The Evolution of Florida Man

If you don’t know who or what Florida Man is, you can check out his Twitter or just read about him on Wikipedia. The question here is why Florida Man?

The Wikipedia article notes that Florida’s open-records laws make it easier for journalists to write stories about random criminal weirdos — although that defense is from the Miami Herald, which maybe has a dog in the fight. Carl Hiaasen, native Floridian and long-time Herald columnist, has a less charitable take:

We do have this vortex of depravity in Florida. Strange things happen all over the country, bizarre and disturbing things. But Dave Barry will tell you the same thing: The sheer weight and volume of weirdness is unique to South Florida and now really all of Florida, all the way up to the Panhandle.

As a native Floridian, I agree with Hiaasen. Nowhere else I have lived has the deep antisocial tendencies that Florida does.

And why? Hiaasen’s theory — which I can’t find a link to — is basically that Florida is a magnet for weird people, that the weird ones are disproportionately likely to move down there from wherever.

There’s a sociological argument to be made that this is true, insofar as moving away from your home community requires you to disconnect from the social context of your life. A person with diminished social capacity is going to find that disconnect easier and more attractive than a person with normal social capacity.

Yes, there are some normal people in Florida, but the bias towards antisocial means that the weirdos are somewhat more prevalent than in other states. This increases the prevalence of single-actor weirdness, but also greatly increases the likelihood that two weirdos will meet up and do something weird together (or to each other). If this were a statistical model, the interaction term would be highly significant.

And it’s not that every person in Florida is antisocial — just that a larger proportion than other states we consider ‘normal’. And because Florida has such a big population, that translates to a big population of weirdos. Alaska, as best I can tell, also has a disproportionate share of weirdos, but because the total population is small the total number of weirdos and weirdo incidents is much less than Florida.

The weirdo-magnet theory works whether you believe diminished social capacity is a nature problem or a nurture problem. Probably some of both, but I tend to believe it is more a nurture problem: the antisocial weirdos don’t learn the requisite social skills and thus aren’t able to teach them to their offspring.

It’s also true for old people, as well as young. It is entirely possible for a person to conform to social norms for most of his working life, then retire to a life of social dysfunction in sunny Florida. I would argue that this phenomenon best explains why Florida’s government does so little to check antisocial behavior: oldsters who no longer give a damn about anybody are a crucial voting bloc.

Were the State of Florida – the government – more functional, it could play a major role in teaching residents and citizens the social skills necessary to live in civilization. Instead the state does pretty much the opposite, a negative feedback loop driving social dysfunction.

For centuries the state – in the general usage of the term – has been the vehicle for Western civilization, the vessel in which we have learned to live with one another. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of brutal political and social upheaval that ended the Holy Roman Empire’s domination of Europe and forged the modern system of sovereign nation-states.

That system has a checkered record, for sure, but there is also good evidence that the nation-state has made human civilization much less violent than it had previously been. The state has spent the last four hundred years teaching people to think about their actions, to behave with greater respect and less malice toward one another, and punishing transgressors. In the same way that Florida selects for weirdos, the nation-state selects for normal people — in fact, the state defines what counts as normal.

Not every weirdo in Europe was killed outright in this process — although many were. But Europe, through its colonies, had a relief valve for the weirdos, shipping them to places like… here. The Pilgrims and Puritans came to this land because they were religious minorities fleeing King Charles I (and that some later returned to England to fight against the king in the civil war).

And for centuries since, this country has welcomed misfits and rejects from Europe and elsewhere in the world. Again, it’s not that everyone is badly socialized — but enough are that we stand out in Western civilization. We have lagged behind consistently: you can measure it by our human rights record, our inequality, our social welfare spending, our propensity for war.

And because of our power and prominence, the weirdness of American society has global consequence. The U.S. is, in effect, the Florida of the industrialized world.

There is no better proof of this than President Trump.¬†While Trump may seem too brash or blustery for New York, he is well within the normal curve for Florida. It is no coincidence that he spends most weekends in Florida — not New York. He was born up north, but his soul belongs down there.

We elected Florida Man because we are Florida Man. It’s easy for Americans to laugh at the weirdos in Florida, but a lot harder to get laughed at by the rest of the world. It’s important to ask — and understand — why.

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