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Comply and Fall

by James Lileks

The National Review cruise was great, except for the part when the ship got lost. We left Fort Lauderdale, sailed into the yawning maw of the North Atlantic, and couldn’t find our bearings. Terrifying at first, but then we learned why: Someone left an electronic device in the “on” position, and it completely scrambled all the navigation equipment. It’s not rare — last month the Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest and most technologically sophisticated cruise ship, set sail for the Bahamas but went halfway up the Mississippi River because someone forgot to turn off a Kindle. Rumor says the captain found the offender and beat the e-reader into pieces with a sextant. So tired of this happening.

Well, no. I made that up. But it makes you wonder why you have to turn off everything when an airplane takes off. No pilot ever says, “Man, the stick was just buckin’ up and down as we tried to climb, thanks to some dang fool who didn’t turn off his pacemaker.” So what’s the rationale?

Safety! If something happens during takeoff, they want your total attention. The sudden banging sounds, the shuddering of the fuselage as if it were a snake attempting to shed its skin, the screams, the acrid smoke, the oxygen mask in front of your face — if you’re listening to Haydn on the way up, you might miss these subtle cues. If you’re reading a Kindle, you might be so engrossed in the story you ignore your seatmate’s punches as he attempts to clamber over your lap. But what if I’m reading the in-flight magazine? you say. What’s the difference? The in-flight magazine is designed so you’ll constantly turn the page looking for something more interesting than “six don’t-miss burger joints in Spokane” and won’t be too distracted in the event of a water landing. This is a safety feature.

It’s easier to ban everything, and we comply because we don’t want our picture in the paper next to a story headlined “Man Removed from Airplane over Refusal to Stop Playing Angry Birds.” So we shut everything off, feign sleep, contemplate mortality, consider how the miracle of flight is now commonplace, then flip open our devices the moment it’s “safe.” O glowing rectangle, how I have missed you. All is forgiven and forgotten.

It’s a feature of modern life: compliance with the Authorities because there’s no point to objecting. It’s annoying enough when you’re led by the wise, but when you’re led by a pack of jackanapeses and dunderheads, well, to quote Plato, hoo boy.

Which brings us to the bureaucrats of Europe. This time it’s the matter of the improperly advertised water. From the bulging file of “Only in Europe! (Until It Happens Next Year in San Francisco)” comes this story: EUcrats have chided a bottled-water company for making a health claim unsupported by science. Makes you taller? Smarter? Even more egalitarian? No, the company made a claim of jaw-dropping audacity: The water was useful in preventing dehydration.

There was some technical explanation about absorption rates and cellular integrity, but no one cares about the rationale, because it’s ridiculous. Find any marathon, stand at the finish line, and offer the runners a choice between a) water, and b) a glass of sand. Wager on which one they’ll take. You could say, “Sure, they’ll take the water, because they’ve been conditioned by a lifetime of ads from Big H2O,” but most people would take water because they’re — what’s the word? — thirsty. For water. The EUcrats’ next step will probably be a stern demand to reedit all those French Foreign Legion movies, so the drama no longer hinges on the last precious drops in a canteen as they stagger across the trackless desert. While you’re at it, edit out the cigarettes, so everyone appears to be putting their fingers to their lips, thoughtfully.

 It’s the crisis of Western Civ in a snapshot: On one hand, a populace so affluent they buy fancy tricked-up water, as if they were Third Worlders whose municipal water supply was a chunky broth of gut-gripping microbes; on the other hand, an overeducated, overpaid, nomenklatura remora hanging on the body of energetic capitalism, spending three years to study whether water has hydrating properties — and then handing down diktats to private enterprise to force them to change their ads.

Expand the example a thousandfold, and you have the entire European experience with regulation on the molecular level. Everyone understands that the government doesn’t approve of the wording of a bottled-water advertisement. No one cares. Authority without authority; acquiescence without respect: That’s where the Western world is today. When times are good, who cares — but after a while people note that the teeming armies of Brussels busybodies are obsessing over these wee teeny issues while flaming roof timbers of the post-war economic system crash down on the marble floor. Europe is burning, and they’re regulating water. They exist in a fantasy world that’s 99.999 percent perfect; some fine-tuning is needed here and there, and then things will be so magnifique they can take a year off before they tackle the last issue vexing Europe: the typeface for the regulations governing the state subsidies for conversion of empty churches into mosques. Some say Helvetica, some say Times New Roman. One meeting about that issue almost came to blows.

America isn’t there yet, but we’re close. If the West doesn’t get a sudden infusion of leadership, brash claims by water bottlers will be the least of our concerns. As the flight attendants might put it: Put away your toys. We have begun our descent.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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