… for the passions of men are commonly more potent than their reason.
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba once lamented that he was in his seventh decade on this third rock from Sol. He is now approaching his eighth, grumbling body parts and all; approaching his Biblically appointed age of three score years and ten, four score “if his strength endures”. (Alas, YFNA ventured to ask the Internet whether the psalmist meant “70 years”, or “80 years”, or both at once, and discovered to his horror that the matter was deemed worthy of a lengthy, and recent, exegesis in four languages, which may or may not have answered the question.)
In other words, YFNA is old enough to remember when “hedonism” replaced “duty” as the byword and driving force of the Baby Boomer generation among whom he is, and always has been, reluctantly included. When the generation, that sucked greedily on the bennies that its forebears struggled mightily to win for them, decided that those bennies were theirs by divine right, and how dare the Man ask anything of them. “The Man”, not just of the generations to which their parents and grandparents belonged (which they now conveniently outnumbered and outvoted), but “the Man” of any past generation. For this was the prehistory of “woke” among white folk, when any cause, that those white folk could place themselves at the head of and use to bash their enemies (= their parents) and achieve ascendancy for themselves, was greedily assimilated.* When all education that was not “relevant” (i.e., prospering the Boomer cause) was to be expunged, and the Greek and Latin foundations of “liberal education”, already tottering, finally joined their architectural relicts in ruins.
(The classics professor Murphy has vanished utterly, and Kris remains holed up in his office waiting for the ax, wielded in COVID-driven desperation by his university’s corporate accountant, to fall.)
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba remembers (alas) when the expression “if it feels good, do it” became popular to the point of all-encompassing, but not when or how the expression got started. A return to the Internet, which found thousands of words on the subject of the Hebrew for “70” and “80”, turned up nothing. What few hints there were, were tucked behind paywalls, and none of those hints had any visible prospects for being definitive.
What did turn up was a 1999 essay by one Charles Wellborn, a Christian ethicist. This southern man caught YFNA’s attention because:
- He led a congregation that, in the late 1950s in Texas, voted in desegregation, and he got a cross burned on his lawn for his pains
- He had a marriage that failed, and he terminated a career path by participating in a divorce rather than perpetuating the sham on which his denomination insisted
- His article demonstrated evidence of a Greek and Latin liberal education
Wellborn, as might be expected given his profession and training, attempted to address “if it feels good, do it” in terms of the selfish apostate vs the member-in-good-standing of God’s communion … and, especially, of the selfish persons who demand membership in God’s community anyway. To YFNA, the attempt was unsatisfactory, largely because it was couched in philosophical and religious terms, and not in the terms of basic animal social behavior without which, YFNA thinks, no human acts are fathomable. Wellborn, however, did succeed in illustrating for how many millennia humans have wrestled, unsuccessfully, with the question.
What are those terms of basic animal social behavior? To grossly (but perhaps effectively) oversimplify, and inappropriately personify:
- Solitary absolute personal freedom is the ideal state.
- The resources available usually do not permit me to exercise absolute personal freedom. I will die if I try it, from starvation or conflict.
- Social interactions can make additional resources available to me, but only at some cost to my personal freedom.
- What, in the context that I am in, is the minimum social interaction that I need to engage in, the minimum price I need to pay, to survive and, if possible, prosper?
In the context of Wellborn’s audience:
- How much selfish stuff can I get away with and still be welcome in church?
And the only worthwhile answer is, “It depends.”
The solitary aloofness of the cat (maximum individual freedom), the pack behavior of the dog (considerable constraint on individual freedom), the hypersocial extreme division of labor of the ant (essentially no individual freedom), all are responses to the environmental circumstances of each creature, and are the responses that, over time, have been the most successful.
The cat, to support its freedom, must have space to support sufficient numbers of the kinds of prey that it can handle alone, and defend that space against all comers, lest the resource be stripped and all starve.
The dog pack can handle larger prey together than any one dog alone, and can expand the resource without necessarily needing larger territory. But that territory still needs definition, and defense.
The ant colony simply takes the space it needs. Unless it runs up against a larger, stronger ant colony. Then, there is war, and the loser is enslaved, or killed. Or, it runs up against a human with a spray can.
Should circumstances change, the animal changes with them.
Or it goes extinct.
The Greatest and Silent Generations in these Untied States of America, to overcome the dearth of the Great Depression and the combined economic and military threats of the Axis powers, endured considerable loss of personal liberty, to gain critically-needed (and mostly unprecedented) domestic social programs, and a critically-needed war machine of similarly unprecedented scope and sophistication. The effort did not happen without complaint, especially about rationing. “No butter.” “No gasoline.” To name two. Which these generations swore, “our children will never have to put up with this. Ever again.”
They swore their undoing. “What is the minimum price I need to pay to survive in my current social context?” The Baby Boomers in their swaddling clothes saw no need to pay the price their forebears paid. And they did not pay. Neither they nor their children nor their children’s children. And they got away with it, because the context, with expanding food options and expanding energy options and freedom from disease, allowed it. Allowed people to dispense with onerous social rules, onerous social obligations, and anything that interfered with Freedom!!
Including inconvenient facts about global warming.
Including inconvenient facts about global disease control.
Including inconvenient facts about social stratification and its consequences.
And the butter is still on the table, and the gasoline still in the tank.
Or, at least they were until this year, and the COVID-driven supply chain issues started to take hold in earnest.
Now, with the Omicron variant promising to shut everything down again, as it already has in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe?
Three generations of citizens of the Untied States of America are going to have to relearn what their mostly-now-deceased forebears had to learn.
It’s not going to be pretty.
It already ain’t.
* It is perhaps worth remembering, in this context, that, according to historian James M. McPherson, the
Confederate Revolutionary War “Civil War” 1861-1865 in what is now the USA (an “American” civil war would have engulfed two continents: there was no such conflict) was fought by two camps of white folk over the “slave power” (the clash between the conflicting political, social, and economic interests of the “chattel slavery” of the southern agricultural US states and the “hireling slavery” of the northern industrial US states). Black folk were actively prohibited from participating in this conflict, except as slaves (NB: on both sides, see above) or as advanced the cause of the white folk, and arguably remained pawns of the major white players for the ensuing century – and, some would argue, to the present day.