A few days ago, retired SEAL and writer Matt Bracken posted this on Gab:

     I assented vigorously, which triggered this query:

     What morals do the 96% agree on?

     It’s not a trivial question. The use of the word morals, with its sexual overtones, clouds the subject somewhat, so in this context – specifically, what we owe one another — please take it to mean interpersonal ethics, especially as regards public conduct.

     Americans vary in many ways, yet for nearly two centuries the nation was largely orderly and cohesive. There was a tacit agreement on what we owe one another. It had nothing to do with taxes, or charity. It was about minimizing the frictions involved in sharing a nation with others. In recent decades, the ethic that kept those frictions in check has been misplaced. Some have discarded it entirely.

     I’m no Pollyanna. I know that some degree of friction will always persist. Our differences make that inevitable. But keeping them minimized and tolerable is possible. The proof is that we managed it for so long.

     If there’s a topic that’s attracted the attention of a greater number of opinion writers, I can’t think of it just now. I’ve certainly contributed my two cents. You’d think that with all the brainpower that’s been applied to the subject, we’d have found our way back to social harmony by now. Yet disorder and disharmony persist; why?

     Ponder that for a moment. My mug needs to be refilled.


     In her excellent little book Talk To The Hand, British writer Lynne Truss gives us this prescription:

When you are with other people,
Have some consideration.

     That’s quite concise. I’m sure Miss Truss knows exactly what she means by it. Indeed, the rest of the book demonstrates that nicely. But making it into a directive applicable to the great variety of American contexts takes a bit of thought.

     The first clause sets the proper context for the second one. When you are with other people. Other people will have their own preferences, idiosyncrasies, and vulnerabilities. Call them quirks for brevity. The requirements of mutual accommodation depend on:

  1. Recognizing our quirks;
  2. Suppressing the ones that grate on others;
  3. Accepting the ones that don’t.

     In other words: when with others, don’t assert your quirks at their expense. Previous generations used to phrase this a bit differently: Keep yourself to yourself. On the other hand, if you’re in the company of someone with a tolerable quirk – an allergy, perhaps – do what you can to avoid inflaming it.

     It’s pardonable to be unaware of certain quirks in others, especially on first acquaintance. But once one is aware of them, something very near to an enforceable obligation arises. If Smith knows that Jones is a stickler for polite language, he should strive to avoid “F-bombs” while the two are together. Similarly, if Jones knows that Smith is a “potty mouth,” he should strive not to be offended to the point of pistols at dawn should Smith “slip.” The alternative is for Smith and Jones to avoid one another. After a few encounters, that might prove to be the preferable course.

     In this Year of Our Lord 2024, that ethic – when with others, keep yourself to yourself – is honored mainly in the breach.


     You might be wondering, “What’s got the old bore chugging down this track this morning?” I could cite any number of recent events, but at the heart of it is my isolate’s nature: i.e., my habitual avoidance of others and social interaction generally.

     You see, over the decades I’ve become aware that my quirks bother others greatly. Also, others’ quirks make me uncomfortable to the point of pell-mell flight from nearly any other company. It’s a matter of individuality on both counts.

     The proper habitat for someone like me is isolation. While it’s been a difficult state to endure year after year, it’s preferable to endless conflict and ill feeling. By remaining apart I spare both myself and others the frictions that would arise from having to endure my company.

     The nearer I get to the end of my life, the more I reflect on what I’ve learned against my will. This is perhaps the biggest lesson:

Some pills are bitter,
But one must swallow them anyway.

     That’s not a widely accepted notion today. Numerous people believe they have a God-given right to inflict themselves and their quirks on others, willy-nilly. Some do it purposefully, specifically to annoy others; it brings them a perverse sense of fulfillment. That’s a complete explanation for social disharmony: Whatever their reasons, many people refuse to keep themselves to themselves when with others.

     But that’s not the end of the story. Whole communities, hundreds or thousands strong, have adopted isolation from the larger society for these reasons. Their members share a particular quirk, and thus find one another tolerable. However, they know from experience that those who don’t share that quirk cannot abide them, and vice-versa. Look up the Doukhobors, and the social experiments of Robert Owen and John Humphrey Noyes for some illuminating reading.

     That’s consideration for others writ large. It’s among the most admirable of qualities. Even total lunatics can possess it…but if I’m going to digress, I suppose I should do it right.


     Some years ago, I stumbled upon a remarkable novel: Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Back then, I commented on it thus:

     [It’s] a desert community in which there are rules about everything…some of them literally impossible to obey. Reality itself is conditional, even questionable…or it would be, if the question “What is real?” hadn’t been forbidden by the Night Vale City Council. Despite a degree of surrealism that borders on schizophrenia, it’s a fascinating experience, an excursion into a fictional meta-anarchy in which no rule is ironclad and no Ruler can enforce his will.

     The book, which relentlessly refuses to allow the reader to assume anything, even about story events already narrated, is the sort of thing that would come from a writer in full-scale rebellion against rules of any sort. Yet it’s written in recognizable English…so far. (I’m only about a third of the way through it as I write this, so it’s best that I not assume anything about what remains. I’m sure Fink and Cranor would agree.) It observes enough of the conventions of good storytelling to be worth a reader’s time and attention, even as its protagonists gyrate through an untrustworthy land where everything, including the laws of Nature, is largely a matter of local opinion, however diffident or transient.

     In its determination to leave every aspect of the story, the setting, and the characters in a quasi-Schrodingerian indeterminate state – NO! Don’t open the box! – Welcome to Night Vale reminds me strongly of some of the late Robert Sheckley’s fictions. Whether it has a statement of any sort to make, apart from the obvious one that “just as in a cartoon, in a novel anything can happen” (Beep! Beep!) is unclear. One way or the other, it’s refreshing just as an act of rebellion, a thumb in the eye of Establishmentarian rule makers.

     The pervasive surrealism of Night Vale is diverting and, for those who can endure it, delightful. But the book actually has something to say with its entertainment. You see, there’s a NightValian, Troy Walsh, who decided that he would move to another community, to “help others.” In doing so, he unwittingly inflicted Night Vale’s chaos on the world beyond its borders. Some of Night Vale’s more prominent citizens decided that that just wouldn’t do:

     “You are to come home, Troy Walsh. You are to come back to Night Vale and leave this town. You are many, and you are helpful, and you are kind. But meaning well is not doing well. You mean well, but you do not do well. You are destroying this time and space by bringing the strangeness of our time and place into it. We belong in Night Vale, all of us. It is our home. Go home, Troy.”

     Troy Walsh, who only wanted to “help others,” replies thus:

     “I was going to come see you guys, come see Josh, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. There were some other jobs to do first. People needed my help. But I was coming. I would have been right there.”

     But his daughter replies:

     “No one needs your help,” said Jackie, sneering at her father, a man who expressed multitudes but contained nothing. “It’s you that needs the act of helping. You do it for yourself and not for anyone else, or you would have left this town when your ‘help’ knocked it off the map.”

     Do you know anyone like that, Gentle Reader?


     The maxim of self-restraint when around others, whether in Lynne Truss’s formulation or in mine, is what’s needed. But too many feel they have a right to “express themselves” regardless of the discomfort they inflict upon others. So they eschew self-restraint. They occupy buildings, block roads, mount disruptive “protests.” We know exactly why they’re doing it, even if they don’t.

     When self-restraint fails, external restraint must arise, or society crumbles. And external restraint is invariably unpleasant for the restrained ones.

     That’s all I’ve got to say for the moment, except Do not look at the hooded figures in the dog park. Local ordinances, don’t y’know.