Essays About

Society and Culture

I am naturally reserved and slow to join in anything requiring abandon or hinting of folly. Adding to nature, I have inherited from reading philosophy a tendency to regard society as a factory of absurd conventions. But through observing others like me, I have come to feel disdain for this disdain. In a room of people clapping and dancing to music, the person who doesn't participate, thinking it foolish, is the one who looks most foolish. Intellectual snobbery has an adolescent quality. A thirteen year old scoffs to play a childish game, because he must distinguish himself from a child, but a grown-up crawls on the floor with the children. Sometimes, being mature requires acting ridiculous.

  1. Origins of criticism in vanity. Birth of the critic in the undergraduate classroom, where truth is the podium on which pretentious youth elevates itself above the masses. Criticism as self-congratulation: the critic knows better, is the chosen one who will rid the world of error.

  2. The noble mission of criticism. Maturity and immersion in the cause bring self-forgetfulness out of a genuine desire for a changed society. Passion for the world's potential supplants self-aggrandizement as the critic's motivation.

  3. Self-corrosion. Love of what ought to be, gradually, becomes contempt of what is. The slowness of society to change disillusions the once idealist into a misanthrope, seeing only the world's worst. As acid eats its container, years of acrid words corrode the speaker's humanity.

Criticism seldom changes society for the better, but often changes the critic for the worse.

Riding in the caravan of the dead, a peculiar sight: cell-phone-talking teenage drivers, soccer moms in SUVs, and bankers in BMWs all pulling to the road's shoulder. Why this wide berth for death? Do they wish to get as far from the leprous corpse as possible? Is their swerving meant as pity, as in sorry for your loss, may I offer my side of the road? Are they startled to see the hearse—the last car they too will ride in?

They themselves do not know why they stop. Customs are a culture's deep thoughts, embodied in the thoughtless actions of its people.

Often the shock of a shooting spree is that we never guessed the inner magnitude of the gunman's despair. Meeting neighbors in public, he would shake their hands and talk of sports or politics. How could such a maelstrom be swirling beneath so placid a surface?

A desperate man moves through society like a wave through deep water, its power hidden till, suddenly rising, it bursts against the rocks.

I reject condemnations of homosexuality in part because the condemners are always heterosexuals, who, like foremen of the good, command others to change without having to change themselves. The test of a moral assertion is where its burden falls. The morality of the saints makes life harder for oneself. The morality of social conservatives makes life harder for others.

My wife and I settle our arguments by deciding whom an adverse outcome would bother more. Better that one of us be slightly annoyed than the other be greatly annoyed. Rather than cajole each other or come to shouts, we weigh our would-be grievances. This leads to a policy of laissez-faire: if she wishes to attend a reunion and I do not, she goes alone, though she would rather I went with her and I would rather she stay home with me. Dragging me along would bring her less pleasure than me annoyance; vice versa if I stood in her way.

I apply this principle to the issue of gay rights. Discrimination hurts gays more than equality for gays hurts their opponents. At stake for gay people are their own lives; at stake for their opponents, merely others' lives. The effect on gays is material, direct, and daily; the effect on their opponents, abstract, remote, and occasional, concerning only the conformity of society to their moral beliefs. My neighbor, not me, gets to choose how to decorate his living room because he lives in it while I merely glimpse it through his window. Our rights extend only to the property line of our own life.

Traditional values are unjustly said to be under attack by the gay rights movement. An attack entails crossing the border into another's territory. Therefore no one can be an attacker who is merely defending his right to a share of the common happiness available to mortals. Gay rights is an issue of self-defense, which only looks like an attack because traditional values have so long forced a portion of humanity to suffer in silence.

Visiting foreign countries, I can never suppress a sense of the inefficiency of humanity speaking multiple languages. Each language repeats with slight variation what every other language already says, like people in group discussions who, to assert themselves, restate in their own words and examples every comment anyone makes. The redundancy of languages suggests the lack of a world supervisor. Earth's societies are like children playing without an adult, each making its own rules which no one else abides by.

Abroad, I experience life like a deaf person, interpreting faces instead of phrases. Watching old Greek women make small talk by a storefront or Italian cab drivers hurl angry sounds at other drivers, like cab drivers at home, I feel falsely divided from my fellow humans. Beneath their opaque words are recognizable actions and emotions. Nature gave them and me the same brain, but culture divided us with different sounds for getting our thoughts out.

I grant that linguistic diversity adds color to the world, and that I will never know Dante truly if I read him in translation, but the bar of cosmopolitanism is too high. I tend to give up learning languages after a few months, for it is odious to regress from a mastery of English to a second-grade knowledge of French or German—from deciphering Melville to deciphering menus.

I sympathize with religions that see language as God's gift and diversity of language as God's curse. Humanity has over-solved the problem of communication. Once, we were isolated from each other by lack of speech. Now, by excess.

Consumers live by the fads that marketers make up in the shower. Every consumer must have, as essential to his being, what until recently did not exist. Advertisers portray the new as indispensable, and consumers mistake their greed for need. Nothing can be a need that most of humanity lived without. Nor unless you think of it by yourself, without the aid of advertisements.

Christmas is not so much the season of giving but of trading. Commerce is nearer our nature than charity, so we strive to exchange gifts of precisely equal value. We resent the friend whose gift is unexpected, forcing a late run to the mall to reciprocate. Like accountants, we must settle the books and rid our balance sheet of debt.

Often, lest we surprise each other with unwanted gifts, we tell each other what we would like: in brief, we run each other's errands.

Since, in exchanging presents, everyone's net gain is null, I prefer the more efficient gift of not giving.

Perversely, gift-giving has a bias toward the useless. Specialty electronics, imported bath oils, and time-saving tools that require more effort to operate than they save have an air of extravagance and luxury, while useful gifts like bread or cereal or coins for parking meters seem thoughtlessly uninspired. Thus we clutter our friends' attics with products no one would purchase for himself. We give our most useful gift, money, to corporations.

At holidays we make donations to the economy in each other's honor.

People who advocate cutting car emissions, installing solar panels, and cleaning up watersheds to "help the environment" speak naively. They frame conservation as a moral issue—humanity restraining itself for the good of vulnerable creatures and defenseless habitats. Rather, the point of conservation is to keep humanity off the endangered species list. Can GDP flourish when, oil gone, we are back to burning candles? In four hundred years, the future may look prehistoric. In Europe, twenty-fifth century cavemen will scavenge among the ruins of the Uffizi.

Environmentalism is not about saving nature, but saving civilization.

Everyone seeks their soul's good, even in seeking their body's pleasure. Hedonists hope their material enjoyment will reach inside and touch the marrow of their being. Is this not what saints are seeking, by alternate experiments? A middle-aged rich man in a red convertible, cruising the Amalfi coast with a model half his age, is merely another kind of monk, whose spiritual discipline is indulgence. Every mall is a monastery where the initiates seek beatitude, not by selling everything before they enter, but by buying everything before they leave.

A mere ankle used to arouse a man, but now midriffs, thongs, and cleavage barely wake men's sluggish lust—free appetizers shoveled upon the plates of the sated.

Despite our condescension toward Victorian prudery, repression bred a more intriguing sexual world than modern looseness and liberation. Scorned by morality, desire crept beneath gentility. Sexuality, like the proper name of God in Judaism, was never spoken of yet permeated the mind. A Victorian bachelor, bursting with decades of pent passion, fought the daily inner war of being a gentleman with genitals. Contrast the silly stars of modern television, quenching their lust as mindlessly as mounted monkeys. Promiscuity blunts their pleasure's edge, just as drunkards taste their liquor least. What do rock stars sampling women's bodies nightly know of the sex drive? Fasters, not feasters, feel hunger's ferocity.

Similarly, high school sexuality is more interesting than college sexuality because the colossal urges and instincts of adolescence are checked and impeded by the lingering authorities of parents, teachers, and principals. High school sex is secrets and sneaking out and dark back seats, while in college the reins are clipped and the goat of instinct rushes headlong into debauchery. Sexuality loses its tension and, with it, its worthiness of attention.

Great forces are best revealed against their opposites. Sex needs repression as a storm wave needs a sea wall.

When I see nature bulldozed to build subdivisions, I feel anger toward the developers. But when I drive by later and see the new homes filled with families, my anger goes flaccid. Must not the families live somewhere? True, they had homes before, but those homes now house others, and the others' old homes house others too. Trace the trail of new construction back to its origin, and you arrive at a hospital maternity ward humming like a factory day and night, sending endless swaddled shipments of future homebuyers into the world. Developers build because parents beget. Suburbs sprawl because lovers do.

At a wedding last weekend, a girl was present whom my wife had not seen since high school and did not recognize at first. Apparently in high school she was rather plain and unremarkable, whereas now, at 26 or 27, she is all elegance and glamour. She is living in Boston as a shoe designer. She wore a black, backless dress with a low, V-shaped front. Her hair was no longer straight and brown but blond and wavy, and she wore it half-up. She had a tan without being too tan. She smiled and talked to her friends and drank a beer and danced often.

The next day, reviewing her old appearance in my wife's high school yearbook, I was surprised by her transformation, for in the old photo it was clearly the same face, and all that seemed to have changed was her hairstyle, her fashion, and her posture (which in the photo was slumped and unconfident). I had trouble deciding whether her high school plainness had masked a beautiful face, or her twenty-something glamour now masks a plain face. I tend to think the former, and if so, it makes me wonder how many other girls may be beautiful incognito.

Had my wife not told me this girl was not always so attractive, I might have guessed it from her demeanor. She acted like someone newly pretty. Girls who have always been pretty strut about like shining goddesses among mortals, aloof and scornful. Woe to the flirtatious male if he is not as gorgeous as she! Woe to any friend who aspires to be more than her mere attendant! The girl at the wedding was too unused to her looks to be arrogant. She evidently retains the fresh memory of her adolescent plainness and is still learning to believe in her new beauty, as if the mirror's reflection and men's attention compete in her self-esteem against the insecurities engrained over years. She hopes, rather than quite believes, in her beauty; her fledging faith craves additional proof. When men smile at her, her sincere and surprised smile seems to say, "then you do find me pretty?"

Have things taken such a turn that the animal, whose reason gives it a claim to divinity, cannot seem beautiful to itself except by the possession of lifeless trappings? -Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

A lady wears a diamond around her neck, and because of it she feels beautiful. Yet what would a diamond be without a lady? All matter is uniform and worthless until humans give it value. Consider the life history of that lifeless stone. Forged by earth's forces and inner fires over many millennia, before any human being walked earth's crust, the diamond came to rest in a bed of subterranean rock, covered with meters of dirt, in pitch darkness. Bacteria grew around it. Silent eons passed. Eventually, in these latter days, miners dug a shaft to it and chipped it free, a craftsman carved its edges until it shone, a man spent a month's salary to buy it, and now it hangs on his lover's neck.

Lady, your jewel does not make you beautiful, you make your jewel beautiful.

I enjoy going to wedding receptions more, the fewer people I know there. My own wedding, where I knew everyone, was such a blur of congratulations that, for all the planning I put into the evening, I scarcely got to see how it came off. But at a friend's wedding with whom I share few mutual friends, I can watch the night unfold from a well-chosen table, interrupted only by the waiter who comes occasionally to refill my wine glass. I would rather watch a conversation than listen to one; I prefer observing mirth and merriment to making them myself. A groomsman with too much to drink is flirting badly with a pretty bridesmaid; the sweating photographer is lumbering under his hundred gadgets through the crowd; the disc jockey is trying third-rate jokes on the captive audience. Chatting would interrupt this study of types. A good sociologist must be a recluse.