Saturday, April 3, 2010

Capricious Crusaders, Myopic Moralists, and other Pathetic Primates (1/4)

You’re at a dinner party with friends from church. The gracious hosts, a well-to-do couple with professional careers and two young children, live in a handsome two-story house on the better side of town. Somehow the tabletop conversation drifts toward the environment, global warming, and conservation. You’ve already gathered from John Smith and Jane Doe-Smith that while they’re proud of their wealth and success to a certain extent, they also seem to evince guilt or at any rate feel compelled to demonstrate how progressive they are in their thinking in spite of the fact that they live fairly comfortably, send their children to a private Catholic school, and reside in a community that is almost exclusively white. While you’re pretending to enjoy the special Kenyan dessert that Jane had put together from scratch and talked up quite a bit after the Vespers service last week (further corroboration of their progressive and multi-cultural credentials), they mention their volunteer involvement with the Sierra Club during their college days and more recently participation in a rally against industrial waste on the Capitol steps. You are indeed interested in their stories and mentally applaud their selfless commitment, even if the self-congratulatory tone slightly annoys you. You had mentioned earlier something about the importance of maintaining U.S. military strength in an increasingly hostile world, but that didn’t seem to gain any traction in the discussion. You thought you heard Jane mutter something under her breath about war never having solved anything.

John and Jane invite your family and the other guests to gather in the den, sip decaf coffee, and continue some chit-chat. The Smith girls belt out Heart and Soul on the piano just before they go to bed, and you dutifully take it despite the nausea the song and their performance of it create in your stomach. Jack Jones, an acquaintance of yours, holding a crumbling coconut cookie over a napkin, complains about some left-wing bloggers who are likening a Republican candidate to Hitler. He’s disgusted and thinks it’s reprehensible to compare anyone to the world’s greatest mass murderer. You fully concur but at the same time, for the life of you, you just can’t remember Jack expressing this kind of indignation when the same hateful imagery was used against a Democratic politician. John the Co-Host sidles up to you at this point and, being a trial lawyer, talks about some new legal stipulations that the state is about to impose. He’s boring you to death, but you’re a gracious guest, a masterful social chameleon in fact, and feign fascination in his every word. Meanwhile, you look out the window at John and Jane’s pristine, glistening forest-green Jeep Cherokee parked in the driveway. Your thoughts wander. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s oxcart. “Wait a minute,” you tell yourself. “That’s an SUV! A gas-guzzling, ozone-layer burning, iceberg-melting, road-kill producing SUV!”

You have a gift at making someone feel as though you’re listening to them intently when in reality your mind is far removed from the ostensible conversation. (You perfected this skill a few years ago when during your vasectomy the doctor and his assistants, two female interns with a disturbing penchant for giggling, conversed in their nasally voices; however, you managed to transport your mind elsewhere, to a quaint cottage in the German Alps.) This ability comes in handy at the moment, for as John prattles on you think about what the Smiths said earlier at the dinner table. They’re self-styled environmentalists and yet they drive a non-environmental-friendly SUV? You observe the baby seat in the back and imagine Jane making some lame defense: “Well, we needed something safe for our children. We don’t advise everyone to go out and get one. The dealer ensured us that it’s more environmentally sound than other SUVs. Shouldn’t you conservative-types be happy we’re buying American-made cars? It was a good deal and we just couldn’t pass it up. We’re sort of conducting our own little experiment on the impact of SUVs on global warming. I’m still upset at John for getting that thing! We’re douche bag hypocrites.” The last statement somehow inexplicably cuts through the mist of your ruminating mind.

You make the obligatory conversational nod and requisite eye contact to keep up the pretense of social intercourse before you nonchalantly peer out the window again and this time notice a rolled-up newspaper near the back tire of the aforementioned vehicle. You again think about something that occurred earlier during the party. Your wife had asked for a paper towel to wipe the chocolate smudge off your son’s face. John and Jane explained that they always use cloth napkins to do their part in saving the trees. At the time you were hoping they didn’t extend this paper-saving crusade to arse-wiping materials, what with the wretched African cake working its voodoo magic in your Caucasian bowels. Now, in the ebb and flow of your cranial and rectal outpourings, you wonder how this pseudo-ethical principle squares with the newspaper on the driveway, an unread newspaper at that!

These observations open the floodgates to yet more. What about the desk full of stationary and post-it notes you noticed in the living room? Aren’t they made from trees? And what about Jack’s one-way-street comment regarding Hitlerized politicians? What is this mystery? Who are these odd creatures saying one thing and doing another? The sociologist inside you is coming up with fancy phrases like cognitive dissonance. You’re both intrigued and sickened, like a wayfarer who’s lost his way and is left wondering whether he’s stumbled into Sartre’s hell or Camus’s Paradox of the Absurd. Come to think of it, you seem to say to yourself, isn’t this home, this housing tract, the entire west side of town for that matter, built on prairie land? You recall fields and marshes barely a decade ago where Starbucks, Walgreens, and the Smiths’ domicile now stand.

Having put the sapiens in homo sapiens, you bring to bear your keen intellect and powers of ratiocination. So, John and Jane are self-styled environmentalists and yet they have no compunction about destroying the ecosystem if such destruction serves their personal comfort? Aren’t they part and parcel of the problem, urban sprawl? You imagine John’s defense: “Well, the community is environmentally sound. They planted some trees along the streets and built the park around the pond. Besides, we get our vegetables from a community-supported organic farm.” Tell that to the forlorn frogs who once croaked in deafening decibels, or the coyote who sought his prey unimpeded by coffee-cup-toting elderly couples out for their evening constitutional, or the raccoon whose sanguinary corpse lay supine at the corner of Middletown Street.

You take some of your observations reductio ad absurdum. Why don’t the Smiths adopt children instead of adding yet more mammal offspring to Mother Earth who’s already been shorn of natural resources, raped by the Green House effect, and on the verge of a nuclear breakdown? This overpopulated world, after all, is replete with orphans looking for loving parents. And surely Jane, a gynecologist, knows how much they could save on medical expenses, funds that could go to feeding the ubiquitous poor. You happen to be privy to something else, thanks to your wife’s rumor mill: John and Jane had spent almost $20,000 on fertility drugs to have their second child, Jennifer, whose piano skills and temper tantrums, you humbly and gratuitously submit, are proof that they misspent a healthy chunk of their precious double-income largesse.

You also ponder in your heart of heart another guest’s comments. Carla, the corpulent lady whom you met last Sunday and who needed to sit at the end of the dinner table for spatial considerations, talked about the deleterious effect of TV and videogame violence on children and society in general. But she also mentioned a movie that she and her teenage daughter watched the other evening, a movie that you know is rated R because of graphic sexual content. So she worries about being desensitized to violence but has no qualms about desensitizing her daughter to meaningless sex on demand? Interesting. You start to get sick in your stomach again. This time it’s not because of the two aforementioned demons from piano hell, nor the image that you can’t get out of your mind of Carla, powdered sugar on her chin and lips, scarfing down a lemon-filled donut as a first-time visitor immediately after the church service. (You also recall trying to reconcile her girth with your elementary school education which claimed that there are only seven continents.) Instead, this moralizing and the creation of makeshift precepts for living repulse you. You give the keys to your wife, for your somber insights into the foibles of the human condition make you too cloudy headed to drive safely.

Thus concludes our second-person hypothetical scenario. This happens to you all the time, right? Okay, maybe not some of the particulars; alright, perhaps not any of the particulars, but I wanted to set the stage for the present analysis of human behavior. Part of what I’m saying is plain to the naked eye: we humans are walking contradictions and chronic hypocrites, selective in our moral causes, short-sided, deceptive and self-deceptive—and that’s on a good day! Yet we seem to forget this fact, or at least succumb to moralists who are in fact just mammals like us, primates inter pares, yes, you heard me right. People come up with their own categorical imperatives and pseudo-precepts all the time; and they don’t just harbor them in their heart of heart but inevitably feel compelled to imply, insinuate or state openly their view of what’s right or worthwhile. Once you fully appreciate this human phenomenon, you’ll feel liberated and see subjective moralizing for what it is…well, subjective.