Jewish World Review July 7, 1999 /23 Tamuz 5759
I once heard our silver-tongued Governor asked how, if he was correct that crime was caused by poverty, he explained the increase in crime rates in the 1980s when incomes and employment levels rose. He paused (it was public radio). "Overpopulation?"
My sharp-tongued mother, listening to someone maunder on about the Pill and its revolutionary effect on society, observed that during the Depression, somehow, without the technology of the 1960s, people managed to stop having babies when they couldn't afford them.
Mom is right; Cuomo is wrong. Social behavior does reflect our conscious wishes and aspirations at a historical moment. Now we have arrived at a time when the largest generation in history-mine-is moving from being young to being middle-aged, without having experienced any period of simple maturity in between (rather like some AA members I know who went from sobriety to recovering alcoholism without ever having been drunk). And I think this fact explains a number of popular beliefs that are otherwise incomprehensible. My newly-old compatriots are imposing their fears and self-concern on the rest of the world with the same breezy moral vanity with which we ensured the destruction of the state of South Vietnam.
For example: anti-smoking hysteria. I've never smoked, but I find the new billboards looming over Houston Street terribly menacing: "Let's Make Smoking History." I keep reading "Let's Make Smokers History." What's wrong with smoking-for an enterprising youth just taking it up today? Well, in about 50 years, he or she will begin to get ill from its effects; in the mean time enjoying a habit that is calming, stimulating, and cool. If you wanted to bio-engineer a socially-advantageous vice, you couldn't find a better substance than tobacco-a cheap, mildly addictive natural substance which doesn't increase the trade deficit, and which increases productivity during our working years. Its downside-if you can call it that-is that it causes a small number of its adherents to begin dying just as they moved from being payers-in to Social Security to drawers-out.
Compared to other vices, smoking is a bargain. If I could ensure that my 18-year-old daughter would start smoking and promise me that that she would never try the Arkansas drugs of choice; avoid sexual entanglements before becoming engaged to someone I approved of; and promise not to drop out of school, it would be a wonderful bargain for her adult happiness.
But increasingly a vice that punishes the middle-aged we regard as intolerable. Why? Because middle-agedness is about to become the norm, and what hurts us the middle-aged shall not be permitted. But practices that, unlike smoking, involve killing the very young and the very old, are becoming more acceptable-because they oblige us. The NIH is now at work making sure that human embryos cannot be sold to scientists for research-that would be materialistic, man-but of course they could be donated. Cool. In the UK, one of the members of the Government's advisory group on human cloning pointed out that, looked at properly, "an embryo is a life-saving tissue generator". And those whose lives would be saved by harvesting this tissue are us-my half-brother, your ex-wife, your first husband.
And the very old! Those square parents of ours! We're making sure that they die with dignity. Dignity turns out to mean "a good bit sooner than the dears would die without it." In Oregon, where I was nearly arrested for ordering a hamburger medium-rare, they've passed a law that ensures that if you're of the greatest generation and want to die with dignity, you must make sure that your regular physician signs off on the procedure. This is to guard against flying Dr. Deaths coming in - like Rabbis who perform mixed marriages-to do their dirty work and leave. The odd thing, however, is that an astonishingly high percentage of those lucky squares who have kicked their own bucket happened to have changed their primary care physician in the few months before their dignified end. And they chose their new doctor, no doubt, with the disinterested help of their children.
Our aspirations as pampered student radicals - expressed in the noble motto "Start the revolution at home-kill your parents"-will finally come true. And of course my compatriots have always valued dignity above everything.
But people can learn. Watch as 2015 ushers in a new fondness for babies
(whose salaries will support us) and a new reverence for life in all its
forms"The death-with-dignity jazz was overblown. Sorry, kids.
You'll just have to wait to inherit our Amazon.com shares-not that they're
worth much. But in 1999, boy, they went as high
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.
06/29/99: Games people don't play