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The Trauma of Backyard Fires
An object lesson in straining gnats
“Peterborough Fire Services reminds residents that open-air burning is not permitted within the City of Peterborough in accordance with the Ontario Fire Code.”
- The Minister for the Ministry of Probable Threats
It has been a mainstay of governments throughout history to make many great and precious promises towards the elimination of social ills: crime, poverty, debt, etc. Despite the fact that they usually leave things worse than they found it, I still feel like points should be awarded for the semblance of good intentions.
Today, however, it’s no longer fashionable to govern according to vulgar binaries such as “problems” and “solutions.” Instead, governments — especially sprawling bureaucracies like our own — have taken up the cause of the potential problem. Though a full tally of these potential problems has yet to be counted, some of the current ones include overpopulation, plastic bags, farmers, oil, heterosexuals, red wine, and my personal favourite, christofascism.
To answer these looming threats, civil authorities have had no choice but to take up arms against that perennial root of evil: human agency. I mean, let’s be realistic — the only way this leaky tub is ever going to arrive at the glistening (with lithium mines) shores of Technotopia is if we start curbing the amount of decisions people make. Fewer decisions means fewer mistakes, right? . . . RIGHT?!
But notice the assumption beneath this tactic: freedom is just a minor casualty on the road to human flourishing — just an unfortunate house-cat, barely registering as a bump in the air-conditioned cab of the state's F-150. Before you know it, WE have become the minor casualty on the highway to state flourishing.1 It should be noted that the governments that have actually followed-through on these assumptions are now in history books under the heading, “Things That Lead to Unimaginable Human Suffering.”
The Slippery Slope of Backyard Fires
Fire — besides being perhaps the most ancient means of good cheer and fellowship — is also known for its unpredictable streak. One minute you’ll be trying to get a darn match to light; the next minute your darn forehead looks like David Bowie’s during the Ziggy Stardust years. Even after it’s lit there’s a myriad of things that can go wrong. Who knows when a heated nail might go spinning off into your calf muscle? Or when a shower of sparks might decide to settle on the family dog? Or when a baked potato might be forgotten under a pile of ash and slowly be reduced to an inedible briquette?
Whether it's the volatile nature of fire that puts authorities on edge, or its frightening accessibility, one thing remains certain: backyard fires are a public menace. Even Fire Chief Chris Snetsinger, widely regarded as the best of all Snetsingers, agrees that “Open-air burning poses a significant risk of fire spreading as well as related health concerns from the smoke [. . .] Even the smell of smoke can cause breathing difficulties in adults and children.”
Significant risks . . . Fire spreading . . . Health concerns . . . Breathing Difficulties. Who wouldn’t want to stamp out these potential threats? Who wouldn't want to truss up every significant risk and bury them in a granite coffin? And let’s not forget that by clamping down in response to that one weiner roast ten years ago which accidentally burnt down Mrs. McCudley’s potting shed, officials have not only demonstrated their commitment to the general public, but also to local fire services, who were quite upset after learning they might occasionally have to put out fires.
As serious as these potential problems are, however, I can’t help but shake the niggling thought that there should be some discussion about — oh, I don’t know — actual problems? You know, the ones reproducing like horny, adolescent rabbits? You know, the opioid problems, the unaffordable housing problems, the domestic human trafficking problems, and the child exploitation problems? Not to mention the state-sponsored problems — the tent ghettos, the self-obliviation stations, and child-indoctrination centers.
I’m just not 100% sure this new triage system — where the guy with the paper cut gets admitted before the guy with the poleaxe in his skull — is going to be sustainable in the long term.
The reality is that none of this has anything remotely to do with safety. A much simpler explanation for the present promethean reversal is as follows:
The best way to control people is to crush them until they are beaten and miserable
The best way to crush people is to prohibit their avenues of joy
The best way to prohibit people’s avenues of joy is to pretend you’re doing it for their safety
To quote one lost soul: “The trade-off between freedom and security, so often proposed so seductively, very often leads to the loss of both.”2
Not Just the Management
Though it’s convenient and self-justifying to blame the boss, the problem isn’t just our withered overlords. After all, the city only initially rolled out its cold-war measures in 2014 “In response to a number of [. . .] complaints regarding open air burning.” That’s right. The Man isn’t just the government. He is you; he is me; and he is every man that fails to notice the cedar post in his own eye while gleefully pointing out the grass clipping in his neighbour’s.
In this, and as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years, two hard truths have emerged. First, most people are not actually the good neighbours they thought they were. Given the opportunity, we don’t so much resemble big-hearted Samaritans as we do petty, smallish tyrants. Secondly, our skill at locating gnat-sized problems is matched only by our skill at ignoring large ones. We’ll dream about gnats; we’ll talk about gnats; we’ll smell a gnat on the wind three miles off. And yet we're oblivious to the camel eating cornflakes at our kitchen table.
We have settled for the old lie. That God is just as pleased with a teaspoon of spice as He is with mercy and thankfulness; that He is just as pleased when we call the police on our neighbours as when we share a meal with them. Like some kind of demented parable, we imagine the kingdom of God to be like a bag of gnats, and the person with the biggest bag wins.
That such small moments of grace in this frozen world — the toasted marshmallow, the fruity pungence of wood smoke, the comforting *snap* of a pine log — should provoke such indignance and suspicion shouldn’t surprise us. Is it any wonder that enemies of true righteousness would try to cobble together their own? Is it any wonder that when we find we can’t extinguish the Consuming Fire, we would try to smother His backyard analogies?
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).
Support the fringe.
Christopher Hitchens, Forcing Freedom, https://reason.com/2003/08/01/forcing-freedom-2/. Accessed July 10, 2023.