[The following two pieces first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason, on September 8, 2003 and February 26, 2004, respectively. — FWP]
Come on, guys and dolls. It’s all getting to be a bit much.
Is it only a Curmudgeon Emeritus’s privilege to note — and comment on — lunacies parading naked-faced in the street? Why haven’t ordinary, self-respecting folks taken a few swings at the gaudier irrationalities of our time?
The House Of Representatives has passed a bill allocating $10 million for a small-scale voucher program for students in Washington, D.C. This program will provide about 1300 vouchers to students endangered by the city’s ineffective, lawless government-run schools. As it’s nominally a federal program, it could be a bellwether for the entire country, according to whether or not it achieves its goals. But Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative for the District of Columbia, that famous advocate For The ChildrenTM, is dead set against it. She’s been urging the Democratic contingent in the Senate to filibuster it.
This despicable woman leagued with the equally despicable Children’s Defense Fund head Marian Wright Edelman to spread the lie that a dollar spent to provide day care services to toddlers would avert $3.38 in spending on welfare and crime prevention later on. When pressed on the matter, Edelman admitted that there was no hard data to back up the claim, that she’d pulled the number out of the air — because she needed a lever with which to pry additional social spending out of Congress.
(By the way, her highest-profile champion during that campaign was former United States Senator and current presidential aspirant Carol Moseley Braun. Hm. Three black women, all froth-at-the-mouth social-welfare fascists with room-temperature IQs, and all go by three names like the scions of Yankee-patrician families who’ve blown through their money and have to live on the cachet of their lineage. More than coincidence? Your Curmudgeon reports; you decide.)
Soon-to-be-disgraced-former-Governor of California Gray Davis, struggling pitifully to avert recall against a huge tide of hostile sentiment and a horde of contenders — one of whom is his Lieutenant-Governor, unrepentant racialist and Chicano separatist Cruz Bustamante — has derided front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger in public for his accent. He opined that one of the qualifications for gubernatorial status was the ability to “pronounce the name of the state.”
Of course, a man who can give away $40 billion on power futures when his state budget is already in the red hasn’t got terrific credentials for good sense, but really! Is there anything less appetizing than such a display of contempt for a man of foreign birth? Is it conceivable that a man smart enough to be elected Governor of the largest and most ethnically diverse state in the Union twice could fail to know it?
United States Senator John Kerry (D, Viet Nam) has been stumping the country claiming that, when he voted on the authorization of the use of force against the Saddam Hussein regime in 2002, he didn’t know what he was voting for. Kerry, too, wants to be elevated to the presidency. In this he follows in the footsteps of Senator Edward Kennedy (D, Kennedy), who, when asked before the national media why he wanted to be president, couldn’t think of an answer.
Here we have a slew of good reasons never to contend for public office. Would you really want to be lumped in with these clowns?
But let’s not spend all our time on politics. The cavortings of private citizens deserve a little air time, too.
Fox News has an article on hazardous body modifications that are now becoming fashionable. Some of these, such as tattooing, have been au courant for a few years now, though the recent fad for facial tattoos a la Mike Tyson is fairly new. Others, such as toe-shortening surgery to allow women to wear radically short-toed, pointy shoes, are quite fresh, and very disturbing.
Psychologists have long recognized an affliction called body dysmorphia. Its sufferers come to hate their bodies for not conforming to some abstract ideal, or for other reasons which, so as not to give offense to the certifiably insane proponents and self-despising seekers of sex-reassignment surgery, your Curmudgeon will pass over in silence. The body dysmorphic is seized by a compulsion to alter himself that goes beyond simple attention to cleanliness, fitness, and grooming. In the most severe cases, the condition eventually becomes as lethal as Von Munchausen’s Syndrome.
(Yes, yes, it’s impossible to draw a hard-and-fast border that would separate “trivial” body modifications such as ear piercing from incomprehensibilities such as having one’s lower ribs removed to improve one’s figure. On which side of the boundary would tongue piercing fall? Your Curmudgeon considers that evidence of badly distorted judgment at best, but in this he knows he’s in the minority. Still, just because we must admit to the existence of a gray zone doesn’t mean that the gray zone is infinitely wide.)
Where are the friends and relations of body dysmorphics as they sail into the straits of insanity? Surely they have some. Are these people completely incapable of restraining their disturbed friends and family members by force of opinion? Are they unwilling to urge the sufferers toward mental therapy, the proper course for anyone who comes to hate his body — his very self? Is this a new venue for destructive nonjudgmentalism?
There’s a word that must immediately return to circulation. It must be deployed widely, without hesitation or compromise. The word is mutilation.
Some kinds of cosmetic surgery are thinkable — possibly only because they’ve become so commonplace — but in many cases, he who allows a knife to cut his flesh for non-health reasons is mutilating himself. Though it’s his right, it marks him as a person whose mental balance is seriously out of plumb. His judgment of literally anything ought to be closely questioned.
As for tattooing, ask yourself this: Would you be willing to commit to having the image to be drawn on your flesh hang on every wall of your home for the rest of your life? If not, why are you willing to wear it on your body for the same period?
Let’s get back to common sense.
The Curmudgeon is out getting his teeth filed down to points, so Fran will write the column today.
In all seriousness, the subject of today’s rant has me too charged up to manage the Curmudgeon’s involute, gently satirical style. I am filled with anger and fear, and the only way I know to dissipate them is to write about the occasions of them.
A young colleague came by my office yesterday, wearing a peculiar expression, a blend of triumph and physical discomfort. Before I could even say hello, she’d turned about and yanked up her blouse to show me a tattoo: a large, garish tattoo of a winged snake that covered about half of her back.
I’m not often put at a loss for words, but what do you say to such a thing?
She looked back over her shoulder at me and said, “I got it Monday. What do you think?”
Before I proceed with this narration, I must mention that the young woman in question is genuinely young — she’s twenty-four — is single, and is aware that I’m an old mossback that has very conservative views on just about everything. We’re “hall friendly”; we smile and say hello in passing. We don’t dislike one another, but neither of us would normally seek the other as discretionary company. Yet here she was, baring her body to me to show me something she had good reason to suppose I wouldn’t approve. All of that occurred to me as I groped for a response.
What came out was, “They know what causes that, now.”
She giggled, mercifully covered herself, turned to me and said, “I knew you’d hate it.”
“Then why did you come and show it to me?”
Another giggle, but no reply. There was no need for a reply, really; she’d thrust her fresh mutilation in my face because she knew I’d disapprove of it.
“Tell me,” I said. “Did it hurt?”
She nodded. “It still does. You should have heard me screaming at the tattoo shop.”
“And that didn’t…suggest anything to you?”
She shrugged. There was a challenging pride to her expression, as if she were daring me to disapprove more explicitly.
I decided not to disappoint her.
“So,” I said, “you put yourself through a painful procedure that involves prolonged suffering and the risk of a serious infection, to engrave a piece of second-rate art — something you probably couldn’t bear to have on your bedroom wall — on your own flesh, probably for the rest of your life.” Her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open. “If you become intimate with a man and he’s repulsed by it, there’ll be nothing you can do. If your skin loosens or the inks start to fade, it will look even more revolting than it does now. If you ever decide to remove it, you’ll have to undergo surgery and still more pain. You’ll never have your original skin texture back no matter what you do. Have you considered seeking professional help?”
She gasped and ran from the room.
My anger comes from the recognition that the lunatics are no longer under proper restraint. My fear is because, even if they’re not running the asylum yet, their time is fast approaching.
Mental disease and its indicators are the subject of a great many discussions. Not all of them are polite. Still, surely one of the contra-indications of sanity would be the predilection for damaging oneself. We consider those who slash their own flesh, or burn themselves deliberately, to be diseased individuals, persons in need of supervision by the more responsible.
But few are willing to say anything of substance about the craze for self-mutilation via tattoos and piercings. To cut into a healthy body, to destroy healthy tissue for no good reason, is mutilation. To replace intact flesh with bad indelible artwork or metal rings or prongs is a sign of mental disturbance.
If we look more widely, we can find a large number of related pathologies — related in the sense that they court pain, suffering, and long-lasting damage for no good reason — abroad and waxing as we speak. “Bug chasers” who actively seek to contract the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. S&M aficionadoes who engage in practices so vile that I can’t even bear to write about them. Women who deliberately get pregnant because they want to have abortions. Perfectly ordinary people, who look, dress and talk just like you and me, who repeatedly vote Democrat. Let’s say nothing about still more extreme practices. I know they exist, but I’m trying to hold my dinner down.
The mind reels. It more than reels; it withdraws in horror and disgust.
Yet nothing is more appalling, nor more puzzling, than the way the devotees of these madnesses parade them before those of us whose sanity is still firmly glued in place, expecting to shock us, then castigating us for being shocked.
What is the message? What is the meaning of this tide of folly?
Are they saying, “We are not like you, and here’s the proof” — ?
Are they saying, “Look what you made me do” — ?
Are they saying, “We hate ourselves, and we have no other way to express it than self-destruction” — ?
What can we possibly say in response? What obligations do we, the sane, possess toward these others who rend and scar themselves in ways even the flagellants of medieval times would have condemned as pointless and evil?
No doubt someone out there is thinking, “There he goes again, assuming you can define normality.” No doubt someone out there is wondering how I’d defend the socially accepted “mutilations” of earlobe piercing and circumcision. And both of you can sit down and shut up. Earlobe piercing is a “gray zone” item — silly, but not really harmful — and circumcision serves a medical function, though not everyone agrees on the necessity. And not only can you define normality, it’s been done for us by Nature herself.
Savages in many lands have done exactly the same sorts of things our “civilized” lunatics are doing to themselves today. Note how poorly those primitive peoples have fared these last few centuries. It hasn’t always been because the Europeans developed machine guns.
The ascent from savagery begins when a people realizes that things happen for a reason, and with time, careful observation and hard thought, those reasons can be explored and systematized into bodies of knowledge. Savage peoples that learned how their savage practices crippled them, and rejected those practices, rose to join the world community of the civilized; those that did not sank into irrelevance, or extinction.
To abuse one’s own body carries consequences. Some fraction of self-abusers will die from it. More will suffer some lesser loss, perhaps of mobility, resistance to disease, or articulation of speech. Others will merely become objects of ridicule to the more sensible, who will disdain to procreate with them. Inbreeding among self-mutilators produces a declining line of descent; stupidity and self-destructiveness reinforced will almost always “improve” on their progenitors.
Granted that some mutilations, such as tattooing, are safer than they once were. At least, they’re safer than the ritual scarifications of primitive Africa. What’s the point? Why do this to yourself? Who are you speaking to and what are you trying to say? Must the argument be engraved on your flesh?
What was my young colleague’s point, that she was so eager to make to me?
If you disapprove of how I replied to her, what ought I to have done instead?
I dislike this feeling of incomprehension, of helplessness. I greatly fear that some switch has flipped in the minds of many, neutering their rational faculties, particularly their ability to look forward into their own futures. I fear even more that it’s a growing trend.
Demographically, the self-mutilation craze is firmly tied to the young, and appears to be waxing among them. We older folks are far less willing to court their resentment or scorn by reproving them than any of our predecessors were. Whether that’s because of lack of courage or lack of inclination, it cannot be good.
Still, there remain the questions: What can we do? What ought we to do?
Don’t speak of laws. No law against voluntary self-mutilation could possibly pass Fourth Amendment muster. Besides, one doesn’t control an outbreak of irrationality by force of law; the drinking craze of the early Eighteenth Century and the drug craze of the Twentieth have demonstrated that perfectly well.
Is it possible that there’s no constructive response? Must we simply write off those that fall prey to this ugly trend, and hope that their bad example persuades others to follow a more wholesome, self-respecting course?
I have no answers. I have anger and fear, and a single recommendation that I’d like to shout from the rooftops in a voice of thunder.
Guard your sons and daughters. Love them, but don’t indulge them. Monitor their activities and their associations. Restrain their destructive flights of fancy, should they have any. Be candid about your disapprovals, and give the clearest, simplest reasons you possibly can. Don’t think you have to bend to the latest fads, simply because they are the latest fads and every other parent in the neighborhood has surrendered to them. You are your child’s source for the wisdom of the race, as it was conveyed to you by your parents. If you fail him, to whom will he turn? Don’t succumb to the desire to have your child regard you as a friend. You were not put on Earth to be his friend. He was not given into your care for that purpose.
And pray for fortitude and resolve.