Cultural Masturbation: the True Price of Freedom

by JJ Wylie

For being the smartest mammals on the planet, we can't seem to see the forest for the trees. We spend our short, brutish lives in a thin scrim of atmosphere outside of which we would choke like fish left lying on a dock. Scientists have identified the inevitability of a cataclysm like the one which killed the dinosaurs (arguably the most successful large organisms ever), and what do we, the paragon of animals, worry about? We squander our meager lifetimes arguing over money and politics, the twin manifestations of what amounts to cultural masturbation, a collective focus on short-term self-pleasure over long-term, tangible benefits.

In the broadest view, we humans spend the majority of our limited energies locked in silly foreplay while the rest of the universe continues being dangerous, if not deadly. Believers in Roswell notwithstanding, the evidence suggests that we are little more than alone.

In Algeria, marauding bands of either religious terrorists or military vigilantes descend on villages and murder everyone in sight, while on Montserrat, as the city of Plymouth lies under a blanket of ash and the city of Salem begins to evacuate, the planet is reminding us of who is really in charge. In hospitals around the world, antibiotics are starting to prove ineffective against common infections while we bicker over the price of procedures. I find it fitting that record-setting rains ravage the streets of Hong Kong, the financial Pearl of Asia, as we worry what the Chinese are going to do to the place. (To find this ironic would make me guilty of anthropomorphic conceit.)

All is not folly, however: we've managed to look up from our in-fighting to take a gander at a sister planet, although right now all it amounts to is interplanetary rock-hunting. (Not to belittle NASA, but we can spend billions constructing an arsenal that would incinerate civilization while all we can send to Mars is a remote-control dune-buggy?) We've even begun to recycle, although it's only really caught on where the benefits can be measured, of course, monetarily. (As if nickels-for-cans constitutes sustainability of resources.)

On the other hand, there are those who say that the inequities of this life will be corrected in the next and that a person is more properly focused on following those injunctions that will ensure inclusion in the Afterlife Elite. I say that such thinking is dangerous. Focusing on the hereafter allows us to act wastefully in the here-and-now. Besides, in the contest between prayer and physics, my money's on the side that can put a plane in the air. I'll take the Laws of Thermodynamics over the Catechism any day. Thank God that freedom of religion is also freedom from it.

Now, I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I can see that there is more to this life than worrying about: (a) whether the Fed is going to raise interest-rates; (b) whether Constitutional amendments need to be ratified that protect prayer in schools and flags from being burned; (c) whether laws should be passed that make English the official language of this country; or (d) whether Congress is serious about campaign finance reform. Sure, these issues are important (I'm as concerned as the next citizen about what to do about abortion), but they pale in comparison to things like the reparation of our habitat and the survival of the species. Balancing the budget may relieve our descendants from the burden of national debt, but what good is good credit when there are too many of us to feed?

There are those who will label my opinions as liberal, anarchic, atheist, et cetera, which is the intellectual equivalent of fighting over team colors instead of playing the game. Am I wrong? These are facts: the Northern Star won't always be the Northern Star; the Sun will someday go nova. Meanwhile, pornography generates the most traffic on the Internet while most hospitals have smaller budgets than action-adventure movies. Shouldn't we look up from our collective navels and re-prioritize our focus on screwing each other before the universe gets around to screwing us? My contentions may come with unfashionable labels but I ask again: Am I wrong?

I am not naive enough to believe that humanity will ever get over its petty color-of-skin versus content-of-character neurosis to truly act concertedly in its own best interests. I don't mean to belittle the very real problems of racism and economic uncertainty, but from a certain perspective, such problems seem trivial. (Worrying about cultural and genetic differences is like worrying about the differences between pitchers and catchers: both are needed to play the game.)

And I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with the idea that we should always cooperate like bees in a hive, even if it means much waste and frivolity. (This comes from the knowledge that I am more Drone than Warrior and that I am certainly no Queen.) I prize freedom and individuality, even to the point I would risk extinction to preserve them, but how free can we really be with shrinking resources and multiplying mouths to feed?

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, populations are controlled not by violence or repressive restrictions but by hedonism in the form of wanton sexuality and freely-available drugs. I'd like to think that this is a work of fiction, not prophecy. I'd like to think we're smart enough to not be short-sighted by our appetites. However, given our propensity to see each other as competition rather than as compatriots, it seems that stupidity in the form of endless societal self-pleasuring, more than eternal vigilance, is the true price of freedom. I would dearly love to be proved wrong.

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