All the Trouble in the World
The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Povertyby P. J. O’Rourke
“One of the funniest, most insightful, dead-on-the-money books of the year.” –Los Angeles Times
“One of the funniest, most insightful, dead-on-the-money books of the year.” –Los Angeles Times
In All the Trouble in the World, best-selling political humorist P.J. o’Rourke tackles the “fashionable worries’”the enormous global problems that are endlessly in the news and constantly on our minds but about which we mostly don’t have a clue.
o’Rourke crisscrosses the globe asking not just “What’s the answer?” but “What the hell’s the question?” In his chapter on over-population (titled “Just Enough of Me, Way Too Much of You”) he visits first Bangladesh, then Fremont, California. The two places have the same number of people per square mile. Is the problem really that Bangladesh is too crowded? If so, how come George Harrison never held a concert to benefit suburban Californians?
For his chapter on famine (“All Guns, No Butter”) o’Rourke goes to Somalia and discovers that there’s plenty of food, you just have to be armed to get it. He dismisses the self-righteous “anti-hunger” types back home, saying that they “cannot resist a dig at us gluttonous bourgeoisie who’ve climbed way up on the food chain where we don’t belong. I guess they believe that if I don’t eat this steak, the cow will come back to life, vomit its corn and silage, and these can be fed to the people in Chad.”
The author travels to the Earth Summit in Rio and let the hot air out of global warming theorists. He tours the old Communist bloc to ponder why, if government regulation is the answer to pollution, the most government-regulated countries were the most polluted. And while hiking in the Amazon, inspecting our deteriorating environment, he discovers that rain forests are such horrible places that all we have to do to preserve them is give everyone who lives there a chance to drive a New York City cab.
o’Rourke examines the faddish issue of multiculturalism by returning to his cold college campus, where the air is full of such ideas, and then by going to Bosnia, where minority empowerment has reached its logical conclusion and the air is full of something else entirely: “In former Yugoslavia, if guns are anything to go by, the minorities are all very well empowered indeed. I watched as Serbian Chetnik nationalist tried to take the village of Golubic from Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims. The unspellables were shooting the unpronounceables.”
What is P.J. o’Rourke’s conclusion about overpopulation, famine, ecological disaster, ethnic hatred, plague, and poverty? See his last chapter, which describes the resurgent economy in Vietnam and is called “The Hell with Everything, Let’s Get Rich.”
From angry chiggers in the jungles of Peru to irate coeds in Ohio, All the Trouble in the World is P.J. at his absolute best”with seriously hilarious takes on the issues that shape our contemporary world and plenty of swipes at the hilariously serious people who pontificate about them.
“One of the funniest, most insightful, dead-on-the-money books of the year.” –Los Angeles Times
“All the Trouble in the World is o’Rourke’s best work since Parliament of Whores.” –The Houston Post
“The dispatches are unfailingly funny. . . . Mr. o’Rourke gets to the heart of the matter with a steady stream of wisecracks. . . . Economists, political scientists and sociologists are inclined to approach the ills of society with regression analysis. P. J. o’Rourke just points and laughs. Not surprisingly, it is Mr. o’Rourke who gets it right.” –The Washington Times
“The book is o’Rourke at his best.” –The National Review
“Bottom line: Buy the book.” –The Wall Street Journal
1 FASHIONABLE WORRIES
If Meat Is Murder, Are Eggs Rape?
This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn’t anybody say so? We are no longer in grave danger of the atomic war which, for nearly fifty years, threatened to annihilate humanity and otherwise upset everyone’s weekend plans. The nasty, powerful and belligerent empire that was the Soviet Union has fallen apart. It’s nothing now but a space on the map full of quarreling nationalities with too many k’s and z’s in their names–armed Scrabble contestants. The other great malevolent regime of recent days, Red China, has decided upon conquest of the world’s shower flip-flop market as its form of global domination. The bad political ideas that have menaced our century–fascism, communism, Ted Kennedy for President–are in retreat. Colonialism has disappeared, and hence the residents of nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface are being spared visits from Princess Di. The last place on the planet where white supremacy held sway has elected a president of rich, dark hue.
Apartheid-style racism is now relegated to a few pitiful and insignificant venues such as the U.S. Senate (and, if you think Caucasians have any claim to genetic superiority, imagine majoring in U.S. Senate Studies).
Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago. Things are better, in fact, than they were at 9:30 this morning, thanks to Tylenol and two Bloody Marys.
But that’s personal and history is general. It’s always possible to come down with the mumps on V-J Day or to have, right in the middle of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a piece of it fall on your foot. In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.”
We know the truth of these matters from stories we’ve heard in our own homes. Existence has improved enormously within the lifetimes of our immediate family members. My Grandfather o’Rourke was born in 1877 and born into a pretty awful world, even if we don’t credit all of his Irish embroidery upon the horrors. The average wage was little more than a dollar a day. That’s if you had a job. o’Rourkes were not known to do so. The majority of people were farmers, and do you know what time cows get up in the morning? Working outside all day before sunblock or bikinis had been invented, agricultural laborers got very spotty tans. People had to make their own fun, and, as with most do-it-yourself projects, the results were ” witness quilting bees. And the typical old-fashioned diet was so bad it almost resembled modern dieting.
Women couldn’t vote, not even incredibly intelligent First Ladies who were their own people and had amazing inner strengths plus good luck playing the cattle futures market. (For all we know, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes had quite an eye for beef on the hoof.)
Without a voting First Lady, there was no health-care reform. Of course, there was also no health care. And not much health. Illness was ever-present, and the most trivial infection might prove fatal. The germ theory of disease as argued by Pasteur was just another wacky French idea with no more effect on the people of the 1870s than Deconstructionism has on us. Men customarily wed multiple wives, not by way of philandering but because of deaths in childbirth. The children died, too, sometimes before a suitable foot-long nineteenth-century name could be given them. A walk through an old graveyard shows our ancestors often had more dead children than we have live ones.
Pollution was unchecked and mostly unthought of. Sewage was considered treated if dumped in a river. Personal hygiene was practiced, when at all, on the face, neck, and hands up to the wrists. My mother’s mother (from the indoor-plumbing side of the family) said that, when she was little, a hired girl had told her to always wear at least one piece of clothing when washing herself “because a lady never gets completely undressed.”
Everything was worse for everybody. Blacks could no more vote than women could and were prevented from doing so by more violent means. About 10 percent of America’s population had been born in slavery. “Coon,” “kike,” “harp” and ‘spic” were conversational terms. It was a world in which “nigger” was not a taboo name, but the second half of “Beavis and Butt-head” would have been.
Nowadays we can hardly count our blessings, one of which is surely that we don’t have to do all that counting–computers do it for us. Information is easily had. Education is readily available. Opportunity knocks, it jiggles the doorknob, it will try the window if we don’t have the alarm system on.
The highest standards of luxury and comfort, as known only to the ridiculously wealthy a few generations ago, would hardly do on a modern white-water rafting trip. Our clothing is more comfortable, our abodes are warmer, better-smelling, and vermin-free. Our food is fresher. Our lights are brighter. Travel is swift. And communication is sure.
Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes four days to perform while ‘mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.
Life is sweet. But you could spend a long time reading, going to the movies, and watching TV and not hear this mentioned. Especially, watching daytime TV. Of course, if you’re watching a lot of daytime TV your life probably is dreadful. But, as I pointed out, that’s your problem, not history’s. History is on a roll, a toot, a bender. No doubt it will all come crashing down around our ears one day when a comet hits the earth or Sally Jessy Rapha”l becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But, in the meantime, we should be enjoying ourselves, and we are not. Gloom enfolds the earth. Tales of woe reach us from every corner of the globe. Moans of “unfair,” “unjust,” and “poor me” are heard around the planet and are nowhere louder than in my own backyard.
Right now, at the end of the second millennium, is the best moment of all time, and right here, in the United States, is the best place to be at that moment. And do I hark to sounds of glee echoing midst purple mountains’ majesty and rolling across the fruited plains? No. I hear America whining, crybaby to the world. I behold my country in a pet–beefing, carping, crabbing, bitching, sniveling, mewling, fretting, yawping, bellyaching, and being pickle-pussed. A colossus that stood astride the earth now lies on the floor pounding its fists and kicking its feet, transformed into a fussy-pants and a sputter-budget. The streets of the New World are paved with onions. Everybody’s got a squawk. We have become a nation of calamity howlers, cr”pe hangers, sour guts, and mopes–a land with the grumbles.
On the Fourth of July, 1993, the lead story on the front page of the Boston Globe read:
The country that celebrates its 217th birthday today is free, at peace, relatively prosperous–but deeply anxious. ” The American people are troubled, beset by doubts, full of anger.
And any peek into the media produces examples in plenty of the same sobs and groans, often from improbable Jeremiahs.
In the April 24, 1994, issue of the New York Times Book Review, Fran R. Schumer made reference to “the modern era, when anomie, caused by any number of factors–the decline of religion and community, the anonymity of modern life–gave rise to selfish, obsessive, 20th-century man.” Ms. Schumer writes the Underground Gourmet column for New York magazine. All she was doing in the NYTBR was reviewing a book about food.
“In a world with the cosmic staggers, where the Four Horsemen ” are on an outright rampage” began a profile of harmless comedian Jerry Seinfeld in the May 1994 Vanity Fair.
Licensed psychiatrist and tenured Harvard professor John E. Mack has written a book, Abduction, claiming that spacemen are kidnapping us. Why should the little green men bother? So they can, said Mack, tell earthlings that we’re causing ecological ruin.
“Ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market and fear of intimacy confronting his generation” is how that journal of deep thinking, People, describes the subject matter of Douglas Coupland, latest young writer to complain his way to literary prominence.
Coupland’s first novel, Generation X, was a detailed account of how wretched and spitty life is for middle-class white kids born after 1960. “Our Parents Had More” is the title of chapter 2. In case you missed the point (or fell asleep while the plot ossified) Coupland included several pages of depressing statistics at the back of Generation X. E.g., according to a Time/CNN telephone poll taken in June of 1990, 65 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree that “given the ways things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations.”
Of course it’s difficult for these youngsters to know if they’re going to live as comfortably as their parents did because the kids are so immobilized by despair over ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market, and fear of intimacy that they’re all still living at home.
But William T. Vollmann–the youthful author of An Afghanistan Picture Show, Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and numerous other books (who has been acclaimed a genius by the sort of people who acclaim those things)–knows it will take more than a split-level in the suburbs to redeem our ghastly existences. “I’d say the biggest hope that we have right now is the AIDS epidemic,” Vollmann told Michael Coffey in the July 13, 1992, issue of Publishers Weekly. ‘maybe the best thing that could happen would be if it were to wipe out half or two-thirds of the people in the world. Then the ones who survived would just be so busy getting things together that they’d have to help each other, and in time the world would recover ecologically, too.”
Maybe we should also take dope. Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. An article in the May 5, 1994, ‘drugs in America” special issue of Rolling Stone said, “Given the psychic condition of the nation today [heroin] may be just what the doctor ordered. “With heroin,” as a former user points out, “your life can be falling apart around you and everything’s still fine with you.””
But no. It’s worse than that. Being and creation are so horrible, even heroin can’t make them better. Otherwise Nirvana lead caterwaul Kurt Cobain would still be with us. And what a tortured cry of existential despair that was when Kurt took a twenty-gauge shotgun and splattered his brains, or whatever it was he had in his skull, all over the Cobain guest house.
“That was his message, that life is futile,” a twenty-six-year-old named Bob Hince told Washington Post reporter Jonathan Freedland. Freedland was writing a feature piece for the April 24, 1994, Sunday Show section titled “Generation Hex.” He found Mr. Hince drinking in one of the Seattle bars where Nirvana got its start. “We all feel the monotony, we all feel we cannot control our circumstances,” said Mr. Hince, who is clearly a spokesperson not just for his generation but for all of America and maybe for space aliens.
Freedland reported that “[Hince] has completed six years of study in molecular biology but is now headed for Alaska to work as a salmon fisherman. His dyed red hair nearly covers his eyes, falling behind the lenses of his retro, Buddy Holly glasses. ” “It’s just ambivalence,” he says. “What am I supposed to be?””
Personally, I think Bob Hince won’t have to worry about what he’ll be if the people who paid for his six years of studying molecular biology get their hands on him. But, as Nirvana would say, “Nevermind.” The whole world is rotten. Everything stinks. Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. My name is Legion. I’ll be your server tonight. The special is worms.
Why are we so unhappy? Is it, as that Cassandra of food critics, Fran R. Schumer, would have it, “anomie” caused by “the decline of religion and community, the anonymity of modern life”? Sure. Going to church was always one of my favorite things to do. Zoning-board meetings are also a blast. And wasn’t that great the way Mom knew exactly who was downstairs in the rec room with you? “Billy, Mary, Patrick, Susan–how come you kids have the lights off?” And what is it with this anomie stuff anyway? We all know perfectly well we’ve got no idea what the word means. We might just as well say we’re suffering from yohimbine or rigadoon or Fibonacci sequence.
Are we depressed by lower expectations? Back in the sixties I expected Permanent Woodstock–a whole lifetime of sitting in the mud, smoking Oaxacan ditch weed, listening to amplifier feedback, and pawing a Long Island chiropodist’s daughter who thought she’d been abducted by aliens from outer space. Show me somebody with lower expectations than mine.
Are we disheartened by the breakup of the family? Nobody who ever met my family is.
Or maybe what’s got us down is that God created a world with evil in it. Saturday nights would be damned dull if He hadn’t.
Yes, there is misery and suffering on earth. Thanks for adding to it, Killjoy. Life seems pointless. This isn’t a reason to party? And the world’s about to end. As if we were going to live forever otherwise. Will it matter in a hundred years if we went one by one or in a bunch? Besides, the world’s been about to end for a long time, Hardly a mythology lacks its G”tterd’mmerung. The penultimate verse of the New Testament has Jesus saying, ‘surely I come quickly.” And he wasn’t coming over for a swim. (Note to kids: Finish that math assignment. Somehow the world never manages to end before your homework is due.) Also, if the world’s about to end, why aren’t things more interesting? Why are people abandoning themselves to cares and gripes instead of to booze-ups and orgies? Why aren’t I having an affair with Ava Gardner the way Gregory Peck was in On the Beach?
Fear and dread are not what make us upset, or alienation either. (If alienation is your problem, call John E. Mack and leave the rest of us alone.) We whine because it works. We used to be shunned for weeping in our beer. Now we go on Oprah. If our complaint is hideous enough, we get a TV movie made about our life. Congress passes legislation to give us money and special parking places. We get into college with two-digit SAT scores, and we can sue the school for discriminating against Sad Sacks if we flunk. The president feels our pain.
Grouching is a good excuse. We are, as even the pinko, querulous Boston Globe is willing to admit, “free, at peace, relatively prosperous.” We have the opportunity and the means to do almost anything. How come we haven’t done it? Here we’ve got all this material well-being, liberty, and good luck, and we’re still our crummy old selves–flabby around the middle, limited out on our VISA cards. The job is a bore. The house is a mess. And Melrose Place is in reruns. It’s not our fault, it’s life’s. The world is an awful place so we’re not much good either.
We’re all geniuses. We know that. But why haven’t we had any genius ideas or done any genius deeds? Something terrible must be holding us back, repressed memories maybe. We forgot we were molested as children by someone we loved. It’s coming back now. Milk and cookies weren’t all Santa was chewing on after he came down the chimney.
Fretting makes us important. Say you’re an adult male and you’re skipping down the street whistling “Last Train to Clarksville.” People will call you a fool. But lean over to the person next to you on a subway and say, “How can you smile while innocents are dying in Tibet?” You’ll acquire a reputation for great seriousness and also more room to sit down.
Tragedy is better than comedy for self-dramatization, as every teenager knows. Think how little attention we pay to a teen who’s bustling around the house with a big smile on his face, greeting parents and siblings with cheery salutations. ” Actually, we’d pay a lot of attention and rush him to the drug detox center, post haste. But you know what I mean. Would you rather star in Hamlet or Three’s Company?
Being gloomy is easier than being cheerful. Anybody can say “I’ve got cancer” and get a rise out of a crowd. But how many of us can do five minutes of good stand-up comedy?
And worrying is less work than doing something to fix the worry. This is especially true if we’re careful to pick the biggest possible problems to worry about. Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.
Thus, in fin de si”cle civilization, we find ourselves with grave, momentous concerns galore.
The Clinton administration State Department has created a position of Worrywart-in-Charge, an “undersecretary of global affairs’ who is to be responsible for “worldwide programs in human rights, the environment, population control and anti-narcotics efforts.” Timothy E. Wirth, nominee for this dreary post, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fussed Wirth, “Growth that is all-too-capable of doubling–even tripling–today’s global population in the next century is already a force contributing to violent disorder and mass dislocations in resource-poor societies. Some of the resulting refugees are our near neighbors.” Oh those massively dislocated Nova Scotians, breeding like mink. “Others–refugees-in-waiting,” said Wirth, “press hungrily against the fabric of social and political stability around the world.” And that suit’s going to have to go to the cleaner’s.
Everywhere we see the imposition of grave concern into the most mundane and trivial aspects of life. Lightning Comics, a Detroit publisher of funny books, has created a super hero, Bloodfire, who is HIV positive. Which should cool Lois Lane.
A TV revival of Bonanza had, as its villain, a man who wanted to strip-mine the Ponderosa.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions, meeting in Chicago in 1993, issued a statement called “Towards a Global Ethic” that opined, “We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, prestige, money and consumption to make a just and peaceful world.” A just and peaceful world full of powerless nobodies who are broke and have empty shopping malls.
On Earth Day, 1994, the National Council of Churches suggested that Protestants make a “confession of environmental sins’: “We use more than our share of the Earth’s resources. We are responsible for massive pollution of earth, water and sky. We thoughtlessly drop garbage around our homes, schools, churches, places of work, and places of play.” (Which is why Episcopalian neighborhoods are always such dumps.) “We squander resources on technologies of destruction. Bombs come before bread.” And Fran R. Schumer wonders at the decline of religion. I admit to sloth, gluttony, and coveting my neighbor’s handmaiden, but I have not traded any Pepperidge Farm for nuclear devices.
Hanna-Barbera has a Captain Planet and the Planeteers animated cartoon about saving the you-know-what. Margot Kidder supplies the voice of “Gaia, the Spirit of the Earth.” “I am worried about the planet for my daughter’s future,” announced Kidder in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Kidder said her daughter had once told her, ‘mom, when we grow up, the world may not be here.”
The May 1994 issue of Barbie comics, featuring the adventures of the doll by that name, had a story about how deaf people are discriminated against. There was a page at the end where Barbie gave a lesson in sign language, showing us the signs for “push-up bra,” “Let’s go shopping,” and ‘diamond tennis bracelet from middle-aged gentleman admirer.” Just kidding. Barbie showed us the signs for “friend,” “hello,” “thanks,” and that sort of thing.
The April 1994 issue of Washingtonian ran an article by my friend Andrew Ferguson about corporate ‘multicultural training.” Andy quoted one of the trainers (or facilitators, as they like to be called), whose job it is to instill ‘sensitivity” about age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and the kitchen sink into employees of Washington businesses:
“It’s a function of capitalism, isn’t it?” says the facilitator. “Capitalism requires scarcity to function. It’s built into the system–no scarcity, no profit.
“That’s the kind of power relationships capitalism creates. Sharing power is not something a male-dominated culture naturally gravitates towards, is it?”
The facilitator, a male, was being paid two thousand dollars a day.
And here is my favorite tale of pained solicitude, from an AP wire story that appeared in the Arab News in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, and which I have been saving ever since:
Game wardens and wildlife biologists were among those gathered for nearly eight hours on a farm in northwestern Louisiana to save what they thought was a bear 50 to 60 feet up in a pine tree. A veterinarian fired tranquilizer darts at the critter in an effort to get it down. Deputies and wildlife agents strung a net to catch the bear when the tranquilizers took effect. ” “People really wanted ” to help and protect that bear and get him where he was supposed to be,” Norman Gordan, the owner of the farm said. ” It wasn’t until the tree was chopped down ” that they discovered they were rescuing a dart-riddled garbage bag.
Some of the folks propounding the above-listed anxieties, cavils, and peeves are amateurs: New Agers who will believe in anything but facts, environmentalist softies who think the white rats should be running the cancer labs, or bong-smoke theorists who would have the world be as stupid as they are. But many of the fretful–the ‘multicultural training facilitator” is an appalling example–are pros.
Professional worriers put our fears to use. Masters of Sanctimony have an agenda. The licensed and certified holier-than-thou work toward a political goal. And whether these agony merchants are leftists (as they usually are) or rightists (as they certainly can be) or whether they head off in some other and worse direction (the way religious fundamentalists do), the political goal is the same.
In fact, if we use the word politics in its broadest sense, there really is only one political goal in the world. Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty–their power and privilege–to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by ” politicians.
Politicians are always searching for some grave alarm which will cause individuals to abandon their separate concerns and prerogatives and act in concert so that politicians can wield the baton. Calls to mortal combat are forever being sounded (though only metaphorically–politicians don’t like real wars, too much merit is involved). The idea is that people will drop everything for a WWIII. Remember the War on Poverty? And how Jimmy Carter asked Americans to respond to a mere rise in the price of crude oil with “the moral equivalent of war”? (What were we supposed to do, shame the gas station attendant to death?) Now we’re “fighting pollution,” “battling AIDS,” “conquering racism,” et cetera.
Ralph Nader is as much a politician as Senator Robert Packwood, even if Ralph isn’t as smooth with the ladies. Such professional worriers as Al Gore, Paul Ehrlich, Jeremy Rifkin, Joycelyn Elders, Barry Commoner, Jesse Jackson, and Captain Planet want our freedom, on the grounds that they are better than us. (You may have noticed how politicians are wiser, kinder, and more honest than you are.) Because politicians worry so much about overpopulation, famine, ecological disaster, ethnic hatred, plague, and poverty, they must be superior people. And because they worry so much, they must be experts, too. (Said the Austrian political economist Friedrich Hayek, in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, “There could hardly be a more unbearable–and more irrational–world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realization of their ideals.”)
The bullying of fellow citizens by means of dreads and frights has been going on since paleolithic times. Greenpeace fund-raisers on the subject of global warming are not much different than tribal wizards on the subject of lunar eclipses. “Oh, no, Night Wolf is eating the Moon Virgin. Give me silver and I will make him spit her out.”
Let us, for the space of this book, quit worrying and go take a look at what we are worrying about. And let us take a look not only at the worry but at the place where the worry is happening, the context within which the worry occurs, and the people who are doing the worrisome thing or having it done to them. And let us keep in mind about these people that, whatever their language, culture, or religion, whatever peculiar thing they are wearing through their nose, whatever caliber item they have pointed at our head, they are people, too. They are just as dumb, stinky, and ridiculous as we are.
Human problems are complex. If something isn’t complex it doesn’t qualify as problematic. Very simple bad things are not worth troubling ourselves about. Die and that’s that. Survive, on the other hand, and we encounter all sorts of conundrums and puzzles. These are what the people in this book face. I admit to sight-seeing among their puzzlements. I get off the point. But so much of life seems to be off the point.
And worry itself is fairly pointless. Worrying is a futuristic matter. About that future, Sydney Smith said almost two centuries ago, “We know nothing of tomorrow; our business is to be good and happy today.” To worry is an act of sublime ignorance. However, we can guess a few truths on the subject. One is that the usual solutions proffered for the usual worries are usually wrong.
Going around the poor parts of the world shoving birth-control pills down people’s throats, hustling them into abortion clinics, and giving them cheap prizes for getting sterilized is to assume that those people don’t want babies as much as we do, that they won’t like those babies as well as we like ours, and that little brown and yellow babies are not as good as the adorable pink, rich kind. American children grow up to be valuable citizens. Bangladeshi children grow up to be part of the world population problem. They just aren’t giving birth to any Marky Marks or Howard Sterns in Dhaka.
Modern famine is either the result of deliberate political policies (the Ukraine in the 1930s, Sudan right now) or of terrible economic ideas (Ireland in the 1840s, China in the late 1950s). To give food to the rulers of a famished country (as we did in Ethiopia) or to distribute food so that the rulers benefit from the distribution (as they did in Somalia) is simply to increase the power of the people who caused the famine. Then we are puzzled that our food donations don’t stem world hunger.
Some kind of central planning seems to be the object of most environmental activists. But why is a politburo expected to work better for plants and animals than it did for Russians?
Giving certain races or ethnic groups special rights and privileges is no better (in fact, no different) than giving special rights and privileges to dukes and earls. Noblemen are a minority, too, after all.
Reacting to a plague by holding demonstrations, by loudly announcing how upset we are that disease exists is no more efficacious than sacrificing virgins (or, in the case of AIDS, than throwing drugfree, monogamous, heterosexual members of the middle class down a well).
And the poor of the world cannot be made rich by redistribution of wealth. Poverty can’t be eliminated by punishing people who’ve escaped poverty, taking their money and giving it as a reward to people who have failed to escape. Economic leveling doesn’t work. Whether we call it Marxism, Progressive Reform, or Clintonomics, the result is the same slide into the stygian pit. Communists worship Satan; socialists think perdition is a good system run by bad men; and liberals want us to go to hell because it’s warm there in the winter.
The grave worries facing the world today mostly don’t have solutions. That is, they don’t have solutions outside ourselves. We can’t vote our troubles away. Or mail them to Washington either. We can’t give fifty dollars to the Sierra Club, read Douglas Coupland, and sing the Captain Planet theme song and set everything right. Instead we have to accept the undramatic and often extremely boring duties of working hard, exercising self-control, taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, being kind, and practicing as much private morality as we can stand without popping.
To the extent that our worries do have public, collective solutions, the solutions are quite simple. Though, like many simple things (faith, grace, love, souffl’s), they are difficult to achieve. It was Thomas Robert Malthus himself, arguably the father of modern worrying, who set forth these solutions in the 1803 revision of his Essay on the Principle of Population:
The first grand requisite to the growth of prudential habits is the perfect security of property; and the next perhaps is that respectability and importance which are given to the lower classes by equal laws, and the possession of some influence in the framing of them.
We have been miserably deficient in the instruction of the poor, perhaps the only means of really raising their condition.
Property rights, rule of law, responsible government, and universal education: That’s all we need. Though no society has achieved these perfectly. Our own nation is notably lacking on the fourth point. (And such things as huge federal regulatory agencies and the Menendez jury aren’t helping items one through three.) Still, if we look around at the countries of the world that honor Malthus’s societal virtues more or less, we see a minimum of the worries in this book. And when we do see worries in a free, lawful, democratic, and literate place, we see them being mitigated to the best of mortal man’s ability to do so.
Let us seek out the worries but avoid the worriers. They are haters of liberty and loathers of individuals. They wish to politicize everything. Imagine Bill Clinton conducting your love life for you. And watch out, he may be trying to.
To quote Malthus again:
The most successful supporters of tyranny are without doubt those general declaimers who attribute the distresses of the poor, and almost all the evils to which society is subject, to human institutions and the iniquity of governments.
We should wipe the gnostic smirk of self-righteousness off the faces of the moral buttinskis. Anyone who thinks he has a better idea of what’s good for people than people do is a swine. Let’s give the professional worriers something to worry about. (And memo to Generation X: Pull your pants up, turn your hat around, and get a job.)