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Living the low-stakes life

I have lost touch with my friend Mark, and, assuming he is alive, it will be some work to track him down, because he is periodically homeless or semi-homeless. My first impression was that his economic condition was mainly the result of his having been for many years a pretty good addict and a pretty poor motorcyclist, a combination that had predictable neurological consequences. I never knew Mark “before” — there is something in such men as Mark suggesting an irrevocably bifurcated life — but the better I got to know him, the more I came to believe that he probably had been much the same man, but functional, or at least functional enough.

Part of it was an act, but not all of it. If you saw him on the street and called his name, he’d spin around on you, fists balled up, half enraged and half afraid, ready to fight, until he recognized you, which could sometimes take a few seconds longer than it should have. But then he was all smiles and wry commentary on the passers-by and the police. He’d gesture at passing police cars (he lived about two blocks from the police station) and say, “They all know me,” which was true. We talked about motorcycles and his longing to ride again, and he’d explain to me all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. “They’d lock me up,” he’d say darkly, which also was true. He’d sometimes ask to borrow mine, and I’d explain to him all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. “You’re a maniac.” This was an approved line of argument. “That’s right!” he’d thunder. Maniac was fine, but he objected to lunatic. He didn’t like bum very much, either, but he was a realist.

A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content.

Necessity used to be what forced us to grow up. That was the stick, and sex was the carrot, and between the two of them young men were forced/inspired to get off their asses, go to work, and start families of their own from time immemorial until the day before yesterday. A 20-year-old man with adequate shelter, cheap food, computer games, weed, and a girlfriend is apt to be pretty content. Some of them understand that there is more to life than that, but some do not. David Foster Wallace’s great terror in Infinite Jest was entertainment so engrossing that those consuming it simply stopped doing anything else. (Is it necessary to issue a spoiler alert for a 1,000-page novel that’s 20 years old? Well, spoiler alert: It’s Québécois separatists.) He revisited the idea later in “Datum Centurio,” which is one of the all-time great short stories, one that is written in the form of a dictionary entry from the future for the word “date.” Over the course of the definition (and the inevitable footnotes), we learn that pornography has become so immersive in the future that conventional sexual behavior has been restricted entirely to procreation. The final footnote reads: “Cf. Catholic dogma, perverse vindication of.”

Tyler Cowen considers some of this in his new book, The Complacent Class, in which he argues (in the words of Walter Russell Meade’s review) that “the apparent stability of American society . . . is an illusion: behind the placid façade, technological change and global competition have combined with domestic discontent to bring forth a new age of disruption.”

By Kevin D. Williamson and published in National Review on February 26, 2017 and can be found here.

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