The Monster Under the Bed

Parents of small children are familiar with the phenomenon. A few minutes after turning the lights out, a fearful cry comes from the bedroom: there’s a monster under my bed! That is typically followed by a parental “sweep” of the under-bed real estate and assurances that the room is safe for “night-night.”

But what do you do when the terrified child is—physically, at least—an adult?

As American politics has descended into farcical territory, the role played by fear has become increasingly obvious.

To some extent, of course, all of us are disoriented by the pace of social and economic change. But for some subset of our citizens, complexity and ambiguity are the monsters under the bed. As one of my sons observed a few weeks back, when we were scratching our heads over an especially egregious bit of political buffoonery, very scared people desperately crave certainty in a world that has none. They need a bipolar, black and white world in which good and evil, God and the Devil are clearly labeled and easily identified. The enemy is not so much the “Other” (immigrants, gays, African-Americans) as it is the relativism that their acceptance represents.

Which brings me to the folks currently insisting that public transportation and environmental protection are part of a United Nations “agenda” (not to be confused with the “gay agenda”) to destroy American liberty.

According to a story in today’s New York Times, activists with ties to the Tea Party are rallying against local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. As the Times article put it “They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities. They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances — efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.”

The designated Monster-Under-the-Bed in this case is a non-binding 1992 UN resolution encouraging resource conservation. Fox News and various activists have identified that resolution (unfortunate titled “Agenda 21”) as an effort to encourage urban living and density in order to strip away property rights. To denizens of this paranoid universe, public transit, bike lanes and smart meters–devices being installed by utility companies to collect information on energy use—are all part of this nefarious plan.

When the less conspiratorial among us hear these stories, our natural inclination is to shrug and laugh, but these protests are having an effect. The Times reports that they were successful in shutting down Maine’s efforts to reduce congestion on Route 1, and deep-sixing Florida’s high-speed rail plan, among others.

There are, of course, genuine issues raised by the movement of more Americans to cities. Urban dwellers are by necessity confronted with trade-offs that rarely confront more rural folks.  We need to make accommodations for the needs of our neighbors, and we need to make policies that serve whole communities—policies that will inevitably irritate some and satisfy others. Those realities do constrain us. I live in a historic district, for example, where I have to obtain approval to paint my house a different color. Does that limit my property rights? Sure.

There is not only nothing wrong with discussing and debating the trade-offs that come with living in modern industrialized societies, it is a conversation that is absolutely critical. But like all such debates, it needs to be conducted by adults and informed by reason and evidence.

The world is scary enough without inventing monsters to fear.