With only a few hours a day (at best) for reading, and an infinite number of “practical” books to absorb, one might suspect that reading fiction is a waste of time. Couldn’t the time spent buried in “Demian” have been used to learn more about neuroscience or cooking or search engine optimization?
To some extent this is true. The benefits of reading fiction are often outweighed by the benefits of reading non-fiction – especially if the fiction is of the lower grade popular sort: vampire porn, murder mysteries, spy thrillers, space opera, etc. But even this sort of thing is not read solely by losers.
Most people require a certain amount of recreation to remain functional, and there is nothing wrong with this. Few people regard money and success as ends in themselves; they are a means of indulging in various leisures in the future. Not all gratification need be delayed indefinitely, nor is it necessarily good to do so. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The danger here is not an occasional waste of time, but an addiction to escapism which can lead to a loss of effective engagement with reality.
Recreation, however, is not the highest benefit of reading fiction, nor is it the subject of this article. Good fiction can provide an experience of learning and personal growth, sometimes moreso than whatever non-fiction might be available in its place. The marginal utility of “Wuthering Heights” may exceed the marginal utility of a volume of Serbian history or of yet another collection of free enterprise folklore.
How can fiction, which is by definition untrue, be more valuable than acquiring factual knowledge? Consider: the most salient fact about fiction, in general, is that it is always about people. There are no exceptions. Sometimes people may masquerade as animals or machines, as in much children’s literature, but neither animals nor machines are ever the real subject. “Watership Down” is not about rabbits. From the earliest age of comprehension, human beings are interested only in stories about human beings; most people care about things like science (if at all) only insofar as those things affect human beings. For this reason mass media news generally ignores the substantive facts of every important event, instead rendering trivial but moving descriptions of individuals and how they are affected. Only higher intellects are drawn to abstract knowledge, even when it has potential implications for humanity. How many people study forensic pathology, compared to how many study the life and character of Adolf Hitler? Homo Sapiens is fascinated by mirrors.
Fiction is one of the ways that people learn about people. The characters and situations are imaginary and sometimes unrealistic, but they are nonetheless real – they portray something that is or could be part of human reality, expanding our awareness of the nature and potential of our world and especially our fellow inmates thereof. The (largely fictional) “Chanson de Roland” is not a biography. It is a lesson about courage, loyalty, and the bonds between men. It shows, in a way that mere facts never could, how and why a hero – that is, a man – may face death.
By reading fiction, one may learn things about other people, and about oneself, that may not be readily accessible in the real world. One may experience, vicariously but vividly enough, feelings and situations that one may not yet have encountered personally. One may even imagine, and thus experience, situations which are impossible or unsurvivable in reality. This is not only a powerful exercise of the imagination, a very useful faculty in itself, it helps one to learn how people – including oneself! – may or should react under conditions of stress that cannot otherwise be prepared for, and to have confidence when those conditions arise. How will you meet your own death, if you have never imagined it? Mere information about death will not help; it cannot provide an experience.
Fiction can simulate that experience. Good fiction is not escapist; it may even be traumatic to read. It does not make the reader comfortable; it makes him stronger and wiser.
Reading good fiction (and even, to some extent, popular fiction) is a way of preparing for life – testing and rehearsing emotional responses to crises that could, or will, confront the individual in “real” life. Academic knowledge alone cannot create the necessary emotional intensity; the closest thing to firsthand experience is a convincing story.
According to sociologists, the three great socializing influences on children are family, school, and church. I would add a fourth (or a third, church is of much less importance than it was during the formative era of sociology): fiction, predominately movies and television. The audiovisual media are far more compelling, especially to the young, than the written. They also provide much less scope for the individual activity of the audience. A book requires the exercise of the reader’s imagination to recreate appropriate emotions; it thus gives the reader some scope in interpreting the feelings of the characters. Movies typically demand little of the viewer in this regard: a good actor portrays emotion clearly and the viewer is a passive recipient. Some movies are still good fiction, and many are good entertainment, but on average movies are on a level somewhat below comic books, and television is lower still. In terms of teaching how to react and how to experience emotion, video is inferior to print. This is unfortunate because it is primarily fiction (and for this purpose I include songs, i.e. modern poetry) that teaches young people how to deal with the stressful and important things that family, school, and church tend to skirt around: that is, love and sex.
Science teaches the behavior of chemicals, fruit flies, and galaxies. History teaches the behavior of humankind in bulk, and how it relates to great men. Fiction teaches the individual how to fit into the world; it teaches us who we are and who we could be, and how to live with tragedy and triumph. Fiction opens new perspectives and inspires us to create ourselves.
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
-Unknown (apocryphally attributed to Abraham Lincoln)
No, it’s not Barack Obama – he’s trying hard, but he hasn’t had much time yet and the competition is very stiff. It wasn’t Richard Nixon – a vile person can sometimes be a tolerable leader, and Nixon was actually one of the better Presidents. FDR gets a lot of crap from certain quarters, and he certainly made some big mistakes, but he dealt adequately with a couple of very serious problems not of his own creation (though Roosevelt might have turned out to be a horrific failure had Hitler been satisfied with Czechoslovakia). Warren Harding and Ulysses Grant are well known for the corruption they tolerated, but neither managed to really do much damage. It was during the Coolidge administration that the groundwork was laid for the First Great Depression, but there wasn’t much he could have done about it if he wanted to. Herbert Hoover is reviled for his failure to address the Depression (as Obama will be) but Hoover, like Obama, would have faced serious political challenges had he attempted to implement a meaningful policy. There are plenty of other candidates for last place – Reagan, Carter, George Bush II, Lyndon Johnson (whom I’d give a solid second-to-last), Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan…
Buchanan was faced, near the end of his one term, with the secession of South Carolina and then six other Southern states (Georgia and the so-called “Gulf Squadron” of Florida, Alabama, Mississipi, Louisiana, and later Texas). His response was to do very little – he said that although secession was illegal, the US Government was not empowered to intervene (a very dubious Constitutional interpretation). While lame-duck Buchanan waited passively to leave office, the seceding states seized most of the Federal property in their territory – including forts and arsenals. Buchanan did send a civilian ship to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which the Secessionists were trying to starve out, but Star of the West fled when fired on by South Carolina’s shore batteries. Buchanan was still not ready to precipitate the country into war, though, and let the incident pass. Though he had nothing to do with causing the secessions, Buchanan is usually severely castigated by historians for his failure to do anything about them.
And yet – what was he supposed to do? The US Army was hardly prepared for an invasion of the South in January of 1861 – as usual the peacetime army had been very small*, and loyalties to states were then much stronger than now. Any attempt to prevent the capture of the Federal arsenals might well have failed, and/or caused a mutiny, and would certainly have provoked a war. Up until March of 1861, desperate eleventh-hour negotiations were still going on to reverse the secession, and it was far from obvious at the time that these were doomed. One Congressional peace plan was stalled by only a single vote. It is likely that the seceded states would have rejected it, but not certain: there was still a great deal of pro-Union sentiment in the South, and some people plainly regarded Secession as a ploy to gain concessions. Jefferson Davis himself had at first opposed Secession. Could we really expect Buchanan to throw away the last chance, however slim, of escaping the horror of a civil war, as the best solution to a crisis that he had not created, and take the blame on behalf of the man who had created it?
It is said that the Civil War was caused by Secession, but there was no certainty that Secession need bring about war. Furthermore, Secession itself could not have happened without the election of Abraham Lincoln. Secessionists in the South even made it their first priority to ensure Lincoln’s election by attacking Stephen Douglas, the only truly national candidate in the 1860 Presidential race and the only one likely to prevent Lincoln’s victory. It was Lincoln’s intemperate anti-slavery rhetoric that guaranteed his unacceptability to the slave-dependent cotton states of the Deep South. Although Douglas was denounced as a “rank Abolitionist”, he clearly and consistently favored protecting slavery wherever the citizens might want it, and his election would have made Secession politically impossible for the time being.
Had Abraham Lincoln been sincerely dedicated to the abolition of slavery, we would surely forgive him for using anti-slavery agitation as his chief political weapon, but he was not. Lincoln, like most other politicians, claimed whatever positions were politically useful to him, and contradicted them without the slightest hesitation whenever it was convenient. He is famous for saying that, “This Union cannot forever endure half slave and half free,” – a clear declaration of Abolitionist intent; he also said repeatedly that his only priority was preservation of the Union, and he admitted that if he could do this without freeing a single slave he would do so. Lincoln promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery wherever it already existed, and even supported a Constitutional amendment (the Corwin Amendment) protecting the “peculiar institution” in perpetuity. Even after the outbreak of war, Lincoln ordered Union generals (Hooker and Fremont) to return freed slaves to their owners.
Lincoln was also a racist, at least in public and in policy. He stated that blacks were by nature unequal to whites and could not be integrated into white civilization. Mexicans he despised as “a mongrel race not one in eight of whom are white.” His plan for dealing with freed slaves was to deport them to Africa. To this end, near the end of the war, a pilot colony was even established in the Caribbean. When the colony failed and many of the settlers died, Lincoln abandoned the plan for the time being, but it is uncertain whether he might later have yet undertaken mass deportations, had he lived and had Congress permitted.
It is said that Lincoln was no more racist than other men of his time, and that he could not afford to declare his supposedly genuine Abolitionist sentiments openly for political reasons. But there were Abolitionist political leaders, and even opponents of racism, who did declare themselves openly. If he lacked that much courage, why is Lincoln given any credit for being a visionary? He used Abolitionism to gain power, but at no time did he take any political risk for it, even though his strident exploitation of the anti-slavery movement had already destroyed any credibility his promise not to interfere with slavery could have had in the South. In fact, even during the war, Lincoln approached the abolition of slavery with all the eagerness of a man contemplating a dive into raw sewage. The Emancipation Proclamation had to wait until the tide of war was clearly running against the Confederacy, and even then was framed so that it did not immediately free any slaves. When slaves were eventually freed, it was at first only to be conscripted to labor for the Union armies, while the slaves of owners in non-seceded states were left in bondage.
Even without having any firm convictions, Lincoln managed to be perceived as an extreme partisan and was the most divisive Presidential candidate of his century, and perhaps ever. He achieved this partly through the manipulation of mobs. He owed the Republican nomination, which he captured from the leading (and more dignified) Republican, William Seward, to the fact that the Convention was held in Chicago, where organized crowds of Lincoln supporters could shout down pro-Seward speakers. (And, also, to backroom dealing wherein “Honest Abe” traded a Cabinet post for the votes of Simon Cameron’s delegation). His election campaign included virulent anti-Southern speeches and ominous pseudo-military parades, often conducted late at night by torch-bearing mobs. Lincoln worked hard to be perceived as the enemy of the South – a project in which the Secessionists wholeheartedly participated. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most slave states, and where he was, his showing was miserable (26,395 votes altogether, most of them in Missouri).
Though he won the election, it was with a minority of the popular vote**. Lincoln was about as unpopular as a candidate can be and still win a bare majority in the Electoral College; he won almost all of the free states but in several cases (including his home state of Illinois) by small margins, and had essentially no votes in the slave states. Given Lincoln’s known political habits, it is not unlikely that he had some help from electoral fraud in certain key states (especially Pennsylvania, which Cameron had promised to deliver for him, and Illinois) in achieving this minority victory.
When his election precipitated the secession of seven slave states – as they had already been threatening to do – Lincoln participated in attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution (i.e., he cooperated with Buchanan’s much-derided policy), but any promises he made were of course disregarded in the South. Meanwhile, certain Northern states were already mobilizing troops.
Even before his inauguration, Lincoln had thus brought about the creation of the Confederacy. But the major questions remained unsettled: Would there be a war? If so, would the remaining Union hang together? Who would win? Lincoln decided the first two of these questions with some atrocious bungling which showed how completely out of touch he was with half of the country he had hijacked.
Lincoln was determined to rule over the entire United states, and not let any parts of it out of his grasp – this, not any Abolitionist intent, was his prime motivation throughout his administration. Negotiations having failed, his only alternative was to conquer the South by arms. On the surface, this seemed easy enough – the seven-state Confederacy had only a tiny fraction of the manpower and resources that the Union held, and no Navy or arms manufacturing capacity. Its only hope was foreign assistance. Lincoln’s problem was that, while the northernmost states were eager for bloodshed, in much of the Union there was little or no support for war. In particular, eight slave states had remained loyal but were obviously unsympathetic toward Lincoln’s aspirations.
Lincoln chose Fort Sumter, still under siege in Charleston harbor, as the place to start the war. Sumter was running out of food, and had to be immediately resupplied or surrendered. The President was presented with a plan for smuggling supplies in at night by small boats slipping into the harbor from warships lurking at sea. This plan was adopted, but Lincoln insisted on making some modifications.
What Lincoln ultimately did was to send warships openly into Charleston harbor in broad daylight, under the Confederate guns, flying the Union flag. To ensure that no one missed the point, Lincoln even cabled the Charleston authorities in advance to warn them of the mission. Since the latter had earlier fired on Star of the West, and had already announced that they would fire on any other resupply attempt, there was little risk that they would allow Union warships to defy them openly. They did not; the warships were forced to withdraw and Fort Sumter surrendered.
Lincoln’s intent was to force the Confederacy into firing the first shot so as to unite public opinion against them – as he put it, they would be “firing on bread” in view of the whole country. But Lincoln was sadly ignorant of the real state of opinion in the Border states, and unaware that no one was fooled by his clumsy ploy. When he issued an immediate demand that all the states provide quotas of troops to put down the rebellion, four more slave states promptly seceded and three more exhibited marked disloyalty.
The expansion of the Confederacy from seven states to eleven might not at first seem critical, but it was. The original seven had very little industry, and though they had a large (and almost indefensible) territory were comparatively sparsely populated (most of Florida and Texas was then empty). A large proportion of their population was slaves, who could not be used for troops and whose loyalty could hardly be counted on. The seven-state Confederacy had very little liquid capital, as all its wealth was in land, and its economy was entirely dependent on crop exports, mainly cotton – for which the main consumers were England and the North they had just seceded from. Ships, shipyards, foundries, weapon factories, iron, coal, etc. – even the manufacture of clothing and shoes – were all severely or totally lacking. To worsen its defensive situation, the Confederacy had a very long front with the Union – stretching from Texas to South Carolina – but little depth, without a single significant port being more than 400 miles from Union territory (and New Orleans and Savannah much closer). The large slave population was a major liability as well, as was the pro-Union white population of the hill regions.
Three of the four new Confederate states – Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee – were much more developed and all including Arkansas had relatively few slaves (which is why secession had not at first seemed necessary to them). Their accession doubled the population of the Confederacy, and tripled its industrial capacity. Most of the new population was white, and the loyalty of whites in Appalachia was to some degree cemented by Lincoln’s aggression and (presumably) by the fact that the Confederacy now appeared to have a fighting chance.
The Confederacy’s geographic defensibility was improved as it not only increased in depth (without adding much length) but gained the Appalachians as a defensive barrier. The Southern seaports, and the potentially rebellious concentrations of slaves in the Deep South, were now farther from Northern interference. More Federal arsenals were seized, and through Virginia the Confederacy was able to burn the Navy yard at Norfolk and threaten the capital at Washington. Meanwhile the Union was forced to devote part of its forces to occupying Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland – slave states which had not managed to formally secede, but were now as much pro-Confederate as pro-Union.
Every one of the four states which Lincoln forced into the Confederacy had already rejected secession, either explicitly or by refusing to vote on it. The regional, partisan President had ignorantly misinterpreted these decisions as conclusive, and even more foolishly had thought that his ruse at Sumter would turn local Unionism in the Upper South into support for a national war against their fellow slave societies. On the contrary, the Border states detested and feared Lincoln, and they supported the right of secession even when declining to exercise it themselves. A Union military conquest of the South would mean the end of their own slave societies and the subjugation of the South to the North, and they knew it. They preferred peace and Union, but given a choice between taking arms against their slave-owning allies and taking arms against their Abolitionist enemies, it should have been plain that they would choose the latter.
Lincoln had enabled the creation of the Confederacy by his vocal anti-Southern partisanship; by his arrogant fumbling he had turned it from a hopelessly weak and helpless nation into one with some ability to fight. But the North still had a huge advantage in resources – more than twice as many people, the vast majority of the nation’s industry, an excellent (by comparison) rail network, reserves of gold and silver, and (perhaps most importantly of all) virtually the entire Navy. The conquest of the Confederacy should not have been too difficult – but Lincoln wasn’t yet done screwing things up.
The incompetence of Union general officers during the first half of the Civil War is legendary. Their specific failures receive plenty of attention (and deservedly so); the fact that they were all political appointees approved by Lincoln is less emphasized. It may be that they were forced on him by Congress, but in this (as in so many other things) the best that may be said of our sixteenth President is that he failed to stand up against pressure. The bloodthirsty alcoholic Ulysses Grant, often considered the best Union general, finally won the war, but at horrendous cost in life – his most remarkable quality was his relentless aggression and disregard for casualties.
Lincoln wasn’t always content to let his generals make all the military mistakes, either. For political reasons he sometimes insisted on attacks even when these were militarily wasteful or even counterproductive, and he refused to withdraw the government from Washington where its vulnerability crippled Union operations. Lincoln was much more concerned with his own political future (which was obviously tied to the war’s progress) than with the carnage among the soldiers who had to fight his war.
If it hadn’t been for Lincoln’s assistance in winning over the Border states for the Confederacy, it is unlikely that a war would even have been needed to bring the original seven secedors (eventually) back into the Union. The Deep South was ill-equipped to survive on its own and, heavily dependent on imports, very vulnerable to blockade. Even the eleven-state Confederacy might have succumbed eventually to the so-called “Anaconda Plan” even without a massive war; perhaps even the Anaconda was unnecessary. The Confederacy was very loosely organized, united only by its fear and hatred of Abolition, and each state was naturally determined to retain its own full sovereignty. It was also very dependent on Northern markets for cotton.
President Lincoln, however, was not willing to wait for economic pressure and internal disorder to bring the South back into the Union. This could only have been completed under a different President, less hateful to the South, and he was not about to surrender the power to which he felt he was entitled, by virtue of a quirky electoral system, to wield over the slave states. He was also surely aware that his chance of reelection was small if he displeased his fanatical followers by failing to take firm action against the “traitors”. His ambition, as he himself showed through both words and actions, was never to liberate slaves but to preserve the Union, and it would be fair to say that by “Union” he meant Union under his own personal rule.
During the war to restore the Constitutional Union, Lincoln constantly and flagrantly violated the Constitution he was allegedly defending. His opponents were arrested without charge and imprisoned without trial; critical newspapers were seized; the Supreme Court was even prevented by armed force from hearing key cases. By 1864, the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt and Lincoln was less unpopular than before (and of course most of the slave states weren’t voting), but he still hedged his bets with ballot fraud to ensure his reelection. Quite likely the near-dictatorship that he created for himself would have carried on indefinitely, but for two fortuitous circumstances: his early death and the fact that he had picked a Democrat for Vice President in 1864, vainly hoping to thereby appear less partisan. Andrew Johnson was in no position to take over the dictatorship, and it died with Lincoln.
Had Lincoln lived longer, his present fame would certainly be much diminished. He would surely have sought a third term, and to retain his dictatorial powers. As the thrill of victory wore off, his impositions would have become harder to tolerate, and his flaws more controversial to his allies. But a dead man is always safe to make into a hero, and the time and circumstances of Lincoln’s death made him an ideal martyr for the Republicans and Abolitionists whereas, had he lived much longer, many of them would have been working to undermine his dangerous autocracy.
The Lincoln legend was reinforced during the rapprochement of the later nineteenth century between North and South, when the leaders of both were re-cast as heroes. It was at this time that the motive of the North, which had been to annihilate State’s Rights and preserve the personal authority of Lincoln, was reinterpreted as the liberation of the slaves, and the motive of the South, which had never in reality been more than a defense of its brutal institution of slavery, was transmogrified into an idealistic crusade for State’s Rights. By mutual agreement (among whites) the self-serving perpetrators of slavery and of slaughter became saints.
When Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, died in 1882 of the syphilis which surely contributed to her insanity, the real cause of death was suppressed by her doctors, who ascribed to an accidental fall the diagnosis of tabes dorsalis (known even then to be caused only by syphilis). The legend of Abraham Lincoln was already too entrenched to be tarnished by mere truth. The likelihood is that Abraham, true to his character as we know it, knowingly infected his wife but never told her even after she became ill. Mary Todd sought treatment only in 1869, when she had been seriously ill for several years. There is evidence that “Honest Abe”, however, was being treated for syphilis before he even met Mary Todd.
The historical picture of Lincoln is of a man rather less than heroic: a venal, inept, and unscrupulous megalomaniac. He brought about a terrible war, which killed more Americans than both World Wars combined; he prosecuted that war incompetently; he was a typical crooked politician who lied, contradicted himself, broke his promises, and even cheated in elections; he scorned the Constitution and ruled as a dictator. But at least he freed the slaves, even if he hadn’t set out to do so, even if he dragged his feet at every turn and planned a mass deportation of blacks?
The simple answer is yes – but with or without the Civil War, slavery was already a dying institution by 1860. Slavery – of the antebellum American kind – was principally an adjunct of plantation agriculture. It had completely failed to take root in the New Mexico or Kansas territories, and even in the oldest districts of the Old South the small farmers of the hill country owned few or no slaves. By 1850 slavery was already fading out in the Border states. In the East, slaves were more plentiful than needed, and the real motivation behind much of the obsession with legalizing slavery in the territories was the vain hope that new markets would open up where these unwanted slaves could be disposed of. It was for financial, not humanitarian, reasons that the Confederate Constitution banned the importation of slaves. Some Southerners even hoped to conquer new territories in Mexico or the Caribbean where their slaves could be sold, not realizing that these places had no use for slaves (or, like Cuba, already had their own surplus). In reality, the handful of slavery-dependent cotton states had a fixed realm which could not expand and they would have been increasingly powerless as the rest of the world grew around them.
Before the Civil War, there was controversy in the South about whether slavery was even profitable. The slaves cost less than free workers, but they also produced less, stole more, and could not be simply fired when they got sick or were too old to work. In post-war writings, it is not unusual to find Southerners claiming that the end of slavery was an economic boon, which is not implausible. The real purpose of slavery was, arguably, the social control of the Negro, and this control did not end with slavery.
An independent South, especially if it were just South Carolina and the Gulf Squadron, would have had other problems in maintaining slavery. Without the Southern votes in Congress, the Fugitive Slave Laws would have disappeared, making it easier for slaves to escape. Public opinion in the industrial world in general was increasingly anti-slavery, especially in Britain which was the greatest buyer of cotton, and a country totally dependent on exports could not ignore this forever. If nothing else, agricultural machinery would eventually have replaced most slave labor, being cheaper.
The process of emancipation might have taken several decades, but not necessarily: slavery had been abolished throughout the Western world by the end of the century, even in places like Brazil and Cuba that had been totally dependent on slave-worked plantations. Was the nominal freedom of a generation or two of American slaves worth the tremendous cost in lives, the dislocation of war, and the permanent end of the balance between State and Federal power? Maybe so, but we should remember that the “Great Emancipator” was perfectly willing to take all those lives without freeing a single slave.
President Obama likes to be compared with Abraham Lincoln. He does in fact share many of Lincoln’s virtues: divisiveness, partisanship, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, corruption, dishonesty, total unscrupulousness, fanaticism in the pursuit of personal power, expertise at dirty politics and a facility for rhetorical public speaking. Both men rose suddenly to the Presidency from a position of obscurity, partly by means of cultivating a mob mentality among their followers. The comparison is less flattering than Mr. Obama thinks.
I am not much in the habit of citing sources, since I write on my own time, but I feel obliged to draw attention to Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury as a key resource for events leading up to the Civil War, especially the details about the Fort Sumter affair, which are usually censored from popular histories.
*The US Army had only 16,000 men total in 1860, of whom a substantial part had already deserted or surrendered to Secessionist militias even before the debacle at Fort Sumter.
**Lincoln won slightly less than 40% of the ballots in a four-way race. Curiously, Lincoln would have carried the Electoral College even if the votes of all three other candidates had been united behind a single candidate. The election of 1860 was by far the most regionally-dominated in American history.
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?”
After an excessive number of political rants, I’m going to take a break and tackle a less sensitive topic: religion. I promise to be just as insulting, if not more so.
I’m not going to try to argue whether God exists: if you have enough brain matter to fill a pudding cup (and I am talking about the ridiculous little kiddie-size ones that only serve to remind you how good pudding tastes) you can tell that God is either dead or asleep at the wheel. “Intelligent Design” is the dumbest theory ever invented to support God’s existence; a better one would be “Malicious Idiot Design”. If you’re one of those who believes that an obscure nomadic tribal deity created the entire universe in a week six thousand years ago, deliberately designed it to look much older than it is, created trillions of galaxies for the sake of one tiny planet, peopled it with creatures who can’t help sinning and tormented them for being sinners, and then murdered His only child because it was the best excuse He could think of not to burn every single human being in Hell for eternity – and, furthermore, that this is a good thing – then you might as well not read any further. You’re not the kind of person I’m trying to piss off right now.
If on the other hand you are one of those who believes that you have the right to not only believe whatever you want, but to rub your superiority in the faces of the majority you despise, demonize them, and not be subjected to recriminations and the odd death threat, you are right in my crosshairs. (My political rants don’t count because I don’t mind being hated by greentards, randroids, and other trash, and besides, I’m always right.)
Of course I am (like all intelligent people) an atheist. I think that people should have the right to believe whatever they want without being penalized for it, and not be forced to participate in or subsidize any religion at all. People should not demand tolerance from those whose beliefs they mock and despise, when they are unwilling to grant the same tolerance themselves. They should not have the right to demand that every visible trace of conflicting belief – even atavistic Yahweh-worship – be expunged from public life. If the right of the majority to hold and express its beliefs is not protected, can we expect that the right of the minority will be?
Lawsuits over a Nativity scene at a county courthouse, over the Boy Scout’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance (even after the brats in question were excused from saying the words, “Under God”!), over public postings of the Ten Commandments; controversy over a period of silence in schools – these are reflections of an obscene petty narcissism, not any concern for liberty. Even if the people who instigate such things truly have no better problems of their own to address (which I heartily doubt), they should be reviled for causing pointless disruption to others.
The separation of Church and State (which does not actually exist in the Constitution) is no justification. In our modern world, where government is directly or indirectly involved in every aspect of our lives, there is no possibility of practicing religion without impinging in some way on the public sphere. Churches are going to be zoned differently than whorehouses, people are going to drive to them on taxpayer-subsidized roads, and our Great Annual Shopping Holiday is always going to be called Christmas. We don’t really need protection from this kind of persecution. We need protection from mandatory tithing, enforced church attendance, imprisonment, and burning at the stake. Yes, atheists have suffered such things in the past for their beliefs. So have Christians, and in far greater numbers.
There are some people who like to get all in your face with their religion, but 99.9% are content to leave you alone if you leave them alone. If you get all offended because some well-meaning person says, “God bless you”, you are an asshole. Why should everyone have to tip-toe around the atheist to avoid pricking his fragile ego? If you want to have beliefs that are your own, and not parroted from the herd, you have to be willing to be different; you can’t expect everyone else to change to accommodate you. If you can’t handle being reminded that you are different, you do not deserve to have your own beliefs. You can’t escape the herd while remaining a herd beast. If you call yourself an atheist because you want to make some kind of statement against religion, you are not an atheist, you are a twit.
I am an atheist because the idea of God is absurd – even the remote, passive God of Deists or Pantheists, let alone the anachronistic mythological chimera of Christianity. I am not an atheist because I think that religion itself, or religious people, are a curse on society (as some loud persons would have us believe). It’s easy to list numerous evils perpetrated in the name of God; some of them, perhaps, were even sincerely motivated by religion. But what about all the good and selfless things that people have done to please the imaginary Man in the sky? They may not be as spectacular, but they are undeniably numerous, and anyone who pretends otherwise is just being stupid. For every Jerry Falwell, there are millions of Christians who give to help out complete strangers – even atheist strangers. If they want anything in return, it’s a chance to save your soul. Condescending? Sure, but so is telling a Christian to move out of the Dark Ages, and I’ve never heard of anyone offering them a free meal in exchange for listening to it.
Some people claim to believe that religion is not a real motive for generosity – that religionists are simply doing what they would do anyway. Well, if religion is the cause of all the crimes ostensibly motivated by it, then surely it can motivate good deeds as well? Either religion has the power to influence behavior, or it does not, and it’s ridiculous and self-serving to pretend, in the absence of any evidence, that it can work only for evil and not for good. I think it is clear that religion can do both, and I’m far from certain that it does more harm than good (excepting Islam, of course).
It’s impossible to say whether Christians are more generous or less prone to crime than atheists, partly because the great majority of Christians are quite insincere in their beliefs – in fact, I suspect the majority of them are just directionless agnostics with a purely social attachment to a church. Atheists are more likely to have a moral character simply by virtue of the fact that one almost has to have some measure of character to be an atheist at all – the herd beasts stay in the herd, but it’s debatable whether they should be counted as Christians.
Clearly, atheists, like Christians, can have good moral character (or very bad moral character), and religion is not a necessary motivator for morality. But I have to wonder whether religion has some utility in transmitting ethical standards from one generation to the next. Sure, there are atheist parents who do this quite effectively. But the average atheist is much more intelligent and better educated than the average person. Without the simplifying framework of religion and the reinforcement of its aura of authority, would the average parent – overworked, unaware, and barely literate – do as well? I have my doubts. Better that children learn their values from Sunday school than from television.
People who are obnoxiously proud of being non-Christian usually style themselves atheists (unless they are into Wicca or some other form of pseudo-occult pseudo-pagan “religion” that exists solely for the purpose of giving dipshits an excuse to conflate their D&D characters with real life). Often such people are really agnostics, especially if they are pressed on the issue, because they don’t have the the personal integrity to maintain atheism or the intellectual capacity to defend it. An atheist believes something, an agnostic does not. Pretending that atheism is “lack of belief in God” is a dodge – the etymology of the name notwithstanding, a real atheist has a definite belief that God does not exist, and this is what the name has always meant. Those who claim otherwise are doing real atheists a grave disservice by pretending that we do not exist, and implying – by refusing to defend it and denying the value of doing so – that the belief of atheism cannot be defended. Someone who doesn’t claim to know whether God exists is an agnostic, or even a theist struggling with a crisis of faith, not an atheist at all.
In the end, a genuine Christian and a genuine atheist probably have more in common than either does with an agnostic. The latter avoids the consequences of knowledge by denying its existence. He may not believe in a life after death, but he is not absolutely certain that death is oblivion. He may not be absolutely certain that God has no will for his life, but he can disregard the possibility. But someone with a real belief must accept the consequences that it has in his life – he has to live with what he knows. This demands an integrity that agnosticism or phony-Christianity does not.
There is not much integrity displayed in the behavior of those loud atheists and pseudo-atheists who are so proud to have made so many enemies, who pretend that frivolous lawsuits represent the desires of all non-believers, who snivel hypocritically about intolerance while raining down wholesale defamy on billions of people who are, for the most part, no worse than they. Let them look to the log in their own eye…
“Just as a man’s denominational orientation is the result of upbringing, and only the religious need as such slumbers in his soul, the political opinion of the masses represents nothing but the final result of an incredibly tenacious and thorough manipulation of their mind and soul.”
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
In the late Sixties, Sam Youd (under the name John Christopher) wrote a science fiction trilogy about a future wherein the human race is enslaved by aliens who control human minds through a “cap” attached to the skull at age fifteen. It was a vivid depiction of a frightening eventuality which, except for the aliens and the bit about waiting until age fifteen, was already happening in real life.
How much of what you know about life, the universe, and everything comes from television? If you’re anything like the average American, the honest answer is probably “almost all of it”. Some people may retain a modest amount of “book learning” from school, and some are influenced by religion, but for the majority this doesn’t amount to much. Not only information and attitudes about current events, but the basic, unquestioned assumptions about what is important, how the world works, and fundamental values – the framework which the mind uses to comprehend its environment, solve problems, and exercise judgment – is almost entirely a function of what is seen on television. It is our self-chosen mind control “cap”.
Most people think they are not influenced by advertising they see on television, but of course they are – otherwise, no one would advertise. Television advertising does not even aim to persuade the conscious, rational mind anyway; it works on a deeper level to condition the subconscious mind directly. And even if advertisements do not change a person’s preferences for individual products, collectively they have a much more important effect: they teach us what is important and what our lives should be like. Advertisements (along with the rest of television) teach us to expect all people to be fit, healthy, and attractive, and to be young or at least to appear much younger than they are. We learn that life is principally a matter of acquiring material things, indulging in expensive leisure activities, and seeking “love” in the form of sexual encounters with new and attractive partners. We see crass self-interest – greed, lust, laziness, vanity, fear and insecurity – portrayed as not only acceptable, but as the norm. The overall import is not so much that we choose to spend our money on one luxury or another, but that we come to regard our choices of consumer goods as important life decisions and a major source of satisfaction.
Television frames our core attitudes about most aspects of life. It’s not which sport we follow or which team we favor, but that we care deeply about the outcome of these competitions in which we have no actual stake – we learn that winning and losing are important even in the absence of consequences. It’s not which celebrities we admire or scorn, but that we accept athletes and entertainers as people whose behavior and opinions are worthy of attention. It’s not the ostensible lessons of the banal “dramas”, it’s the appearance, lifestyle, concerns and values of the characters that tell us what we should look like, how we should live, what we should care about, and not only what values we should hold but, more vitally, what values we can hold. We are presented with an array of villains and heroes with various traits, but we are subtly taught that some values are optional while others are absolute – we never see a “good” character who is a racist or opposes popular democracy, for example, because those values are not permitted to be questioned or treated with any ambiguity. Some ideas are so deeply embedded that they are never challenged or named, even by villains; for instance, that the acquisition of wealth is a legitimate path to happiness, or that all problems have practical solutions.
Likewise, television may encourage us to fear the abuse of authority and to challenge it, but only in prescribed ways. By the publicity given to elections and protests, debate and discontent are diverted into these controlled, impotent channels, and few people even consider the existence of alternatives. Because television treats elections as meaningful instruments of popular sovereignty, viewers assume that they are. Television also decides what is controversial. It’s not which positions we hold on which issues, but that we consider only the issues and the positions that are presented to us. It’s not that we are told to vote for Demlicans or Repocrats or reminded of the chimerical alternative of “third parties”; it’s that we never imagine the possibility of real change in the political structure.
In any mental process, there are a vast number of hidden restrictions. Anytime we ponder our options, we have already subconsciously ruled out most of them. Our thought is conditioned by the automatic assumptions we make, by the things we already accept as cardinal reference points, and by the words and concepts available for our use. If you have been trained to predict celestial phenomena using the Earth as the center of the universe, you are far more likely to fit your observations to that model than to discard the “obvious” and construct a whole new system. If you have always treated gold as the standard of value, you will readily forget that gold itself is nearly useless. If you believe that “Freedom” and “Communism” are polar opposites, you cannot anticipate the rise of a totalitarian capitalist state.
Of course, cultural referents are much older than television. Men have, for the most part, always been sharply limited in their thinking – much moreso than they are today, until just a few centuries ago. So what is it about television that makes it particulary insidious as a vehicle of thought control, worse than books, newspapers, schools, or even religion?
Television takes direct advantage of our biological weakness. The flickering, moving light, even without any content at all, is hypnotic in a way scarcely any live speaker could achieve. Television is very powerfully addictive, as can be easily learned by attempting to separate a child (or yourself) from it. Watching actually causes changes in brain chemistry, and the symptoms of withdrawal are similar to those of opiate withdrawal. The human brain responds to television at a very primitive level, more like the way it responds to music than the rational way it responds to printed material.
In fact, television temporarily suppresses the logical part of the brain, causing a major imbalance between brain hemispheres, and stimulates emotional response. Measurement of brain activity shows that viewers go into a trance-like state. In this condition, they are receptive and suggestible and have little capability for critical judgment – even if they are intelligent and otherwise clear-thinking. The combination of hypnotism and the realism and intensity of stimulation make the Boob Tube a direct pipeline to the brain’s emotive and conditioning functions, bypassing the normal barriers of reason.
As a tool for social control, television is ideal. It doesn’t have to be imposed on anyone – people will watch it voluntarily, pay for it, cling to it obsessively, bring it into every room of their home and give it most of their free time. They often can’t give it up even when they want to. The need for secret police, gulags, government control of the press, and most other embarrassing, expensive trappings of the police state is eliminated. Not everyone is controlled, of course, but the large majority is kept docile; those dissidents that exist are easily marginalized. They have no chance of competing with the compelling, hypnotic Eye of Satan.
Provided, of course, that they don’t have access to it themselves. Naturally, no state allows its citizens unrestricted use of such a potent weapon. The relatively high cost of producing and broadcasting video helps, as does the fact that nearly all broadcast outlets and production studios are owned by giant corporations who naturally use them to protect the status quo. Nonetheless, in this country as in others, the government licenses, regulates, and censors all broadcasters, reserving the right to impose massive fines or shut a broadcaster down for any number of vaguely defined reasons. Freedom of the press is tolerated because the press is no threat to the Videocracy, but freedom of broadcast could never be allowed, any more than a military dictator would hand out rifles to the general population.
Not that the power of video is solely used for nefarious ends. The dramatic decline in racism in America over the last two generations owes in large part to the fact that racism is never portrayed on television as anything better than reprehensible. Television also brought about the end of an unpromising war in Southeast Asia that could easily have gone on much longer with worse results – showing that the power of the media is not always aligned with the state on all issues. But television has also played a major part in the demise of traditional English liberty and the rise of totalitarian democracies, as well as social problems like runaway consumerism.
A basic premise and requisite of democracy is that voters have a rational preference for candidates based on meaningful knowledge of the candidates and the real-world situation. Television effectively prevents the acquisition of such knowledge. Responses to television are fundamentally emotive, and the producers of television are experts at exploiting this. Appearance is all that matters, and this is easily distorted. As far as accurate, concrete information relevant to public policy, none is to be found on television, though there is an abundance of propaganda and enough emotion and vaguely information-like distraction to make most people feel as though they have learned something. If you have doubts, try reading the transcript of a “news” segment you haven’t watched. Beyond the most elementary statement of the most general and obvious things – the kind of things they couldn’t prevent you from finding out even if they never reported them, like a major natural disaster – there will be nothing but innuendoes, unsupported opinions, factoids deprived of context, results of push polls, interviews with dubious or impertinent persons (even “man on the street” interviews!), unverified claims from biased or unspecified sources, and plenty of carefully chosen but totally inconsequential “human interest” and trivia stories. That, and outright lies on occasion. Television “news” has nothing at all to do with information; it is manipulation, usually subtle but never diluted with actual journalism. We scoff at the pathetically ignorant Arabs who get their information from Al-Jazeera, but our own image of the world comes mainly from sources that are no more impartial or honest, merely less brazen and with different goals.
In a democracy, whoever controls public opinion controls the government. Newspapers and stump speakers always worked hard to do just that, but for decades now, television has made it possible to control the masses consistently and thoroughly, without the barrier of rational resistance. The existence of vociferous differences of opinion on certain issues should not blind us to the fact that there is no significant deviation from Establishment positions on any important matter. We are allowed, even incited, to have conflicting opinions about gay marriage, capital punishment, abortion, or gun control – the tone of rhetoric over these issues often reaching hysteria. But there is no possibility of any policy change in any of these areas that could have a real impact on more than a tiny percentage of the population. We are encouraged to complain about illegal immigration, but any proposal to actually interfere with it is treated as inhumane fringe lunacy – so long as wages can be driven down by immigration, no public consensus will emerge to do anything meaningful against it. Nor will there be any significant pressure to reform the distribution of wealth in any way, or to curb the powers of large corporations and institutions (or of the government). The public as a whole is only capable of thinking what they are given to think, and that will not include any challenge to the “two” party hegemony, the plutocracy, or the status quo.
It wasn’t always thus. Before television, public opinion was volatile and intemperate. Immigration was repeatedly and severely restricted, in spite of the demands of business for cheap labor. Whenever times were hard, radical plans emerged to debase the currency, nationalize key industries, break up monopolies, grant radical powers to labor unions, or otherwise expropriate the expropriaters – plans that sometimes partially succeeded, but would never be allowed to enter into public discourse today. New political parties appeared from time to time and could not simply be ignored as they now are; more than once an established party fell apart. New England contemplated secession and the South actually did it. Our predecessors even managed to enact significant amendments to the Constitution, something that hasn’t happened since the advent of television. Ever since then, television has steered public debate toward increasingly trivial questions.
As well as bringing an end to substantive democracy, television has had a deleterious effect on the way people think in general. Besides consuming time that would be more productively spent doing almost anything else but heroin, television implants unrealistic ideas and expectations about life, and promotes unhealthy behavior. How much of our cultural degeneration is due to this influence is impossible to know, but television is certainly more effective in modifying attitudes and behavior than mere books are.
The fantasy world of television is flooded with the wildly unrealistic. This includes most of the parts that are presented as realistic, though young children can’t be expected to know the difference anyway. In the world of television, nearly everyone is healthy and doctors are usually able to cure patients. Violence is a quick and permanent solution to problems and never very messy. Every problem has a flawless solution and bad guys never win. Intelligence is treated as a mysterious, magical power that delivers impossible gadgets on demand. No one ever has less than a middle-class standard of living, even if they are supposed to be poor, and everyone, no matter what, is easy on the eyes. Romantic relationships are portrayed as being mostly about courtship and consummation – the “having a working relationship” part is usually avoided. Even though viewers (after a certain age) know that television is not reality, it’s hard to believe that the constant bombardment of subliminal messages hasn’t influenced the fantastic expectations, the inability to accept the limitations and imperfections of real life, the obsessive conformity, the reflexive materialism, the intellectual lethargy, the preoccupations with trivialities, the facile approach to sex and marriage and the consequent divorce rate, the sense of entitlement and – ultimately – the disillusionment, depression, and even suicide, that are so common in the West.
The Internet and the proliferation of cheap video cameras and software may have the potential to eventually undermine the conformity of thought created by the highly centralized control of television – if the government fails to gain control of it soon enough, which it might. But the replacement of centralized, consistent mind control with the competing efforts of numerous factions would not necessarily be an improvement. Manipulation by nonconformists is still manipulation and not a substitute for reason; moreover, the most persistent rivals to the status quo would inevitably be motivated by greed, power-lust, or – even more dangerously – ideology.
For those with sufficient power of will there is, of course, another solution, at least on a personal level. Television is a self-chosen imprisonment of the mind; you can always take off the cap and close the Eye of Satan. It won’t be easy – breaking an addiction never is – but it is well worth it. Perhaps you will be surprised at the possibilities you discover, when you have forgotten the constant clamor of the things you are supposed to take for granted, and perhaps you will not think differently at all, but at the very least you will have a great deal more time for thinking.
“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”
There’s this popular pseudo-Eastern philopsychical notion that the Way to Happiness is to lower your standards. In the East, this is called Letting Go Of Attachment/Desire or some such, and typically involves living naked in a cave and eating nettles and birdshit. In the West, we say “Be content with what you have”, or some such trite homily, and the idea is to shut up and tolerate whatever abuse and exploitation are imposed on you by bitch Fortune, your neighbors, or the government. You don’t get to live in a cave, though – that wouldn’t get any taxes paid.
Think you should work hard to make a better life? Forget it, you’ll never be happy, don’t be so shallow. Rather get rich by inventing or creating something than stay poor slaving for someone else? Well, it’s okay to chase your dreams, provided your happiness isn’t riding on the outcome. Tired of struggling just to survive while working sixty hours a week and paying half your income in taxes, while sleazeball lawyers “work” six hours a week and pay lower taxes than you on their $400,000 a year incomes? Shut the fuck up and be content with what you have. Dying of cancer because you couldn’t afford routine screening, while some seventy year old whore gets her face lifted for the third time in a futile attempt to get her husband to quit staring at twenty year olds? Don’t worry, be happy.
If watching the poor get poorer while the rich get more arrogant, seeing corporations steal with impunity and dodge taxes, watching judges scoff at the law while murderers are set free and honest citizens face draconian fines for the pettiest of infractions, being deprived of any meaningful political choice while one corrupt regime after another squanders the resources of the present and future – if these things should make you a little uneasy, there’s something wrong with you. You’re not unhappy because you’re getting the shaft and the world is going to hell, you’re unhappy because there’s a chemical “imbalance” in your brain. If your head was on straight, you’d be happy regardless of how badly you’re treated, and if not, you need to be drugged until you accept your lot in life.
Way back when, Aldous Huxley anticipated much of modern culture. In his (then) futuristic novel “Brave New World”, he predicted a society where the populace is kept relaxed and docile by the ubiquitous ingestion of a drug called soma. Instead of just one such drug, we have a hatful of them – paxil, zoloft, valium, xanax, librium, prozac, welbutrin, elavil, ambien, the list goes on and on… if one doesn’t work, there’s always another one to try. We even have herbal tranquilizers for those who don’t want to pay for patent medicine, Ritalin for nonconforming children, marijuana for nonconformist adults, and much worse things for those who like a bit of adventure along with their escape.
Our government is pleased to have as many citizens sedated and tranquilized as possible; they even spend our money to encourage any of us who might still be unhappy to get ourselves medicated, and to persuade us that Depression Is An Illness and it’s abnormal to be unhappy. Do the politicians really care if we’re unhappy? If they did, maybe they would stop screwing us over.
The real function of antidespressants is to keep resentment under control. It’s okay for the public to be annoyed at the currently dominant political party, but if too many people feel miserable and hopeless under the two-party plutocracy, they might get out of hand and actually demand real change. That would never do.
People who are not unhappy don’t go to protests or organize third parties. They don’t riot or arm themselves in militias and they don’t resist force with force. Would popular pressure have forced FDR to reform the labor laws if the unemployed had been sitting in their shacks being mellow instead of going to Socialist rallies and marching on Washington? Maybe not. Would the Vietnam War have been cut short without urban riots and unruly demonstrations? Not likely. Would the American colonists have revolted against George III if they’d had Prozac in the medicine cabinet to keep them calm? Hell no.
Not that there’s any conspiracy. I have nothing against plausible conspiracy theories – there’s nothing in life more predictable than that people conspire – but any conspiracy that requires a large number of people with dubious integrity to keep a secret for a long time is bullshit. Actually it’s very unlikely that anyone in the drug companies or in the various government agencies that encourage drug use has ever given a moment’s thought to the sociopolitical implications of “treating” discontent with sedatives – they’re just trying to maximize profits and justify budgets, respectively. The system works because we, as a culture, have given up on the idea of taking responsibility for solving problems – both in our personal lives and in society in general.
Most people just don’t see anything suspicious or inappropriate about using drugs to deal with unhappiness. They might wish that their personal circumstances would improve, but they see the task as too overwhelming, too risky, or just plain hopeless. This might very well be true; in a country with declining standards of living for most inhabitants and rapidly multiplying government restrictions, it can be quite difficult to get anywhere. Legal political action is worthless, the two-party plutocracy having long since become utterly nonresponsive to public needs. The only realistic recourse for the American people, as a whole, is armed revolt, but that’s a course of action for the angry and the desperate; it’s not a course of action for the drugged and placid. One must be unhappy to be inspired to struggle for change, and doubly unhappy to purposefully put one’s life in danger for it.
Revolution, and all other kinds of progress, are driven by unhappiness. People who are satisfied with the status quo aren’t going to bust their nuts or go out on a limb to achieve anything better. Every invention, every business enterprise, every accumulation of capital, every reform in government and religion, every major human accomplishment, has been the work of people who weren’t happy with the labor they had to do, the amount of wealth they had, or the way they were being treated – and did something about it, instead of taking drugs to make them feel better.
For the past three thousand years or so, the dominant religions of the Orient have advocated giving up the desire for improvement, as the best way to achieve happiness. This is not dissimilar to what tranquilizers do – give up the discontentment, the struggle for more, and accept whatever you’re stuck with. It is, in truth, a better way to be happy. It’s easier, quicker, more reliable, and more lasting. To actually change one’s circumstances is generally hard, patient work, and uncertain at best; moreover, most people do indeed find that when (if) they have gotten what they thought they wanted, they are not satisfied with it for long. One of the few people I’ve ever met who seemed genuinely happy was a homeless vagrant, who wandered the world free of all obligations. But that attitude doesn’t favor progress.
While Easterners have (perhaps) lived and died in greater contentment, it’s restless, displeased Westerners that have built modern civilization – nearly all the innovations, in both technology and society, for the past two millennia have been Western. It was men unhappy with what they had, men driven to seek for more, who explored the globe, settled and cultivated the New World, harnessed the power of coal and steam, broke the ancient bonds of despotism and slavery, and, with all of our wars and exploitations and other missteps, created a world of miracles and abundance, where food, water, literacy, and even electric power can be taken for granted and premature death is the exception, not the rule.
If we’re not happy with it, we should at least be thankful to all the generations of malcontents before us, who gave us our world, that we don’t have to live in theirs.
Let all mankind this certain maxim hold
Marry who will, our sex is to be sold.
With empty hands no tassels you can lure,
But fulsome love for gain we can endure;
For gold we love the impotent and old,
And heave, and pant, and kiss, and cling, for gold.
-Alexander Pope, Paraphrases from Chaucer
You may not like it, but you can’t deny it: all women sell sex to get what they want. Well, except for the ones that avoid sex altogether, and the one in a thousand nymphos that can’t stand to go without it any longer than a man can. Women trade sex for a variety of things: cash, trinkets, security, love, prestige, affirmation, entertainment, or attention – but sex itself is rarely enough. A man, given a chance, will not hesitate to fuck a good looking stranger of his preferred sex, but a woman thinks, “Who is this person?” – i.e., “What’s in it for me?”
Women almost always deny that they are “materialistic”, because they’ve been taught that they shouldn’t be. But you’ll never see a pretty girl walking hand in hand with a homeless guy or going on a date in a crappy old car; you’ll never meet a woman who is comfortable with her boyfriend being unemployed – even if she doesn’t need his income at the moment.
Women often claim to be attracted to intelligence; it ain’t so. Women are attracted to earning potential. Most seem to have some mental block about this; for example, a female friend of mine once insisted that money didn’t matter to her, and started babbling this nonsense about intelligence. “You’re smart,” she said, “I bet you could really make something of yourself.” When I pointed out that “making something of yourself” meant material success, she got angry – but of course she couldn’t explain it away. Women like intelligent men exactly to the extent that they see that intelligence as a source of money and prestige.
A key attribute of the typical feminine ideal of the “perfect” man is having wealth or power (preferably both). Not that all women fantasize solely about millionaires; not all women are interested primarily in getting money for sex. There are plenty of other things to get. But every woman has a minimum standard of prosperity a man must possess before she will consider him – she may be willing to sleep with a working class man, and will cite this as proof of her disinterest in money, but of course she wouldn’t sleep with some bum who didn’t even have a job. And given a choice between a rich man and a poor man, few women will resist the temptation to go with the loot, no matter what they might do when the poor man is the only thing on the menu. This works even when the woman has a good income and no need for a man to support her – the attraction is instinctive.
Like all purveyors of goods, women are jealous of any competition. The highest price, generally, that can be got for sex is marriage. Plain cash money is actually the lowest price – as one would expect from competition in an open market. Women who trade sex for intangible rewards like attention or love also drive down the market price. This is why women despise “sluts” – it’s the resentment of a unionized worker for a scab. And don’t let female babble about “love” fool you – to them, love is isn’t real unless it’s accompanied by a long term financial commitment.
You might, at this point, be thinking that I’m a misogynist – especially if you’ve never had a girlfriend. If you’re a feminist, hopefully you’ve had an apoplectic fit and died, thereby making the world a better place.
Surprisingly, I like women, and not just for fucking. I don’t happen to think there’s anything wrong with trying to get something in exchange for sex. It’s the way human beings are made – we’re governed by biology, like any other animal. Men naturally want sex and women naturally want security, and there’s nothing wrong with either, anymore than it’s wrong for a wolf to be born with an appetite for meat. All of us have inherent qualities that can be annoying to other people; some of these are predominately male, some are predominately female, but none are exclusively male or female and many of the worst are prevalent among both.
If women are “shallow” because they want men with tall statures and deep pockets, men are surely shallow for wanting women who are young and pretty. But I’m not suggesting that the sexes are equally unprincipled; rather, the principles we’ve been taught to give lip service to – like the notion of valuing “personality” foremost in a romantic/sexual partnership – are bullshit. Anyone who tells you you should love someone “for who he/she is” (whatever the hell that means) is a fool. A person is a composite of many attributes, some of which are physical and circumstantial and very important to real-world love relationships.
It’s natural for people to want things, and we shouldn’t expect otherwise or judge people for not giving away their bodies or their commitments without asking for anything in return. We do not, after all, despise people who insist on being paid wages for labor, or who take a job for double pay when it is offered. Loyalty is a virtue, but every virtue has its limits. Sexual relationships are ultimately driven by biology; that’s how the whole “men marrying women” thing came about. No one would blame you if you declined to start a sexual relationship with a grotesquely obese person; why would you be obliged to continue in a sexual relationship if your partner gained two hundred pounds? For love? I love my mother but I don’t sleep with her.
The only way a romantic relationship is going to work, long term, is if both partners are getting a reasonable return for what they give. “Love” and commitment are not enough (you might stay together, if you’re masochistic enough, but you won’t like it). The man who won’t keep a job and the woman who “lets herself go” have both failed their duties and cheated their partners. When any relationship ceases to have value for both participants, we should expect it to end – conversely, if you want it to last, you should make the necessary effort to be a worthwhile partner at the most fundamental level, and keep love alive at the very root. That root is physical and material needs.
You may think I have a cynical view of human nature and relationships, and you might be right, but there are benefits from our selfish sexual behavior. If men weren’t driven by sex, or if women were inclined to give it freely, no human civilization would ever have progressed past the stage of hunting monkeys with pointed sticks and running from lions. Men are indolent by nature; we prefer lounging in the shade or playing games to building huts, plowing fields, or working in factories. Given the opportunity to have all the sex they want while doing only the minimum of work to keep themselves fed, few men would feel the need to do more than pick berries and occasionally slaughter small animals. Men don’t stockpile goods, work overtime, or buy on credit because they like to work or even because they like to own a lot of stuff. Men only care about that sort of thing to impress women, they only work hard because women want them to, and they only care about impressing women because they want to get laid.
Prostitution is, as they say, the oldest profession; and of necessity; whether one calls it by name or by some euphemism such “love” or “marriage”, it is the motive behind all men’s labors. The whole history of human society is the history of what men have done for sex. How ironic that we should look on the most important transaction to our species, the driving force of our entire culture, as degrading and antisocial.