Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Kinsey Report

As environmentalists are aware, solvable problems have limited political utility. Because of the very strenuous efforts of many people in the United States and around the world, the ozone hole seems to have been successfully addressed; but just because sheep aren’t catching fire in Argentina, the public at large is indifferent to the issue and largely ignorant of how much work it took to prevent a global disaster. Smaller but significant examples, such as the expensive and protracted clean up efforts that restored Pittsburgh to livable condition also earn no votes for future efforts to manage pollution in other places. Indeed, the relative healthiness of many North American localities is an argument against spending money on environmental problems. “Hey, Lake Erie doesn’t look that bad to me.”

Like Egyptian peasants of the Old Kingdom, the Americans live in an eternal present. In the absence of an effective recollection, the fact that everything is changing at a furious pace doesn’t make any difference. It has been written—by me, actually—that longevity is the only time machine that works; but it’s not enough to possess the device. You’ve got to pull the gadget off the shelf and use it, or you’ve drawn those 946 million breaths in vain. If you don’t bother to remember how things came to be, including the good things, you’re bound to make bad decisions about what needs to be done in the future. So much is taken for granted. You start thinking that safety of the drinking water is as inevitable as the yearly flooding of the Nile. You think it is natural for middle class kids not to die of typhoid or whooping cough or cholera.

The new biographical move Kinsey got me thinking down this line. It is so easy to focus on the problematic consequences of the sexual revolution that one forgets its overwhelming benefits. The recognition that masturbation is essentially universal, for example, alleviated a huge, if unquantifiable burden of guilt from generations of teenagers and probably prevented quite a few suicides—hysteria about masturbation was a real curse on young people. Indeed, in many places it still is. I don’t think it’s such a small thing either that the advance of sexual enlightenment increased the net pleasure of life for most of us, though it says something about the incompletion of the revolution that to this day you’re not supposed to think that’s important. It’s also pretty clear that the socially mandated sexual ignorance of women played a role in maintaining general gender inequality and that promoting rights in the bedroom promoted rights elsewhere. One can dwell on ubiquity of pornography or the threat of STDs or the prevalence illegitimate births or get upset about legal abortions, but who really wants to return to the old regime—aside, that is, from the rightists that control our government?

On my way back from seeing Kinsey, I had to wait at an intersection while a fire truck drove by. It was driven by a female fire fighter, which, of course, is utterly unremarkable. Which, of course, is utterly remarkable. Which, of course, is never remarked. Same moral.

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