First you should know: I was born with a blue butt.
So was my mother.
Thirty-two years and many thousands of miles of land, sky, and sea separated her creation from mine, yet we emerged the same: wailing, mad for first breaths, 10-fingered, 10-toed, chick-like tufts of black hair nested atop our soft skulls, and, incredibly, a wavy-bordered blue spot not unlike that of Rorschach’s inkblots, blooming across our tiny bums—blue like ice-cold lips, blue like the ocean at midnight, Picasso’s most melancholic bluest of blues.
By the time I learned about my blue butt, it was gone. Like a spy’s secret message written in vanishing ink, the spot disappeared sometime after my fourth birthday. The timing seems strange—to think that as soon as I could form my earliest memories, my blueness had already left me. In one such memory, I recall taking a shower with my mother. The water beat down on my shoulders thunderously. I’d misbehaved (perhaps, refused to wash my hair), and as I slid open the mottled glass door to escape, my mother smacked my bottom. Because this is my earliest butt-related memory, I mined it recently, hoping to uncover any clues of my former blue self. I remember wailing in the showy way children do when they’re old enough to know better, then peering behind me for proof: the fierce, fiery outline of my mother’s hand. But I can recall nothing but plain tush. I was neither red nor blue. We stood as nude as newborns, un-shy in our nakedness, water cascading across my mother’s towering body as she fumed and I wept in her shadow. Read more…
Our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs—most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn’t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It’s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.
— Paul Roberts, in The American Scholar, on how our constant pursuit for instant gratification will result in long-term negative social consequences. This essay is adapted from Roberts’s new book, The Impulse Society.
Why do some people look back and others refuse to? What are the pleasures of “nostalgia”? The word itself has its etymology in the Greek nostos(homecoming) + algia (pain), but the condition is more multifaceted, combined of equal parts of homesickness, self-indulgence, sentimentality, and an alertness to the genuine, confected, or nonexistent pleasures of other times, other ages, and other places. In Updike, and many others of us, the pleasure of remembering predominates, not the pain.
The word, if not the condition, is modern, coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer as a translation of the German Heimweh (homesickness) to describe the depression he witnessed among Swiss mercenaries longing to get home following service abroad. That its coinage coincides with the beginnings of the ages of Enlightenment and then Romanticism suggests that words both come out of their historical circumstances and affect subsequent conditions. They respond to cultural stimuli and then create new feelings, or new articulations of older ones. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two nostalgias, a “restorative” version, a longing for return to the favored place, and a “reflective” one, which is all about irreparable loss. But in America today, the original pain of nostalgia is often replaced by the diluted pipe-dream pleasures of self-indulgent trips down Memory Lane.
Once the lords of East Africa, the Maasai have been close to peerless in the modern age for maintaining the continuity of their traditions—traditions now imperiled by the tentacles of the market and by technology, as cell phones and cheap Chinese motorcycles, like the one we rode, upend the very possibility of isolation. Compulsory and nearly free education, instituted by former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, means most Maasai children are today in school. Those of the prior generation who were educated only in the ways of the tribe — who speak no Swahili or English but just Maa — are around 30 years of age. Many wile away the hours in clapboard bars, unable to resist that alcohol now available in quantities unheard of in the past, when beer was brewed in the home from honey and was not for sale.
Research shows that veganism, which obviates the inherent waste involved in growing the grains used to fatten animals for food in conventional systems, is seven times more energy efficient than eating meat and, if embraced globally, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from conventional agriculture by 94 percent. Any pretext to explore meat eating’s moral underpinnings—and possibly land upon an excuse for pursuing a plant-based diet as a viable goal—would be consistent with the movement’s anticorporate, ecologically driven mission.
But with rare exception, those in the big, lumpy tent have thrown down a red carpet for “ethical butchers” while generally dismissing animal rights advocates as smug ascetics (which they can be) and crazed activists (ditto) who are driven more by sappy sentiment than rock-ribbed reason. It’s an easy move to make. But the problem with this dismissal—and the overall refusal to address the ethics of killing animals for food—is that it potentially anchors the Food Movement’s admirable goals in the shifting sands of an unresolved hypocrisy. Let’s call it the “omnivore’s contradiction.”
Conscientious carnivores will argue that we can justify eating animals because humans evolved to do so (the shape of our teeth proves it); that if we did not eat happy farm animals, they’d never have been born to become happy in the first place; that all is fine if an animal lives well and is “killed with respect”; that we need to recycle animals through the agricultural system to keep the soil healthy; that animals eat animals; and that in nature, it’s the survival of species and not of individuals that matters most. These arguments create room for a productive conversation. But none of them carry real weight until the Food Movement resolves the contradiction raised by Bob Comis: How do you ethically justify both respecting and killing a sentient animal?