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There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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