Sunday, April 06, 2008

In Defense of Individualism

In the past couple of days, I’ve published two impassioned posts – one about the oppression of smokers, the other about fat-discrimination – but in neither one did I explain why I so fiercely defend my right to smoke and to be fat without societal interference. Our culture is so focused on Good Health and ostracizing the “risky behaviors” of smoking and obesity that my defending them must seem to many like philosophical bullshit at best, desperate rationalization at least, and insanity for sure. I disagree. Let me explain.

It has always been my nature to be the odd-person-out. I think it’s because I am an only child, as well as biracial, interfaith, and have never been a partner in a long term relationship, a parent, or a member of a close-knit clan. I’ve always felt like a social outcast because, indeed, I’ve always been one. I also spent my early childhood in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s – decades that were the zenith of the traditional American dream and classic individualism, respectively.

Yes, conformity was the social order of the 50s, but it was still an era that celebrated the “rugged individualist.” And yes, the 60s were about creating a better world for all, but it was also a time when “do your own thing” and “let it all hang out” were the defining credos. It horrifies me that Liberal attitudes, which used to represent the epitome of personal freedom, have come to be synonymous with political correctness and an unflinching seriousness about everything. As a nation, we’ve forgotten that both individuals and societies are in deep doo-doo when they lose their sense of humor about themselves – and life itself.

I confess that I am a pessimist and a fatalist. Some people look at the glass and see it as half empty, others see it as half full. I see it and say “You call that a glass??” As Woody Allen said, “Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time, I don’t have any fun at all.” He also said “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.” I’ve never wanted to live to be a hundred and I’ve certainly never been willing to give up the things I like in order to make it there. I’ve always preferred sensual gratification (the more immediate, the better) to what’s supposed to be good for me. Why is this crazier than bungee jumping and plastic surgery?

I also believe in death. I don’t fear it and I think it’s highly under-rated as a natural, important part of life. I’m all for capital punishment (when necessary), euthanasia (on request), and the right to commit suicide. These ideas are an anathema in our culture, which prizes life at all costs and is currently obsessed with Going Green to “save the planet.” To me, this is bullshit; the concern is not really about saving the planet, it’s about saving ourselves and “preserving the future” for the children, grandchildren, and beyond. I might feel differently if I had children and grandchildren, but I don’t. I’m basically an “Après moi, le deluge” kind of girl – and I think the planet would be better off if we humans cleared out and let it rest up for a few thousand years. (Apparently, the planet thinks so too, if rampant viruses and killer weather are anything to go by.)

Mostly, I don’t want society trying to save me from myself. After reading my rant about the latest New York cigarette tax, a friend wrote to me – a man who smoked for decades before he gave it up several years ago – and said he believes cigarettes should be outlawed, along with the many other things “that are killing us,” including alcohol, religion, and anything that isn’t appropriately Green. This is precisely the kind of attitude I object to. When the Religious Right expresses its desire to outlaw abortion, birth control, homosexuality (and, so far as I can tell, heterosexuality, as well), contradictory science, pornography, and what they perceive as anti-family feminist values, the alleged Left goes nuts. But what’s the difference? If both ends of the political/societal spectrum want to outlaw whatever it is they happen to object to, isn’t it just a matter of taste?

I have friends who are vegetarian on moral grounds, who are animal advocates/protectionists in the PETA tradition, who are child-absorbed parents, who believe the Green Movement is a sacred quest, who view everything through the limited lens of their personal faith – and I am respectful of them all, even though I think some of the things they believe in span the boring to the ridiculous to the loathsome. But I believe in live and let live and making room for everyone’s life choices in a genuinely pluralistic/diverse society. Accordingly, I reserve my right to eat as I please, smoke if I want to, and die if and when my questionable behavior catches up with me – and all I ask is that I not be thwarted in my actions or despised for my opinions.

My friend who wants to outlaw everything that isn’t good for us says the pleasure he got from cigarettes doesn’t hold a candle to feeling healthy and being able to run up a flight of stairs. I’ve never run up a flight of stairs in my life and can contentedly go to my early grave without doing so. I admittedly live in my head. I’m not a physical person, never have been. As a kid, I never skated or swam or rode a bike, and I avoided Gym and everything it involved. I can still remember arguing with one of my summer day camp counselors about the dubious value of standing out in a sun-drenched field playing softball instead of sitting under a tree reading a book; I wore him out and got to stay under the tree. As an adult, I don’t drive or work out or participate in sports (I hate sports!). Sex has been my sole aerobic activity, and food and cigarettes are my most stalwart companions – and pleasures. I also don’t like animals, children, houseplants, or Nature in general. But that’s me.

Disagree with me if you like, pity me if you must. But just because your choices are considered healthy and coincide with the majority opinion and mine are not, doesn’t make you a better person, it just makes us people with different values. In a free society, that’s called personal choice and you don’t have to like my choices any more than I like yours. Take heart in the fact that I’m in a tiny minority and probably won’t be around too many more years to disturb you with what you regard as my aberrant behavior. Meanwhile, I ask that you consider the importance of allowing people who make different choices to peacefully co-exist with the status quo.

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