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.

Friday, November 26, 2004

On the Beaches

You often hear that the two-party system is not part of the American Constitution, but this commonplace is only true if you are referring to the document of that name rather than the underlying structure of our polity. As recent history demonstrates, our vaunted system of checks and balances simply doesn’t work without warring factions. Executive is not moderated by the legislature or the judiciary when all three branches are controlled by the same interests, especially in the effective absence of a free press. Under the circumstances, now really is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party— not because the Democrats are an impressive bunch but because there is no alternative to maintaining an alternative. Or do you really want to rely on the self-restraint of ideologues who believe that the secret of political success is immoderation and that all internal as well as external dissent must be stifled?

Many people find it difficult to resist calls for bipartisanship even though in the mouth of Bush or Chaney, “bipartisanship” has a lot in common with earlier slogans such as “peaceful coexistence” or “It’s all right. You’re going to be deloused.” Like all revolutionaries, our rightists absolutely depend upon the forbearance of their enemies, who are expected to be tolerant even of those who are intolerant as a matter of principle. The heck with that. Let us deny them bread and salt.

Partisanship certainly has a cost, but having allowed things to deteriorate to the current pass, we have to accept the obligation to bear this cost. For example, in states like California and in much of the Northeast, the Republican Party still plays its normal role as one of the quarreling partners that make free government possible. From a local point of view, it is a good thing that Republicans are sometimes elected governor or senator in true blue states. Unfortunately, until the general crisis passes, any such advantage must be outweighed by national considerations; and all Republicans are the enemy, most especially the reasonable ones.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

And Now for Something Completely Different

To get my mind off the recent troubles, I’ve been reading David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing, a superb account of the crucial year in the American Revolution when it appeared that the military might of the highly professional British army would crush the colonists. The British decided that a maximum effort would shock and awe the traitors. The military leaders of the invasion were not barbarians. Indeed, general Howe was sure that his men would be welcomed with open arms once it became apparent that the Crown was appropriately conciliatory. True, the British were somewhat isolated diplomatically; but they could count on the stalwart support of Frederich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel, who supplied them with thousands of soldiers at reasonable rates and made up for the hostile neutrality of the French and the rest of the Europeans.

For several months things worked out as planned. Washington and the Americans, thoroughly overmatched on sea and land, were driven from Manhattan and then New Jersey. The English were in a false position, however. The 31, 625 troops that had landed on August 27, 1776 made up an enormous expeditionary force by 17th Century standards, but they were far too few to seize and occupy all the colonies. Worse, though military casualties were not high at first, mere attrition began to wear down the force; and Howe’s army could not be significantly augmented with fresh troops because George’s government was unwilling to raise taxes at home or institute a general draft. Inevitably, the overstretched occupying army resorted to more and more brutal means to subdue the rebellion; but the collateral damage of their efforts inspired more defiance—Fisher points out that the famous Christmas attack on Trenton was preceded and suggested by the success of earlier spontaneous attacks by irregular forces. Howe had hoped that he could count on the help of the local Loyalists to make up for the inadequacy of his strength. It turned out, however, that he could not even protect them from the insurgents. By the end of March 1777, the British were pretty much holed up in the safety of New York City, planning in the next year to seize the initiative by occupying Philadelphia, the sanctuary of the rebels. Back in London, the government-controlled papers explained how that would turn the tide…