Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/02/2010

John Locke, JD Salinger, Calibri Font, and Me

Yesterday was one of those days when I wonder where the rule book or the guide book or the instruction manual for getting through this life is. 

Where was I when they were handed out? 

Or, conversely, why am I such a wuss that things bother me that shouldn’t (and, to my knowledge, don’t) bother most people? I understand many people have real problems, serious physical ailments and challenges, debilitating and/or terminal diseases, poverty, earthquake devastation, oppression and war—the sorts of things that would destroy most of us. I doubt I could survive any really serious challenge to my life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. 

I’m a whiner and so self-absorbed that everything is a problem to me. 

Yesterday I either forgot to take a pill, or took one too many, or the generic variety I’m forced to take these days—the co-pay for the brand name under new insurance went up to $600 a month—has finally stopped working. Something weird happened. Beats me. By noon (during my second class of the day) I could barely get a sentence out. And the world might as well have floated off to Mars for all my connection to “reality” was concerned.  I freaked. 

I knew the experience wouldn’t kill me (at least it never has in the past—or has it?) and it would pass soon enough (it’s somewhat back this morning, but not with that intensity). So I taught my other two classes, let the last one out early, came home, fell asleep, woke up when the friend I was to have dinner with called to confirm, went to dinner feeling like I’d been run over by a Mack truck, babbled incessantly through dinner, came home and fell asleep in front of the T and V, and woke up about 9 PM with my head clear for the first time all day, and it was bed time.

But why should any free and independent person consciously and willingly choose to obey any king or chieftain or the laws of a society? To answer this question, we need to understand that there are essentially two sources for the duty to obey such laws. The first is authority; the second is mutual consent (1).

That’s what I’d like to know: why? I’m wary of all authority, and I don’t remember giving my consent, mutually or otherwise, to most of the nonsense I have to put up with.

Take this idiotic Microsoft product I use every day. When I open a new document and begin to type, the words appear in an ugly font called “Calibri.” It’s ugly, but I have no choice. It’s the default. “Calibri” is a “Humanist sans-serif typeface [ ] characterized by the presence of the hand. . . .similar in form to the Carolingian Script, and an overall more organic structure.” Gimme a break. Give me back my Times New Roman. Or at least give me a choice!  “Humanist?” A typeface can’t be “humanist.” “Humanism” is a way of looking at the world that posits humanity as the center of humanity’s universe. Or it’s the name of the journal from which the above quotation comes. But a “humanist” font? That’s like saying a “christian” automobile.

I’m tired of the “social contract.” I give my students a lot of stuff to read about it (the Grant article, for example). They have to understand the term in order to figure out and write about the rhetorical project of the Declaration of Independence which is part of the basis for the rhetorical project of the First Amendment.

But only peripherally, of course.

When I got home from dinner, I saw the empty non-fat dry milk carton I left sitting on the blanket chest inside my front door to remind me I had no milk for my coffee this morning, and I walked next door to the supermarket to get milk. My head was already in a seizure-or-medication-induced stupor, and the fluorescent lights penetrated through my skull, and the Spanish-language music I love, and the general hubbub of the place got to me, and I wanted to run screaming from the check-out line. Alejandra, the check-out clerk who likes the diamond in my ear, was pleasant, but even she could not make things better.

. . . .When obedience. . . .is simply the result of blind and unthinking compliance with the law, there is no free, intelligent, and conscious choice involved; there is no consent. To yield to the strong is an act of prudence, not an act of respect for the law. Only when submission to the authority of a society is learned and accepted as a thoughtful, deliberate choice does acceptance of this duty become an ethical act (2).

The problem with not running screaming from the check-out line or not throwing my milk carton to the ceiling to smash at least one of the fluorescent lights, or doing any of the other hundred and one things I thought of is that not doing them is not an ethical act. It’s “unthinking compliance.” It’s the “default.”

As I was walking home, about a half-block, I reveled in the darkness, the cool on my face. I heard someone walking behind me, so I walked a little faster. When I got to the gate and turned to unlock it (ours isn’t a gated community, simply a parking lot with a locked gate), I realized the stalker was a man who lives in the building whom I am too shy to get to know but want to. And, I think, vice versa.

But as I was walking, I thought about the woods around Port Orford, Oregon, where the picture of me looking out over the ocean came from. I want to live there. I want not to be part of the social contract. I want not even to have to think about whether the synapses in my brain are misfiring. I want not to have to think about whether or not I can put two sentences together without grand pauses between them (I certainly don’t want a bunch of eighteen-year-olds to witness it). I want not to have to worry about the expired inspection sticker on my car. I want not to have to think about how I’m going to get the $1200 of my own money payroll took out last year to deposit in a “flex” account that I can’t figure out how to access and it will soon be too late.

What would it be like simply to live? John Locke, as every high school senior in this country who lives by the social contract knows, wrote in his Second Treatise on Government,

Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living. . . . 

I don’t recall anyone ever asking me if I wanted to be subjected to the political power (or any other kind of power, especially economic) of another. Living in a community seldom feels “comfortable, safe, and peaceable” to me. It feels like the “default,” and it’s faulty.

I can’t be alone in that. JD Salinger, I guess, thought that. But he didn’t seem very “comfortable” off there in the New Hampshire woods.  

I want my solitude to be “comfortable, safe, and peaceable.”
(1) Grant, Robert. “The Social Contract and Human Rights.” The Humanist Jan. 2000: 19.
(2)  ibid. 20.


  1. If it’s any consolation, I’m in a stupor a lot. My health is good. Very enjoyable reading. I’m guessing Alejandra is young and cheerful. Give her a present.


    • Alejandra is young and cheerful. When I’m there and not feeling the way I was the other night, I enjoy the place. And the check-out clerks are uniformly pleasant to the old man gringo who speaks halting Spanish with them. I gave each of them a pink rose for Christmas.



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