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The Dead Hand Journal

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30

Last night I loaded my hot Italian into the Beast and drove over to Club Lucky for takeout. We loaded up on pasta e fagioli, giambotta, and homemade pasta, fired up the Beast, and got halfway back to my place when the vehicle coughed, choked, and rolled to a stop next to a crowded restaurant patio.

Crap.

So I dumped my Italian into a cab with our dinner, called for roadside assistance, and settled down to mull the situation over and field advice from the peanut gallery while awaiting the tow.

The engine had died in a way that suggested it wasn't getting fuel. I knew I was low on gas—the gauge was in the red—but I wasn't on empty yet, so my first thought was that I might have a blocked fuel line or a dead fuel filter, neither of which I was equipped to handle by myself on a dark Chicago side street. The thing I kept coming back to, though, was this: what if I'm just out of gas? The last time that particular embarassment hove into my harbor, I was 18 and the Beast was fresh off the showroom floor. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that a 19-year-old fuel gauge might not read true. Occam's Razor strikes again.

So I hopped into a cab and went for a gallon of gas. Sure enough, with a little go-juice and a few pumps of the throttle, the Beast fired right up again! So I called my insurance company, cancelled the roadside assistance call, and went home to eat.

But I'd be a bad blogger indeed if I didn't try to find a larger lesson here.

See, one of the reasons we get to enjoy pasta e fagioli on a Saturday night—instead of howling at the moon or getting whacked over the head with the jawbone of a Frenchman by some other savage—is because we spent hundreds of centuries creating an intricate societal infrastructure that enables each of us to reap the benefits of other people's specialization. That way, if I want some pasta e fagioli, I can simply order take-out instead of farming the wheat, slaughtering the veal, stoking the oven, and doing the million other things whose emergent result is ambrosia in a bowl. In fact, you could probably make the argument that, without specialization, producing pasta e fagioli would be not merely difficult, but impossible.

Now anybody can specialize... but a key element in actually reaping the benefits of specialization is trust. If that fennel sausage is available at the market but I fear a mortal case of salmonella poisoning, I'm probably still not going to get my fagioli. And, if I rely on a faulty gas gauge to tell me how much I've got in the tank, all the positive visualization in the world is not going to get me to my destination.

Two thousand years ago, commerce flourished from the Baltic Sea to the Nile, and from the Bosporus to the tip of the Iberian peninsula. Dig into those architectural strata in Syria, and you will find shards of pottery manufactured in Brittania, over two thousand miles to the northwest. Yet, over a period of only a couple of hundred years, commerce vanished across the entire region, and what had been the Roman Empire fell into a benighted mess that didn't rise to a similar level of sophistication for over a thousand years.

What happened?

The short answer is that, for a number of reasons, the Roman army lost the ability to protect the trade routes that crisscrossed the far-flung empire, as well as the manufacturing centers that sustained them. Specialists of one region came to understand that they could no longer rely on the specialists of another to make good on their promises. The assumptions that underlay the empire were no longer demonstrably true. In short, trust vanished, and all of western civilization crashed as a result.

Let's point out, though, that we are talking about a particular kind of trust. This isn't the kind of trust we have in a politician to say the things thatr make us feel good. It isn't the kind of trust that we bestow on institutions that help us maintain our cherished illusions.

Rather, this is the kind of trust I like to have in my gas gauge: that the measurement it reports reflects the actual state of the universe—as encapsulated within my gas tank—with sufficient fidelity to get me home. It's the kind of trust a soldier must have in the weapon he brings into combat, or that a patient must have in the surgeon holding the knife. Jerk the rug out from under these fundamental assumptions, and you'll find you have no transport, no medicine, and no defense at all against the savages at the gates of civilization beyond what you and your own children can muster.

And, when civilization is crashing around your ears, nobody makes good Italian take-out.

Okay, you ask, but so what? I got home, didn't I?

I did... but I got home by questioning a fundamental assumption, by testing my trust against immutable reality! If I'd held tight to the assumption that my gas gauge was reporting reality, I'd have spent half the night at the mercy of a tow-truck operator, and I'd have missed my fagioli. As it worked out, I still didn't get any fagioli—Debra ate it all—but the giambotta she saved me was delicious.

In how many spheres of our national life do we find ourselves making critical decisions based on information provided by trusted sources, only to discover that the facts on the ground were not at all as reported? Many of us were disappointed to read in the New York Times that the President and his men sent us to war on false pretenses... but who, to borrow a phrase, is watching the watcher? If the New York Times purports to be a gauge that measures the level of truth in the national tank, then what are the consequences when that gauge goes out of calibration?

I've tried hard to keep this piece within neutral lines, and I'll finish in the same vein. Ultimately, does it matter whether the President's story, or that of the New York Times, more closely reflects reality? Of course it does! But my point here is that in the final analysis it is not the President's ass, nor the collective posterior of the New York Times, that will be waving in the wind if we decide national policy on the basis of false assumptions. Rather, it will be our butts—yours, mine, your children's and your neighbors'—that will wind up in the sausage grinder if we get the big stuff wrong.

So, when in doubt, check for yourself! Above all, view certainty with a jaundiced eye... because whether absolute reliance on a faulty source of truth costs you the lives of your children or just a really great bowl of soup, you're going to find that having somebody to blame is a pretty unsatisfyng alternative.

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