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Bears, Boston and the Gods of the Copybook Headings
Even flatworms can learn. Surprisingly, so can politicians, at least sometimes.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings strike again. This time with bears. And maybe homeless people.
For those who don’t know the origins of the term, The Gods of the Copybook Headings was a 1919 Kipling poem about the inescapable truths of life, bound in the nature of human beings and reality, and about the endless, futile efforts of humans to escape them. Copybook headings in Kipling’s day were trite, moralistic sayings of the “waste not, want not” variety, which schoolchildren copied as practice into, what else, a copybook. They were also meant to reinforce basic lessons of life.
Kipling compares the Gods of the Marketplace, which rise in popularity when times are flush, with the Gods of the Copybook Headings, who always get the last laugh, because the Gods of the Marketplace are founded on self-deception, indiscipline, and wishful thinking, while the Copybook Headings are founded on things that are all too real.
As Stefan Imhoff writes, “The Gods of the Marketplace, are those ‘temporary fads like Dutch tulip bulbs, dot-com stocks, mortgage-backed securities, and […] carbon credits,’ writes William A. Levinson. These gods are promises and ideas, social progress, and delusory ideologies that despise the truth. The 20th century had no shortage of these ideas, even though Kipling didn’t know about the harm that Socialism, Fascism, or Nazi ideology would unleash on the world. . . . Denial of objective truth is one of the signs of a society’s downfall.”
And, inevitably, after the foolish fads have had their run, things get real:
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
We see a tiny example of this in a small phenomenon in the small state of Connecticut, which is moving toward a return to bear hunting. Bears, you see, used to be hunted, and shot at when they approached human beings and their habitations. They were, as a result, shy of people, and avoided their habitations.
But then people lost touch with reality, and began thinking of bears as cute, and cuddly, and weirdly somehow superior to human beings in terms of moral worth. Bears weren’t hunted, and weren’t shot, and lo and behold, they quit being afraid of humans and their homes. Bear home invasions became common, and sometimes scary. As the New York Times reported:
Human-bear interactions have increased dramatically in Connecticut in recent years, as the state’s population of black bears has multiplied and their geographic range has expanded. This year alone, bears in Avon crashed a parade and broke into a bakery. Elsewhere in the state, they have even invaded houses.
The danger was underscored this week in nearby Westchester County, N.Y., when a bear attacked a 7-year-old boy who was playing in his yard. (On Wednesday, health officials said the bear tested negative for rabies.) . . .
Connecticut is the only state in the Northeast with a significant bear population but no bear hunting season. The new law, essentially a stand-your-ground law for bear encounters, was a modest step that has drawn critics from all sides. . . .
Connecticut is home to 1,000 to 1,200 bears, according to the state environmental agency, and last year, bear home entries reached a new high: 67 reported invasions and dozens more attempts.
By comparison, Maine — where bear hunting starts in August and continues through November — has more than 30,000 bears, but incidents of bears breaking into homes are rare.
Mainers, you see, have not lost touch with the Gods of the Copybook Headings to the extent that Connecticut Yankees – once known for their practicality and hard-headed realism – have. And thus neither have Maine bears: Stay away from humans, they’ll shoot you.
20 years ago, David Baron wrote an excellent book, The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature, about a very similar event involving the return of cougars to Boulder, Colorado.
Hipsters, academics and outdoors types moved into the Boulder area, and after a while, with cougar hunting and trapping eliminated, the cougars came back. People liked having deer in their yards, and cougars liked to eat deer, bringing them into close proximity to humans. Then people’s dogs and cats started disappearing, and then people themselves started to be attacked, but community meetings still featured masses of people who “came to speak for the cougars.”
This seems crazy – because it is – but it isn’t limited to dangerous animals.
We need only look at the treatment of such other topics as crime, terrorism, and warfare to see examples of the same sort of misplaced sentimentality and willful ignorance. Tolerance of criminality leads to more crime; tolerance of terrorism leads to more terrorism; efforts to appear defenseless lead to war, subsidies for homelessness produce more homeless people.
Nonetheless, the same strand of wishful thinking continually appears: perhaps this time, the cougars won't want to eat us. Some people, apparently, would rather be dinner than face up to the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that -- in this fallen world, at least -- the lion lies down with the lamb only after the lamb's neck is broken. (Worse yet is the noxious strand of liberalism that suggests we somehow deserve to be dinner.)
In Connecticut, and elsewhere, some degree of sense seems to be reasserting itself, suggesting that the Gods of the Copybook Headings retain some sway. (Boston is even refurbishing an island into a “recovery campus”(read: exile) for its burgeoning homeless population, after decades of pursuing policies that made homelessness, and the state of Boston’s streets, worse.)
Well, as I sometimes say, even a flatworm is smart enough to turn away from pain. To my surprise, so are some of our politicians. Can we have more of that, please? Because these are lessons that must be learned. Better that they are learned piecemeal, and at low cost, then cruelly all at once.
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