a polite society

JaDerek Gray, 19 years old, he’s got himself a motorcycle and a gun. Unnamed motorist, got himself a car with kids and a gun. I mean, this is Texas, right? So yeah, everybody got himself a gun. They both cruising down I-35 on a Friday afternoon, long Fourth of July weekend, right? The guy in the car starts to change lanes, doesn’t see Gray tooling along on his motorcycle, almost pulls in front of him. Gray swerves, the car driver corrects himself, everybody is alarmed but okay.

At this point, all we’ve got is a near accident. A failure of road courtesy. A momentary lapse of situational awareness that could have been ugly–but wasn’t. Happens all the time. Everybody who’s ever ridden a motorcycle or a bicycle on a public road has had this moment. Everybody who’s driven a car on a public road has had it too. It happens, you check yourself as a driver and as a rider, you maybe shout an obscenity, you remind yourself to be more careful and cautious, and you go on. Right?

Except JaDerek Gray is 19 years old and he’s got himself a gun. Except the car driver has a gun too, along with his car full of kids. So what happens? Gray speeds up, passes the guy in the car, slows down, then stops. Stops. Right there on I-35, on a Friday afternoon at the beginning of a long holiday weekend, he stops. He draws his gun. So the driver, he pulls his gun too.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner said Gray died from multiple gunshot wounds.

So now Gray is totally dead. 19 years old, and he’s dead. That’s got to fuck up his family and friends. Instead of celebrating the Fourth of July, instead of grilling burgers and eating potato salad, they’ve got to start planning a funeral. And the driver of the car and those kids, you know they’re fucked up too. Isel Valenzuela, the passer-by who witnessed the shooting, who stopped and turned off Gray’s motorcycle, who applied pressure to Gray’s wounds until paramedics arrived, who watched Gray bleed out and die–his holiday has been ruined as well.

A distinct absence of road courtesy

An armed society is a polite society. You hear gun nuts and Second Amendment jihadists say that all the time. They say it like it’s some sort of holy writ, as if it’s something that might have been said by the Founding Fathers or Charlton Heston. But it’s from a novel by Robert Heinlein, the iconoclastic libertarian science fiction writer.

Heinlein wrote Beyond This Horizon in the early 1940s. It’s one of those Utopian society stories–there’s no poverty, no nationalism, no hunger, no war; genetic engineering has eliminated disease, aging is treatable, and medical technology has made most injuries reparable. So basically everybody is incredibly smart, incredibly healthy, incredibly beautiful. In effect, it’s a society of perfect people, a society of saints.

I suspect Heinlein had studied Emile Durkheim, the Daddy of Sociology. Fifty years before Heinlein wrote his novel, Durkheim wrote this:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness.

And that’s what happens in Beyond This Horizon. People get offended over increasingly trivial issues, pissy little shit like slights of etiquette and protocol. They resolve these issues by dueling. Almost everybody wears a sidearm of some sort. A person who doesn’t want to risk getting shot over stupid shit (like a bit of crabshell catapulted onto a neighboring table in a restaurant, which happens in the novel), they had to wear clothing that identifies them as noncombatants (basically dweebs who have lower social status). The actual quote in the novel is:

An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.

It’s NOT meant to be a principle on which to base society; it’s a goddamn plot device. It’s meant to show that even a Utopian society isn’t a Utopian society because people are fucked up beings. It’s not an argument that guns are good; it’s actually an argument against that. It’s an argument that killing each other over trivial stuff is just fucking stupid. It’s an argument that says courtesy enforced by the fear of getting killed isn’t courtesy at all. It’s just fear.

It’s an argument everybody on that Texas interstate highway lost. An armed society isn’t a polite society; it’s a scared and stupid society.

5 thoughts on “a polite society

  1. I think there’s a typo in the last sentence? (Didn’t you mean “polite” and not “police” there?) An excellent read and now I want to read Heinlein’s book which I somehow missed.

    Liked by 1 person

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