Thursday, October 16, 2014 8:50 AM
We grew up in Bethpage, Long Island, absorbing the conventions of the times. Our dad (well, everyone’s dad) went to work every day and our mom stayed home and did homely stuff. We siblings lived in well-justified fear of their anger, drunkenness, or just lousy moods. No one mentioned sex (I heard about it later on, from other people). Authority was absolute—and punishment knew no limits. Homosexuality, women’s reproductive health, domestic abuse, incest, rape, bigotry and anti-Semitism didn’t exist—in spite of the mystifying glimmers of such things all around us.
Women simply weren’t the equal of men. Ethnic humor was a riot—we could just ask Jose Jimenez. Drinking and smoking were what grown-ups did—and there was nothing wrong with that. Driving a car as fast as possible was a God-given right (our major highways had no speed limits until the seventies)—and driving safety was the other guy’s problem.
It was a machine of a world—one knew that standing in the road meant being run down, and that it would be one’s own fault for getting in the way of the car. ‘Family values’ were survival tools—if dad got mad enough to put us out on the highway and keep driving, we would surely be devoured by the cold world lurking outside the family circle.
If we got in trouble Christmas morning, if they raged and screamed at us—we’d better shake it off and get back into Christmas-cheer mode when we arrived at Gramma’s house, or we’d be in even deeper trouble. “If you don’t cheer up and have fun, I’m gonna beat the living hell out of you.”—that sort of ‘reasoning’.
Actually, ‘reason’ was the most dangerous material a person could handle back then, especially a kid. Being the logical winner of a debate with an angry father makes a child anything but the ‘winner’. “Don’t get smart with me.” “Don’t be a wise-ass.” “Because I’m your father and I said so, godammit.” “Just shut up and do what you’re told.” These were but a few of the idiomatic gems we lived with.
We lived insular lives—no history beyond our own lifetimes, no society outside our own neighborhoods. We felt perfectly right to classify anyone with unusual interests as an oddball—even reading a book made someone a target of ridicule (Who the hell’d they think they were—Einstein?)
You, dear reader, may have lived a better version of this in your childhood, or perhaps an even worse version—or you may not even be old enough to know what I’m talking about. The fact remains—the developed world (and not so very long ago) was not a civilization, it was a Neanderthal’s fantasy of civilization.
Any real question of ethics was put off to the priests—and the priests were put off till Sunday. Any real appreciation of the arts was the domain of homosexuals (or, in the parlance of the times, ‘sexual deviants’—or just plain ‘perverts’). Any issue of philosophy, not to mention hard fact, was left to college professors—funny little men (like Einstein) who may know book-learning but who had no practical knowledge of any worth and were, therefore, idiots.
In the 1960s, thoughts and ideas and ethics and personal expression became subjects of news reporting. They didn’t know that, of course—they thought they were reporting on men growing long hair, boys burning draft cards, and girls burning bras—but they were unknowingly publicizing the value of individual thought as equal to the value of convention. The underdeveloped world continued with their focus on who was stronger, who could kill who—but we had finally begun to talk about who was ‘righter’. And through the practice of civil disobedience, we often proved that right had its own kind of might.
Intellectual awareness made a few gains, but pencil-necked geeks were still targets of society’s abiding heroes—the fit, the rich, the unremarkably normal. Then electronics stepped in and by the 1980s, being ‘smart’ had the potential to become ‘rich and powerful’—and the era of the mind had begun.
The context of our lives is now moot. What once was common sense is now the height of ignorance. What was propriety is now bigotry. What was manly is now sexist. What was feminine is now self-loathing. Trust in authority became paranoia. Progress became pollution. And capitalism has become slavery (or rather, it has finally been recognized for what it always was). These are good changes—this is progress—but that doesn’t ease our confusion.
Now we must second-guess every thought, every word, and every assumption. We live with dual minds, judging our surroundings by two conflicting perspectives, repressing most of what we ‘knew’ in favor of what we now ‘understand’. Life is complicated—and not everyone is comfortable with that.
Prior to this, the physically weak were the losers—we pitied them (or ourselves, depending on genes and physique) but otherwise relegated them to the ‘unimportant’. Nowadays, the intellectually weak are the losers—but for some reason, they have retained importance. An ignoramus like Sarah Palin can become a public figure. Idiocy like Creationism can be taught in public schools. Neo-Jim-Crow local law-enforcers feel empowered to gun down young, African American men at the slightest whim. Politicians even celebrate reactionary ignorance, as evidenced by the Tea Party.
So it isn’t confusing enough to come from institutionalized repression into a society just beginning to embrace reason—we have to deal with the sore-losers who want to move back into the cave, as well. God forbid we ever do things the easy way.
Reason is dangerous. Being a billionaire while millions starve is unreasonable—if we embrace reason, what horrible fate befalls the poor billionaire? Manufacturing weapons in a violent world is unreasonable—but that is not a problem so long as we are willing to put all the reasonable people in front of a firing squad. Reason precludes religion—but what good is reason if life isn’t a prelude to ‘an eternal afterlife in paradise’? Who wants to see the world as it is when, if we shout loud and long enough, we can insist the world is what we choose to believe?
Okay, all that aside–here’s my latest improv: