until our own lifestyles are under the gun, we have waited too long.
It is in this way that mountain bikers are excluded from parks. First the hunters get shut out, a tiny group that uses the park for a few weeks per year, and nobody objects because the hunters' periodic use is a PITA for the rest of us. Then it's the equestrians because they tear up the trail, and we don't miss them because it's tough to ride on a trail chewed up by horses. Then it's the cyclists because they're reckless, and the hikers don't mind that because it's a pain stopping while the bikes pass. Finally the hikers go because their numbers are small, and there's nobody to help raise a stink about it, because all the other park users are long gone.
The assault on our fun, risk-taking hobby, is a quiet one. Many of society's opinion leaders, many of whom don't seem able to take on the big questions but who are happy to lecture us on what we should eat or with whom we should sleep. There's a war on mountain bikers led by people who are out to protect the wilderness by removing the humans - in the interest of protecting the humans they tell us. Our little group is next under the "wilderness classification" moves afoot in national lands. And, in a lot of places, there's about to be a backlash against the spending on bike trails and bike lanes because at the national level we've gotten ourselves tied to a political party that's about to be on the outs. Part of why they are hated by so many people is because that particular party is well known for telling people how they ought to live certain parts of their lives. (Just like the other party is known for claiming authority over other parts...)
As fun-loving, risk taking cyclists, we ought to realize that the real enemy of our lifestyles isn't one political party or another. It's the people who want us to stop doing what we love to do - because it'd be for our own good, as they define what is good for us. After we have a successful societal revolt against these people - what Mencken called the Uplifters - then we can have a debate about a lot of the little political details on the many issues facing us. Until then, I think we should probably focus on kicking the people out of our lives, who think they know better than us how we should live it. Grover Norquist delusionally thought that such people were "Get Off My Back Republicans." But he was wrong. We're just "Get Off My Back People." We vote for whoever we think is less likely to get on our backs and in our faces, and on our neighbor's backs. We're the Leave Me The Fuck Alone Coalition. And we're happy to be members of *that* party.
Yeah, it's possible we may get a concussion or hurt ourselves somehow. But I'd rather face the risk of a concussion, then never know the joy of laying a hard hit in rugby, of bombing down a rocky downhill in the woods, or of sitting in on a 35 MPH paceline.
When somebody dies, we talk about how they "spent" their lives.
Think about that. We "spend" our lives doing things. We pay for our fun with days of our lives.
So what do you want to do with your days - save them all up as if your time could go into a bank account? Or would you rather invest them in life, and spend your days having fun?