The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
I’ve always liked that quote, but I think it misleads. That two plus two equals four is not a conservative truth or a liberal truth. It’s simply the truth. (Moynihan himself recognized this when he even more famously said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.)
Regardless, it’s true that culture is more important than politics. You could impose Sweden’s laws on the Middle East tomorrow, but you’d be well-advised not to hold your breath waiting for the Saudis to turn into the Swedes of the Arabian Peninsula.
But it’s also true that politics — specifically, government — can change cultures. It can be loud and bloody work, as with the abolition of slavery. Or the change can be more subtle. Twenty years ago, it was simply uncool to put on your seat belt. Now, everyone seems to do it reflexively. The law changed the culture, for the better.
Still, my biggest problem with Moynihan’s insight is that he didn’t think it all the way through. The “liberal truth” that politics can change a culture and save it from itself is double-edged. For just as politics can save the culture, politics can also destroy it.
Which brings me to Thomas Lopez, a 21-year-old lifeguard in South Florida.
Two days before the Fourth of July, Lopez was fired for helping rescue a man drowning 1,500 feet outside of his designated zone.
“It was a long run, but someone needed my help. I wasn’t going to say no,” Lopez told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other media outlets.
When Lopez filed his incident report, he was canned on the spot.
“They didn’t tell me in a bad way. It was more like they were ‘sorry, but rules are rules,’” Lopez said. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
The contractor that manages the lifeguard service has explained that the matter is out of its hands, too. Liability issues — i.e., fear of lawsuits, insurance requirements, etc. — demand a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized lifesaving.
It’s a small anecdote, to be sure. But does anyone doubt that there’s something about the legal regime in this country that’s creating a headwind against basic human decency? And I’m not just talking about trial lawyers and the politicians who love them.
Last year, in Alameda, Calif., a man walked into the chilly — but not exactly freezing — waters of San Francisco Bay to commit suicide. It was a slow affair. The police and firefighters got there in plenty of time. But, due to union-backed rules, they simply declined to save the man’s life. They just stood on the beach and watched.