DEBATE: Do Americans Value "Life" More than Living?
America has different ideas about risk and "personal responsibility" than most of the rest of the world. Who's right?
I was cleaning up my Google photos when I came across this video I shot here in Split, Croatia, last New Year’s Eve. Remember how amazed me we were by the fireworks?
We aren’t talking bottle rockets or sparklers. Those were serious fireworks. And for a solid fifteen minutes, they erupted all across the city in a pyrotechnic display that was simply dazzling.
Or insane, depending on what you think about it. You’d never see anything like this in America, where large fireworks shows take place in carefully controlled conditions far from spectators in order to keep them safe.
And remember when we were in Geneva, Switzerland, a few years ago, how hundreds of people were jumping from bridges on the Rhone River into the very fast-moving water?
Wild swimming, as the Swiss call it, is not without risk either. In 2019, twenty-three people drowned while swimming in Swiss rivers. And just like the fireworks in Split, there’s no way the “authorities” would let you do that in a similar location back in America.
In fact, in Massachusetts, regulations forbid anyone from swimming across lakes in state parks. Instead, visitors must stay within clearly demarcated swimming areas that are rarely more than waist-deep. And just last year the state boosted the maximum fine for swimming outside of restricted areas to $500.
This seems pretty typical of America, where our desire to eliminate as much risk as possible has led to a lot of, well, crazy regulations, like the one in Massachusetts.
It’s no secret what’s behind this: people and businesses are afraid of getting sued. That’s how you end up with all these bizarre warning labels — like the one reminding you to take the baby out of the stroller before folding it up.
All of which has me asking the question: Do Americans worry too much about “risk”? Do they end up valuing “life” more than living?
I’ve got a lot more to say on this topic, but first I want to give you a chance to dive in.
But only in the deep end, because it’s totally against the rules to dive in the shallow end. And wear a regulation swimsuit, and be sure to put on doctor-approved sunscreen, and don’t take that plugged-in toaster with you into the water.
I’ve noticed what you’re saying too.
Remember when we took that boat to the Emerald Cave in Thailand. Our guide was a thirteen-year-old boy. Who didn’t speak English. Who led us and ten of our friends on a swim through a long, dark sea cave. With a single flashlight and no safety instructions, because he didn’t speak English!
That sure wouldn’t fly in America.
Or maybe it would, at least in certain areas. Let’s face it: there’s a real urban-rural divide going on with this issue. In rural America, I bet you still see fireworks like we saw in Split.
It’s also America now, because people had a completely different relationship with risk when we were kids — much more like the rest of the world.
And I have some very mixed feelings about all of this, because my friends and I did some truly insane things. Bottle rocket wars, breaking into buildings, swinging into rivers.
And bad things sometimes happened. I have a bunch of scars all over my body, and I once landed on my neck in a way that totally could have left me paralyzed. My dad’s best friend literally had his eye put out by a firecracker.
That said, I loved the freedom I had as a kid. I feel so sorry for kids today, playing video games all the time rather than actually doing stuff. My mind reels over all the adventures my friends and I had in the massive woods below our house: catching salmon and crawdads in the creek, finding and swimming in an abandoned well, or spending the entire day by ourselves in the pond on a raft we built ourselves. Lifejackets? Ha!
I think I also learned some really valuable lessons — much more than just how to build a raft. We were completely unsupervised, so we constantly had to solve our own problems, and sometimes the problems were pretty serious, like when we accidentally lit a field on fire. Or when we got stuck up to our thighs on Mud Island. Or when my single-engine Cessna crashed in the mountains of northern Canada, and I had to survive for weeks with nothing but the simple hatchet my mother had given me right before the plane took off.
Wait, maybe that was the plot of the great young adult novel Hatchet. But same deal.
The point is, my friends and I had to deal with all this risk, usually by looking out for each other and working together. It was so incredibly social!
And I really worry that in trying to eliminate all the risk in the world, American kids aren’t learning important lessons — like how when things are too clean, kids don’t build up natural immunities.
The whole subject of “risk” is complicated. On one hand, Americans want less risk — often, no risk. And they’ve achieved that in a lot of ways, especially in the products they buy and almost anything involving kids.
Except maybe guns. And, well, cars — apparently, our highways have become really unsafe compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Some people would say these are all questions of “freedom” — and maybe they are
And there’s the whole question of economic security — despite its wealth, America seems comfortable with some people being poor and homeless, and not getting even basic medical care.
Huh, in writing this out, I’m realizing that when it comes to “risk,” Americans are being their usual crazy, extreme, completely contradictory selves.
I know you didn’t want me to bring up Covid, but look at the American response to Covid. It has been — and is continuing to be — All! Over! The! Place!
Haven’t all the Covid debates to date been, in large part, about risk? But maybe this all just goes back to the rural-urban divide: rural areas are comfortable with more risk, and urban areas want less risk.
Wow! This is a complicated topic. I don’t know what I think about anything anymore.
Yes, I can totally see how you might confuse yourself with the protagonist from Hatchet. Because it’s not like I’ve literally heard you say, “If civilization ever falls and there are no longer hot showers, I’m drinking five margaritas and downing a bottle of Xanax!”
Then again, I’ve said the same thing myself.
I’ve also concluded I’m not entirely sure what I think on this topic either. It’s complicated. Really complicated.
But, in general, I still think people are willing to put up with more risk outside of America — at least urban America.
I’m thinking about:
That insanely steep water slide we rode down the side of that mountain in Bansko, Bulgaria. And what about the toboggan and other things we refused to ride?
That coin-operated elevator in our apartment building in Tbilisi, Georgia, that looked like it hadn’t been inspected since 1985?
All that street food we ate in Mexico that had definitely never been inspected.
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