Flirting with The Beast

This is an op ed I wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. It’s been lightly edited to add some additional links.

Years ago, while serving on the San Carlos City Council, we experienced a home burglary surge. Sadly, those happen from time to time. There’s an “arms race” between burglars and police, with the burglars developing new techniques and the police updating their playbook in response.

As my co-host Seth Rosenblatt explained in our podcast Jumping to Conclusions (available at and through most podcast services), this is inevitable. Criminals have the advantage of knowing what they’re going to do, while, despite intelligence gathering, law enforcement generally doesn’t. Eliminating that imbalance would require a police presence few would tolerate (e.g., 24/7 surveillance, monitoring people in their homes, etc.).

As good police departments do, the San Carlos cops held a public meeting to address community concerns. I attended to learn more, and to see how staff comported themselves.

It was an eye opener.

Not because of what staff did or didn’t do. They did their typically great job. No, what totally surprised me was how the community reacted. They introduced me to what I came to call The Beast.

Remember, these were middle and upper middle class, polite, community-minded people who commit a lot of their personal time to making their community better. The city’s motto — The City of Good Living — is not just words. It reflects an approach to community that has deep roots. San Carlans typically go out of their way to help each other.

And in that meeting, if they could’ve gotten their hands on one of those burglars, I think they might have cheerfully torn him (it’s almost always a him) limb from limb.

I could feel the energy moving back and forth through the crowd as various people spoke, aired their concerns, and asked for advice on how to respond. It was one of the few times in my life I wondered if George Lucas was right and there was such a thing as The Force.

The Beast is a community-level expression of a self-centered primate’s strong desire to defend its self-interest in the face of threat, either real or perceived. If our ability to form, and benefit from, social connections is the angel on one shoulder, The Beast is the character on our other shoulder, always whispering to us that maybe we’d be better off tearing this place down and starting over. Despite training, education, acculturation, and the desire to play nice, The Beast is always with us.

Which is why I consider a public leader deliberately triggering The Beast, or even flirting with doing so, to be something he or she must be held accountable for. Not necessarily in a court of law, although that can happen, too, if actions are bad enough. But definitely in the court of public opinion.

A leader calling upon The Beast is a choice a community cannot ignore. To do so risks the destruction of the community by the ambitious, whether they are seeking to make things better or simply to line their and their friends’ pockets.

One of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, I despise former President Trump is that he apparently knows nothing about The Beast or doesn’t care what happens when it’s awakened. In one sense that’s not surprising. He had no political experience before being elected. But that’s irrelevant. When you’re given the keys to the kingdom, you must honor and protect the kingdom according to its laws. And Constitution.

Watching what wannabe-leaders like Kari Lake and various Republican Congressional representatives are doing in response to Trump being lawfully indicted greatly concerns me. Lake loves to remind us that many who ardently support Trump are card-carrying members of the NRA. If that isn’t a call to The Beast, I don’t know what is.

Most of us just want to enjoy our lives with friends and family. But it’s time, folks. Those who support our system of governance, despite its imperfections and failings, can’t afford to sit this out. We need to step forward, together. Because the threat cuts across all other political divisions. Politics becomes irrelevant when community collapses.

This isn’t a matter for guns. But it is time to speak up and take action. We need to banish from public office, through the ballot box, those who would tear down what we and our ancestors built. If you can, walk precincts for better candidates, particularly in swing districts. Donate money. Share your concerns with friends and relatives.

Because if we don’t act, we’ll have surrendered to The Beast. And can kiss pursuit of that more perfect union goodbye.

4 thoughts on “Flirting with The Beast”

  1. As always well said and well done.
    Remember our local and current elected use the beast to inflame the masses which are often out of touch, un-informed, and naive as well as plagued with conformational biases.
    unfortunately they won’t take the time to understand what you wrote or are saying.
    Hence the current political climate.

  2. Collective consensus can become a “beast” when it is rooted in unwarranted fear and fueled by unjust demonization of others. To deliberately incite mob rage is indeed an insidious formula at work in today’s politics. I wholeheartedly agree that those who practice this kind of demagoguery should be banished from public office by the will of informed and enlightened voters.

    However, I think your argument in favor of our defense of democracy could be better motivated.

    Crime surges aren’t things that just “happen from time to time.” They are the result of public policies. The police I talked to in 2013 were extremely frustrated that lenient and permissive laws and policies were allowing criminals to run rampant. They knew by name the persons who burglarized my house, yet they were powerless to charge the perpetrators because of technicalities. And they quietly advised us that even if charged, the penalties would be no more than a slap on the wrist.

    I attended the 2013 council meeting on the burglary crews predating San Carlos and other peninsula communities. You may regard angry crime victims as wild-eyed loons raging into a malignant beast. I happen to think that indignation and anger are justified when one’s own and neighbors’ houses and homes are being violated. It is the job of elected officials to channel this outrage and corral the real bad guys—the criminals. That is not happening, in part due to ideologically driven misapprehensions that pervade one side of our polarized political discourse.

    So the beast you write of in regard to contemporary politicians is not the same community force your San Carlos neighbors were compelled to join by the very real threats and injustices we experienced.

  3. Hi Eric,

    I’ll ignore your rather outsized exaggerations and mischaracterizations of what I said, and limit myself to saying I disagree with most of your thesis.

    For example, I think you haven’t fully parsed what the police told you. I remember when the citizens of California decriminalized marijuana possession, and the law enforcement people I worked with bemoaned that. Why? Because it meant they couldn’t stop and search a car driven by a suspicious character based on clues/hints/odors that the occupants possessed marijuana…even though busting them for possession wasn’t the goal :).

    Put another way, while I respect most law enforcement people a lot, like everyone else they are willing to cut corners, all the while arguing they wouldn’t do something wrong/unconstitutional. For most of them that’s true…but it’s also quite obvious, empirically, that not all of them operate at such a high standard. It’s a classic who shall watch the watchmen situation. Check out what’s happening over in the East Bay, at Antioch (I think), as an example.

    I’m sorry you were burgled, as I was sorry that I was burgled years ago. I didn’t care for it, I was very angry about it for quite a while and I, too, at that time would’ve happily seen the miscreant executed (literally) for what he did to me. After all, from my perspective, which is actually the more important? My since of security in my home, my beautiful and cool and expensive big screen color TV and about $1,000 of quarters I’d collected or the life of someone I don’t know? On a personal level the answer is pretty obvious.

    Moreover, since I was on my way to becoming a reasonably well-off guy, who cleverly arranged to be white, why should I care if the more intensive security arrangements which would better protect me happen to catch and prosecute, incorrectly, a whole bunch of less well-off people innocent, or innocent people who don’t look like me? Again, on a personal self-interest level the answer is obvious.

    And both answers are dead wrong. The goal of civilization is not to give Mark Olbert a safe and easy path through life. It’s to provide everyone a reasonably safe and easy path for through life. And stand ready to support those who get harmed.

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