Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Discomfort Zone

For about as long as we’ve known that the earth is round but we weren’t going to fall off,
we’ve known that sooner or later we would die.  As infants, some of us might have been a little spooked by death but as we grew into adolescents we also came to feel immortal, a phase that continued for some of us into middle age.  It’s true that we heard “nothing is certain except death and taxes” more than practically any other aphorism but we learned to complain about taxes long before we worked up any real concern over the other inevitability.

Now that we’ve outlived our original life expectancy, we begin to notice things that escaped us before.  Many, perhaps most, of our friends are ex-smokers.  We all knew, no matter what the lawsuits say, that smoking was bad for us, even as the advertising campaigns worked to mitigate our fears, but it wasn’t until the immortality halo faded that most people decided to change their ways.  Curiously, that doesn’t seem to be the case with regard to alcohol.  Could it be due to the internet advice that a glass of red wine is good for one’s health?  Perhaps, but here in Italy the idea of giving up wine with all the good food available to us is comparable to, even worse than, going on a salt free or meatless diet.  Yes, we may be going to purgatory or hell sooner rather than later, but who wants to volunteer to go right now?

As we start to notice when reading obituaries that increasing numbers of the subjects are our age or, God forbid, even younger than ourselves, we begin to envision the day when we’ll receive some unexpected bad news from our doctor following a check-up or a complaint about a pain which seemed minor although unusual.  Of course we can imagine other grim scenarios, a moment where we underestimate the decline of our night driving capabilities; one episode too many of a risk-minimizing spouse placing something to be taken downstairs on an unlit step; or even the bad fortune to be on one of those rare planes that never makes it to its destination.  But those are just the whims of fate, statistically irrelevant and therefore outside the realm of our concern. Modern medicine has instilled a certain optimism in us, despite our knowledge of the inevitable trend.  We can battle and we can win.  Many of our friends have.  All sorts of diseases, which were considered death sentences not so long ago, have been successfully overcome by people all around us.  Staying positive is good for our morale, even for our health.

It was too good to last.  Early in 2020 news of the coronavirus, Covid-19, started to trickle in.  First it was a small story from China but quickly it became a major story here in Italy and has subsequently spread to dominate the news and the lives of everyone throughout the world.

Many of us in the small cohort of Americans born between the world wars have had the good fortune to be too young for the Korean War, too old for the Viet Nam War and retired before the world-wide push toward neo-feudalism made normal working life a fading memory.

We have experienced a few near disasters and some real ones from which we have escaped relatively unscathed.  The Cuban missile crisis was our closest brush with real terror.  Friends all wanted to drive to the Canadian border to escape the destruction of New York but we figured that if it came to that, there would be little left to live for.  Two tough, resolute and intelligent leaders faced each other down and decided to let life go on.  That crisis passed.  We were not so lucky with the flawed US election of 2000.  The outcome of that fiasco led to death and destruction for millions of people, centered in the Middle East, but for some of us fortunate enough to to escape direct involvement, it still led to the devaluation of our retirement prospects and a culling of our professional guild.  Some of us also survived the disaster of 9/11 from up close.  The grim memories remain but for a while we also got to experience the efforts of neighbors and competitors helping each other in the recovery.  All such crises come upon us unexpectedly.  Damage is done but afterwards it’s back to work and on with our lives. 

The coronavirus has brought us to a new and unsettling situation.  Many of us, especially younger people, are impatient for the crisis to be over, for life to return to normal.   Some people reasonably wonder how they will manage without work or income.  An obnoxious minority complain and demonstrate over the inconveniences placed on them to save their lives.  Life is very different for different categories of people, rich and poor, old and young, but all share one depressing emotion: uncertainty.

The horrors of the pandemic cannot be forgotten and they bring to mind the victims of past catastrophes, those who died in trenches, gulags and concentration camps not knowing if anything of the world as they’d known it would survive.  Now we see people dying in hospitals after weeks of agony without seeing their loved ones; nursing homes piling up corpses in refrigerated trucks; mass graves for the anonymous dead; medical staff working non-stop and sometimes being struck down by the virus themselves.  The list goes on and on, perhaps to where we become a little bit jaded.  People are angry; people are impatient; the suffering is not evenly distributed.  Uncertainty!  Will we have a job?  Will we have food?  Will school resume?  Will the economy come back?  When?  Will we survive and if not, will anybody notice?  Will the big welcome hug from a long missed friend be the kiss of death?  Nothing, not even the sacrosanct football season, can be taken for granted.

Umbria is said to be the region of Italy least affected by the pandemic.  Those of us fortunate enough to live here have more to be thankful for than most people, and most of us are aware of it.  Still, the uncertainties remain here too.  Will the restaurants survive?  Will we see our friends from abroad again?  Will the legions of teenage Chinese piano prodigies play again in Todi?  Will live jazz return?

The upside of the pandemic is that it may bring us to reflect on what we have to be thankful for, without fatuous quibbling over the ineffable nature of the recipient of our gratitude.  So, however and whenever it may end, we thank God for a long and fortunate life, much of it lived in what we regard as an earthly paradise, but still, nobody wants to be the last soldier to die in a war, so please God, if it’s not asking too much, may we be granted the patience, the wisdom and the luck to survive to see the reigning devil consigned to hell and the forces of evil in his orbit vanquished through peaceful, Constitutional means.  Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sex Changes


Once upon a time, after people had learned to procure the basics of survival such as food, shelter, descendants and security, they became aware that some of these activities, such as eating and drinking, fighting, dressing up, and especially sex, could also be a source of pleasure. As the pleasurable aspects became sought out, the realization followed that sometimes these pursuits could also bring painful consequences. Incautious eating led to food poisoning, obesity, diabetes and heart disease; excessive drinking sometimes led to anti-social effects beyond mere cirrhosis of the liver. Sex could result in a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases and more dramatically, pregnancy, which was only sometimes the desired result.

Wise men, kings, philosophers and prophets came up with rules and regulations governing pleasurable but potentially hazardous activities. Food restrictions grew extreme in hot climates where spoilage was more of a problem, even taking on the mantle of religious dogma. Sex was to be limited, in most cultures, to people joined in matrimony, an institution devised to assure a degree of stability for the progeny, as well as for the people so enjoined. The restrictions varied from one culture to another but the rich and powerful were normally subjected to less restriction. For example, while most Muslims could have four wives, the Sultans, Sheikhs and Kings who ruled them could have hundreds. Western society frowned on all this and men and women were allowed only one spouse at a time. Children produced outside of matrimony were called bastards and they bore a heavy cost, usually more than their fathers, for their parents’ violation of social norms.

The rules and regulations governing sex may have had some practical basis but the lure of pleasure can take wrinkles that don’t follow all the carefully constructed rules and traditions. What came to be labeled perversions or deviancies probably existed as long as the rules, otherwise why would there have been rules. Such practices have been suppressed with varying degrees of severity but mostly quietly ignored when discreet, except for when some political purpose has been served by calling attention to them.

The sexual revolution is often associated with the 60’s but changes had been a long time coming. As secondary education was extended to more people and the duration of that education was prolonged, the adolescent surge of hormones that had propelled people into early marriages for centuries found no outlet within the traditional norms. Something had to give and it did.

Besides the sexual revolution, the late 60’s were the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Americans who had not concerned themselves with the plight of African-Americans for a century were made to take notice. Feminist movements had been around for ages but gathered steam in the 60’s. Homosexuals took notice and seeing groups of people who had been maltreated for their status at birth begin to mobilize to stop the abuse, they too started to campaign for acceptance.

There was a difference not always acknowledged. Blacks and women had been systematically discriminated against, albeit in different ways, for their birth characteristics, over which they obviously had no control. While birth characteristics may affect behavior, they are not quite the same thing as behavioral traits. 

When homosexuals started calling themselves “gay”, not everyone was thrilled with the term. The recently deceased film and opera producer/director Franco Zeffirelli said he was a homosexual and did not want to be be called gay, a term he felt was without dignity. Well, language changes, whether we like it or not. Despite the appropriation of a formerly perfectly serviceable word, this would be one of the more innocuous modifications of language in the service of sex changes.

In deference to female homosexuals, the ancient term “lesbian” was dusted off to be used in tandem with “gay”. With the inclusion of bisexuals, the LBG movement was born, to be expanded to LBGT, and eventually to LBGTQIA+. The veritable alphabet soup of people not conforming to society’s sexual conventions has expanded to trap older politicians who haven’t kept up with what’s the latest thing in progressive causes.

Is homosexuality a genetically or culturally induced trait? No less an authority than Gore Vidal said that there are neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals, only homosexual or heterosexual acts. We claim no more special insight on this subject than we have with which came first, the chicken or the egg. We remain puzzled by the mystery of how much all children are the products of their genes and how much of their environment. As parents, we tend to assign causality of the perceived good traits to either superior genes or enlightened upbringing, while the disappointing outcomes are clearly the result of peer pressure. Still, the inclusion of B in the group title would seem to favor Vidal’s theory that issues of sexuality relate more to choices made than to immutable disposition.

In today’s passionately anti-clerical, secular world, it is in style to lambaste the Church for its restrictions on sexual behavior but we might note that homosexual acts have been regarded as criminal offenses by governments in countries of all religious persuasions, even atheistic ones, as well as in many US states. That was certainly the case in the US military. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, one of his first presidential acts was to institute “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, a fairly radical decriminalization of homosexuality and a striking reversal of long-standing military policy. It was repealed in 2010 and less than three decades after DADT, Clinton is being castigated for having perpetrated what is now considered an outrageous denial of full equality.

If tolerance, acceptance and inclusion are today’s goals, why is the list not more inclusive? If LBGTQ is better than LBG, wouldn’t LBGIZMEATNNSTDCPPQ be infinitely better? That is, the Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Incestuous, Zoophile, Masochist, Exhibitionist, Asexual, Transvestite, Nudist, Necrophile, Swinger, Transgender, Dominant, Celibate, Polygamous, Passive, Queer people. Apologies to all those whose sexual identities/inclinations may have been overlooked.

Maybe not. It would lengthen speeches in political debates by so much that the presidential campaign might need to be extended by another six months. Joe Biden would stumble after the first five letters and the New York Times might question whether his condition warranted its continued unconditional support. If we could just agree to settle on “Q people” we could save everybody much time, effort and stress.

We won’t get into a discourse on how public prejudice has inhibited all the orientations listed above, other than to note some of the more blatant inconsistencies. Tolerance of what was recently considered deviant behavior is growing rapidly, albeit unevenly. Same sex marriage has become legal in ever more parts of the world at the same time that heterosexual marriage is fading to to where the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. Fathers, if present or at least identified, are now known as partners in capitalist-minded circles, and as companions in more socialist-oriented realms. Maybe all our new little bastards are better off without the stigma they would have faced in the time of Dickens but only time will tell if that’s true of the growing legions of their mothers. Thus far the evidence is not encouraging.

Some formerly disapproved practices are still subject to discrimination. Pedophiles are vilified and sometimes prosecuted, even though the age of consent has been raised in inverse proportion to the age of the onset of menstruation. Pedophilia has always been around but its status as a crime has varied remarkably over time. The age of consent dropped from twelve to ten in the England of 1576 and both of these ages were adopted by various American colonies. It was raised to sixteen in England in 1885 and most US states followed, to where, by the 1970’s the norm was sixteen, Hawaii being the outlier at fourteen, with only North Dakota and Idaho prosecuting men having sex with girls under eighteen. With intensive instruction on the mechanics of every variety of sexual interaction taking place in American elementary schools and the age of consent averaging sixteen, it would seem that kids are being placed at risk of prison terms for assiduously doing their homework, and those who reach out to their teachers for individual instruction put the faculty in jeopardy.

Zoophilia and its cousin, bestiality, are not frequently discussed these days, now that most folks have moved from the farm to the cities. Bestiality is still on the books as a crime in many jurisdictions but in the age of inclusion, zoophilia, a condition rather than an act, is the preferred term. Bestiality was both more common and more severely punished years ago. Sweden executed up to seven hundred people for it between 1635 and 1778. The last recorded hanging for bestiality in the US was in 1800. At present it is legal in only eight states, as well as in Finland, Romania and Hungary. Devoted zoophiles should stay out of Rhode Island where expressions of their love can cost them seven to twenty years in prison. Apparently, the new mantra of our age, “It’s OK to be with the one you love” still has some exemptions for age and species.

As in all social customs pioneered and promoted in the USA, change tends to be radical and absolutist.  What was common becomes illegal and what was illegal becomes the social imperative. That’s been the case with smoking, drinking, drugs, religion, gambling and sex related activities ranging from homosexuality to abortion.

Such severe swings of the pendulum from austerity to value-free tolerance sometimes continue all the way to a new variety of authoritarianism. At present, people, who grew up at a time when homosexual activity was not only socially unacceptable but subject to prosecution under civil law, are now losing their jobs and sometimes their children for expressing the views that were instilled in them as children. The beautiful rainbow flag is now being raised above many suburban municipal buildings and county capitol buildings with much the same righteous fervor that those handsome Confederate flags were hoisted throughout South Carolina and Mississippi in the 1920’s. What has been known for generations as gender dysphoria, a not rare condition in pre-pubescent and adolescent children but usually outgrown by adulthood, is now being reclassified by some trendy medical practitioners, who are offering expensive “conversion therapy” to the gender of choice, that is, the choice of the child or the choice of the parent. How often does the Snow White syndrome come into play, where a beautiful mother sees a daughter emerging as a rival in the family for public adulation? Poisoned apples, the old solution, have been replaced by neutering.

While there is currently professed horror at the practice of female genital mutilation to limit the pleasure of sex, as carried out in developing countries such as Somalia, we’re hearing no similar outcry over the new fashion of (mostly) wealthy parents administering gender adjustment therapy, including surgery and puberty retarding hormones, effectively rendering the children sterile. Seen in the light of overpopulation on an overheating planet, selective sterilization may have some utility, but to some of us it seems even more invasive than the Chinese one-child policy and far more abusive toward children than all the depredations of scores of pedophile priests and scoutmasters.

Still, we shouldn’t be totally surprised. We’ve been taking our pets to the vet for years to be neutered so they’ll be happier, as well as to keep our big dogs from humping the new suede sofa or our cats from keeping us awake with blood-curdling sounds of their nocturnal battles. With the threat of our libidinous daughters turning up pregnant or our sons coming home with a new antibiotic resistant STD, who wouldn’t want to do as much for our children as we do for our pets.

If the exclusion of pedophiles from the new era of tolerance raises some troubling issues of hypocrisy, there’s no need to worry. The inclusion of “T” into the alphabet soup has brought with it transgender indoctrination classes in public schools and libraries with fully costumed transvestites teaching elementary school kids the use of sex toys and the mechanics of inter-gender sex. The ubiquity of i phones has rendered the study of old-fashioned subjects such as geography and history superfluous, so now kids of all potential genders have time available to discover how to get the most satisfaction from their rubber duckies, their classmates, and even their sensual studies advisors.

The last few centuries have seen us pass through an age of enlightenment to a war-torn period of totalitarian ideology to a short-lived period of expanding democracy. We now seem to have entered a period of the destruction of institutions, the disparaging of received wisdom, and the rejection of science. Faced with a climate crisis which threatens to make the earth uninhabitable, people described as “conservatives” have chosen to ride it out in top deck of the Titanic-style-- “waiter, let’s have that last bottle of champagne”. Not to be outdone, some people who self-identify as “progressives” are theorizing that gender has no objective reality, so we can just fondle everything and everyone in tranquil bliss as Aldous Huxley envisioned almost ninety years ago. There are more than enough studies demonstrating the climate crisis, but the “conservatives” choose to ignore them. Studies showing the world-wide drop in the sperm count in young men are not as common but they do exist. They are being ignored in an even more absolute, bipartisan way. Maybe that’s because in the Oligarch Era nobody wants (or can afford) to have babies anymore except people unable to have them, notably homosexuals who eschew conventional channels of reproduction, and women over fifty who were too busy in their fertile years. What about the apparent rise in gender confusion? How long ago was it that anyone was even aware of the existence, much less the definition, of a transgender person? Just as the right sees new opportunities in the planetary rise in temperatures (new shipping lanes across the North Pole, wine making in Scotland etc.) the left, which has typically at least sought to understand the causes of climate change and to find solutions to counteract it, has stopped all inquiry into what has produced the epidemic drop in human fertility and the expansion of gender confusion. Both phenomena appear to be currently outpacing the melting of glaciers. If people had reacted back in the 60’s the way they are now, pregnant women would still be taking thalidomide and cooing over how “original” their children were. Fanatical gender denial may be just what it takes to keep the Titanic crowd perched on the command deck until the ship finally goes down.

Perhaps there is a positive side though. If the earth is to soon become uninhabitable, isn’t it just as well that the human race loses its ability to reproduce so there won’t be so many people around to suffer the meltdown.