Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Survivalist for All Seasons

The theme of JC Dodge's essay "The Importance of the Right Label" is exactly what the title says: the importance of integrity and honesty in thinking about ourselves and others, how labels are perverted by nefarious people for nefarious purposes, and what our choice of labels says about ourselves during crunch time.

In the process of explaining all this, JC answers the question: what is the difference between a survivalist and a prepper? He has very interesting things to say there, and it is worth reading three times over to absorb it all. The following is what I gleaned from having done just that. All quotes, except for one, are from that essay, and are used with his permission.

First, what is a survivalist?
"A “Survivalist” has a mindset that makes preparing for bad times a lifestyle and looks forward to the training, education, and acquiring of the means to accomplish that goal."
He takes this further by outlining a survivalist manifesto...
"A “Survivalist” is one who isn’t afraid of the task ahead. Even though those tasks appear foreboding. The “Survivalist” is optimistic about the outcome of any future calamity, and realizes that being prepared for anything is a lifestyle, not a hobby. A “Survivalist” doesn’t give two shits about being politically correct, since reality dictates that “The politically correct” will be the first to die. This is true, when you consider their lack of foresight and the unending need for their “perception of things” to be real, and that perception will always override the true “reality of things” in their mind."
The best part of that paragraph is the realization that a man lives by his mind. Appearance is irrelevant, perception is irrelevant; what matters is that reality exists and that we are capable of understanding it. This is the absolute key to survival. A man who lives by his mind, lives; a man who ignores his mind, thereby ignoring reality, dies. Simple.

Second, what is a prepper?
"At the end of the 90’s, we started hearing a term describing those that were getting ready for the Y2K event, and that term was “Prepper”. The term “Prepper” was apparently politically correct, at least as much as a term describing a self reliant individual could be. My take on the “preppers” of that time frame was that they wanted to be ready, just in case, but they generally didn’t want people around them to know they were “nutty” preparedness types."
JC goes on to affirm the first and reject the second: "I AM A SURVIVALIST, not a Prepper! I don’t need to use a politically correct term to describe my less than politically correct mindset and actions."

Later, JC must be credited for coming up with a new name for when the SHTF: TEOTWAWKISTAN, heh! Courage wants to laugh, and you can tell he was having the time of his life when he invented that!

Finally, we have this very telling sentence: "Learning to survive alone and planning to survive alone are two different things. The difference is similar to the difference between “Living” and “Existing”." In other words, a survivalist wants not simply to live but to live as a man.

So, is the difference between a survivalist and a prepper simply that the former "has grown a set" and the latter never will? Is a prepper a "survivalist in the closet" at best? I think there is more to it.

Everyone's heard the saying that begins "Give a man a fish...". What that phrase means is that knowledge is more valuable than the immediate consequences of applying that knowledge. JC applies this to milquetoast survivalism, the prepper movement: "A lot of the “Preppers” I’ve met... seem to have a mindset similar to 'If I acquire enough stuff, I’ll be fine.'"


Let's play devil's advocate, put ourselves in a prepper's shoes, and apply Pascal's Wager to the "prepper lifestyle": either there's a ________ coming, or there isn't (fill in the blank with whatever catastrophe you want). If it does come, and I have acquired enough stuff, great! If not, I spent a lot of money and I look like an idiot. The former outcome is favorable, the latter is inconvenient or irrelevant; so I should be a prepper.

There is so much wrong with that approach, but you hear this type of spineless utilitarianism all the time. Let's start at the start, and staying with JC's theme of the importance of integrity, all of the problems that preppers have - and that survivalists don't - stem from that blank spot in the above argument.

The goal of the survivalist is just that: to survive as a man. By "as a man" I mean that the survivalist wants to protect the ideals, people, and things he values - in a manner appropriate to men, not savages nor animals. Whatever the catastrophe, the survivalist's goal remains the same. For the survivalist, it is the goal that determines the means.

For the prepper, it is the catastrophe that determines the means. The prepper focuses almost exclusively on the means to get through a calamity, and any goals beyond that are left nebulous. The prepper wants a lifestyle, not a life. He will end up having neither, for no prepper's hyper-detailed plan will survive contact with reality: change the details of the catastrophe, and the prepper is caught off guard.

(You can also see the consequences of this omission of goals in prepper fiction: their novels frequently read more like how-to manuals than fiction. The goal of fiction is to show, not to teach. Besides, any good how-to manual must have an index.)

There's also a problem of magnitude: many preppers fill in that blank with huge and sudden natural disasters, such as: Yellowstone volcanos, solar flares, asteroid strikes, etc. What about events that aren't huge? What about events that are gradual rather than sudden? What about man-made disasters?

February 2010 Snowstorm in Frederick, MD: Not something a prepper would consider worthy.

By being stuck in the mechanics of prepping for a particular large-scale event instead focusing on the goal (to survive as a man), the prepper is missing the opportunity to apply his "preps" to small and/or gradual events. Instead of worrying about Yellowstone volcanos, think of major snowstorms. Instead of solar flares, be concerned about the impending layoffs at your company. Instead of a sudden asteroid impact, prepare to fight creeping socialism.

From that standpoint, the S has already HTF, repeatedly.

Going back to Pascal, and back to JC's essay, there is another problem that preppers have and that survivalists don't: the "if not" part. What happens if the catastrophe never comes? As a solution to this, JC quotes Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long character (in "Time Enough for Love"?) as epitomizing the survivalist:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
The particular list of skills is not as important as the contrast between that variety and the single-mindedness of an insect. Taking this quote in isolation, one must ask of each of those activities: to what end? For Heinlein's answer, read any of his novels.

Notice not only the breadth of those skills, but also the depth to some of them. Most of those skills are nontrivial tasks, and require serious effort and discipline to complete. What Heinlein is saying here is the ideal man is not to be just a "competent man" or a "generalist", but an "exceptional man". He won't know how to do all of those things, but he has the ability to learn and adapt, and he knows that he must do so in order to survive.

One last thing about those skills: all of them are worth doing outside of catastrophic situations, and many of them pay quite well. This, I think, is a key difference between a prepper and a survivalist: the prepper wins Pascal's Wager only if a catastrophe happens; a survivalist wins either way.

In summary: a prepper is prepared to live through a disaster; a survivalist lives as a man, regardless of whether a disaster happens or not.

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