Risky Business, Life
By A.D. Freudenheim  

31 January 2005

Life, broadly speaking, might just be about risk management – each of us, every minute, makes assessments about what actions to take, turns to make, roads to follow, foods to eat, etc., and all of these decisions carry risks. President Bush, when he choked on a very ordinary pretzel a few years ago, demonstrated the inherent risks involved in even the simplest of acts. The degree to which we are conscious of these dangers (or opportunities, as one might prefer to see them) depends in part on our individual natures, knowledge, and our understanding or assessment of any situation.

Acceptance of risk also relates, unquestionably, to the society in which we live. Communities, and the governments that manage them, frequently analyze the risks to their citizens of particular actions, and either seek to legislate those risks through broad control of classes of activity or by narrowly defining acceptable standards for any individual – or, in some cases, by choosing to do nothing at all. How successful governments are at this depends, in part, on one’s belief in the desirability of such government intervention, as well a particular perspective about the definition of success.

Traveling in and around Mexico City over the last week revealed a lot about the tolerance of risk in Mexican culture. In the hotel, one elevator does not have an electric eye to prevent the doors from closing as people enter or exit. Street-side vendors, too numerous to count, sell hot and cold foods of every kind, from carts as formal as those seen in New York or Berlin to coolers and over-turned oil-cans that serve as stools when food is not being sold; even to suggest sanitation as an issue misses the point, because there was quite evidently nothing sanitary about any of it. A visit to the pyramids at Teotihuacan – a stunning site, as beautiful as it is mysterious – means climbing these ancient altars while holding onto a small hand rail, but at each level on the way up, no guard rail is present to prevent anyone from falling off or rolling, bumpily, to their death. And then there is the prominent smoking by Mexican citizens, permitted almost everywhere, and which surely pales in comparison to the horrors of the city’s air pollution.

And so: Second-hand smoke? Perhaps. Slip off the Pyramid of the Sun, another victim of the Toltecs and Aztecs? No doubt you were too close to the edge. Suffering from the proverbial Montezuma’s Revenge? Well, those street-side empanadas did look good. Stuck in the elevator doors? Don’t be so damn pushy and impatient; it will come back down again.

These examples are mostly mundane, but their ordinariness is exactly their value. One might glean from all this that Mexicans somehow value life less than we Americans do, since they live in a society that fails to address such easily-regulated risks. Government regulation aside, however, Mexicans seem to have a much more internalized awareness and acceptance that life itself is risk – and that if we try to eliminate all risk, we will also eliminate life. Maybe a government should not be too busy to address all of these simple dangers, and should discourage people from smoking or make tourist sites safer or regulate all food vendors. But smoking, for all its dangers, does feel good; and tourists do crazy things anyway, railings or not; and food from street vendors can taste good, and be good; and ultimately, life may be too short not to allow people to make some decisions on their own.

Equally, Mexico seems a place of great emotion. The city buzzes with life, with human engagement of the kind that New York often seems to be missing. In Mexico, people seem to feel – they look like they feel, and what they feel undoubtedly extends beyond frustration or anxiety. Contrast this with the U.S., all too commonly a nation and a culture where people do not feel much at all; the copious psychotropic drugs, advertised ubiquitously, make sure our psyches are immune to most highs and lows. More importantly, however, this lack of feeling is directly connected to how we Americans feel about risk: because we have tried to legislate so many aspects of our life, notionally to “protect” us, our tolerance for risks of all kinds continues to drop.

Here, when something goes wrong, Americans seek a culprit, a negligent party on whom they can extract revenge through the courts, because we believe that there must be someone to blame for every bad thing that happens to us. Indeed, President Bush’s desire to reform tort law in the U.S., and to cap payouts in civil cases involving (corporate) wrong-doing, is both a cause and a symptom of the same risk-averse phenomenon: on the one hand, the President (rightly) believes that people too often blame corporations for problems of their own making; at the same time, by seeking to cap court-imposed penalty payments, the President is helping corporations avoid risk, even when they are at quite legitimately at fault.

Moreover, because every day life can be so mundane – so much the product of our heavily-controlled society in every sense of the word – Americans wind up fawning over an idiotic phenomenon like “Fear Factor,” the recent hit television show in which people take absurd and stupid risks (from high-dive jumps on moving airplanes to sitting in a box full of scorpions) in order to feel alive, and to convey to audiences that it is possible to experience emotion and excitement and the thrill of danger again. The spoken introduction to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” program used to include the phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”; would such a phrase hold any appeal in this day and age? How pathetic we have become, when the vicarious thrills we seek from Hollywood go well beyond the fantasies about the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous, or the daring-do of the likes of James Bond or Indiana Jones, and must now encompass even just the basic experience of danger and fear.

The irony in all this is that Americans do live in a dangerous, risky society. We have exponentially more murders from firearms than any nation on earth, yet most states doggedly refuse to regulate them strenuously, and some even embrace them. We have increasingly safe cars, but still high numbers of life-threatening accidents – probably because we take greater risks with our more capable cars. As the attacks of September 11, 2001 showed, we fool ourselves into believing that the police protection we see around us when checking in for a flight translates into fool-proof security in the air.

Just one week out of the United States was a great reminder that we must be alert to, and aware of, and understanding of, our own actions. Individually, we will always face risks and challenges, no matter how much we try to legislate them away collectively. More than simply facing them, we should try to embrace them as opportunities when we can, while seeking to avoid those dangers that are, in fact, quite likely to kill us. Life is too short – and death is inevitable – so we must make the best decisions we can at any given moment.

  Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.