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Mark Steyn

Topical Take

The Spirit of Independence

To all our American readers, Happy Independence Day! We have a song for the season.

Meanwhile, here's a Glorious Fourth column from 15 Fourths of July ago in The Daily Telegraph, in which features of life that have become far more oppressive of late were nevertheless already present, even in my beloved New Hampshire, even on the national holiday:

On Thursday I was in the Province of Quebec for Canada Day. Going to Quebec for Canada Day is a bit like going to Baghdad for the Fourth of July, but I try not to let the indifference of the locals weigh heavy on me. Instead, weighing heavy on me were the vast raft (so to speak) of new boating regulations from the federal government - mandatory PFDs and MBDs (personal flotation devices and manual bailing devices), waterproof flashlight, 15-metre buoyant heaving line, etc - all for a short canoe trip. I'm sympathetic to Conrad Black's case for Britain joining Nafta, but I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't make more sense to offer the European Union Canada in return.

So I was glad to get back to New Hampshire, the "Live Free Or Die" state. But at the town beach, where we'll be gathering for the Fourth of July fireworks, there was a problem. Thanks to a new federal law, it seems the children's swings are not surrounded by appropriate cushioning material. The Recreation Committee had done its sums and figured compliance would cost about $15,000 - for some foam rubber and extensive landscaping to disguise its visual impact.

"Why do we have to spend 15,000 bucks?" asked one of the selectmen (the New Hampshire equivalent of the town council). "The swings are surrounded by sand. That's a cushioning material, right?"

"Well, yes," admitted the Rec Director.

"Okay. Let's just pile up a bit more sand."

"We could," he said. "Except that it's illegal to put sand on a designated wetland."

"Let me see if I've got this right," said the selectman. "It's illegal to put sand on a beach?"

It seems to me we're fighting not just a jurisdictional challenge but a vast cultural tide, determined to ensure that every activity should be 100 per cent guaranteed safe, even if that means it's no longer any fun.

Take, for example, that staple of every Fourth of July parade: cute little girl scouts waving to the crowds as their float passes by. The Swift Water Girl Scout Council, which oversees all girl scout troops in the state, has ruled that at this weekend's parades the girls will have to be seated and buckled in on their floats, to comply with New Hampshire's recent law requiring children to wear seat belts. "I can't say nobody would ever enforce it," said the Police Chief of Manchester, the state's largest city. "But they'd look awful stupid."

The girl scouts' director is unapologetic. "If the float stopped quickly and the children are not secured, the children could have an accident," said Jane Behlke.Since the scouting movement began there has been not a single girl scout parade float tragedy in New Hampshire, although one year in Merrimack Mr Peanut - a giant peanut - did lose his head (something to do with a low bridge). But nowadays the nuts who've lost their heads are the regulators. On Independence Day, where's the spirit of independence?

It wasn't always like this. Once the whole point of the Fourth of July was that it should be wild and dangerous. There's a cannon on my town common that the boys used to fill with powder, stones and sod, and then touch off. Unmounted, it bucketed around, flipping somersaults and very occasionally shattering windows.

In 1939 Sarah Holt and Minnie Linton, who ran the guest house, refused to donate any money for gunpowder. Come the big night the guys dragged the cannon down to their front door and fired at the house for hours on end. The game spinsters told the guests that the boys were just a little high-spirited.

Indeed, the only reason my town has a jailhouse is because of the Fourth of July in 1892, when some fellow drank too much cider, went nuts and started trashing the place. After which they built a two-cell jail in case it happened again. I believe it's the only jail in New England with wooden bars.

Recently, unable to find my 1995 tax bill, I asked to see the town's copy. The selectman said they had run out of space at the town offices, so they were storing them in the jail. "My God," I cried, aghast. "You've turned the town jail into a stationery cupboard!"

And there, in a nutshell, is the story of the modern western world: not enough wild independent spirit, just more paperwork.

~from The Daily Telegraph, July 3rd 1999, prefiguring many a Steyn column since on America's descent into "the Republic of Paperwork".

from The Daily Telegraph, July 3, 2014

 

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