Milktoast Nation?

pic_salsons_big-milk-toast_Medium.jpg Great to be back on BoingBoing! Thanks for having me.

Six months ago, my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously hit the bookstores and it's been a great ride since then. The book, 1/3 polemic on the risks of risk taking (those being the ruminations) and 2/3 DIY instructions (the projects) on making everything from making rockets and gunpowder to using a bullwhip, hit some sort of collective nerve. Featured in the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Wired, and the London Daily Telegraph, I was inundated with emails from kindred spirits, who after reading Absinthe and Flamethrowers want to share with me their own rationale and experiences in the Art of Living Dangerously.

Some of the stories retold sometimes makes it seem our world is in danger, not of becoming too dangerous but of becoming too safe. My friend, Minnesota based Jack Gordon wrote an essay which won the Economist/Shell Writing Prize a few years ago, in regard to the role of the media in this issue which is a pretty interesting take on the issue:

For two decades and counting, we citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave have happily traded freedom for every scrap of bogus safety dangled before us. Indeed, we have devoted prodigious energy to inventing threats that demand the sacrifice of liberty, privacy and even basic human dignity.

Blowing threats out of proportion is, of course, the stock in trade of TV news, whether the menace in question is a summer rainstorm or the distressing stains revealed when an investigative reporter shines ultraviolet light on a freshly laundered bed sheet at an upscale hotel. But television reflects its viewers' attitudes as well as shaping them, and clearly there exists a very large audience receptive to the never-ending theme: Life is meant, ever and always, to be safe--and you're not safe.

Gordon's full essay is here.


    1. 2 things, drinkcoke2009:

      1. You must not know anyone in the Intelligence community. I have uncles who work for NSA and to talk to them, you’d think 9/11 happened last week. This topic is depressingly relevant, if not even more so, what with our lack of habeus Corpus and the star spangled pageantry of torture-as-interrogation that has come to light since 2002.

      2. Your handle makes you sound like a spambot. Please tell me bots haven’t developed the ability to concern troll, or else we really are doomed.

      1. I don’t think it really means the Patriot Act specifically, but in every area of life we are trading freedom for security. For instance the recent law to protect us from lead in Chinese toys that instead made the sale of used children’s books illegal. Teachers are not allowed to hug or comfort students anymore because parents fear they are perverts. FDA drug approval is half of what it was 20 years ago. On and on we lose our freedoms and choices and keep handing over power over our lives to bureaucrats.

  1. No, it’s not a deliberate pun (unless it’s a double-reverse backflip pun). The word “milquetoast” comes from a comic strip character “Caspar Milquetoast” whose name is a pun on the bland milk toast that’s supposed to be easy to digest by someone with a delicate constitution.

  2. I am glad to hear that people have not yet switched off their brains. It’s the same in Europe: senseless safety campaigns you cannot argue against (with idiots, but they’re the majority), because it is for our good (“think of the chyldren!”).

    We don’t need more force-fed pseudosafety. We need more brains. Thinking before, while and after doing something is better than any safety campaign I have ever heard of. Because you *can* get run down on a green pedestrian light (“walk”).

    1. “think of the chyldren!”

      From the Greek prefixes I know, chyldren are full of juice. That means we need to be extra protective of them.

  3. SNL years ago did a hilarious skit mocking the inanity (and paranoia) of a local news show. It was full of teased stories about something deadly in your house that they would tell you about later in the broadcast (hint: it doesn’t bounce), a teaser about why loveable golden retrievers were suddenly becoming toddler-killing machines, and an editorial titled “Are we really safe?” which wondered if anyone/anything was safe, including safety products themselves. Turns out they aren’t.

    Here’s the transcript:

  4. If life is as fleeting and pointless as modern philosophers make it out to be, why worry? In fact, if you’re depressed, suicide makes a lot of sense because it ends the pain.

    If life is eternal and we are just passing through mortality, playing it safe probably won’t get you ahead in the world to come. Ask the martyrs. Heroes are never the ones who thought of themselves first. Human beings are built for danger and excitement, just as the folks at OSHA seem to get more of a kick from picturing freak accidents and making regulation to prevent them.

    In fact, evolution is based on the eternal lack of safety. Only competing and winning yields progress. The zebra who just stands there and counts on camouflage gets eaten. And what’s the reward for growing old? You get weak and fall behind the herd.

  5. As a nation, what are America’s sins? The two that come to my mind are “fear” and “greed” — of the many things wrong with this country, what don’t those cover?

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