"Public health issues are very personal to me," she said, recounting how her father died of diabetes and hypertension, her mother from smoking-related lung cancer and her brother and only sibling from HIV-related complications. In each case, she said, her family members died from preventable diseases.
This week Barack Obama nominated Regina Benjamin to be the 18th Surgeon General of the United States. Because Benjamin is a black woman who stresses the value of preventative medicine, I can't help but recall my heroine Joycelyn Elders.
Elders, like a lot of doctors, recognized that the human body is an organic system regulated by natural forces. When the human body is hungry, it needs food. When it's tired, the body needs sleep. And there's a third need, known to Elders, complicating our bodies: We need sexual activity.
But you'd never know it if you got all your information from the crippled Cro-Magnon brains of the United States Senate. They and the Roman church ran Elders out of town because she spoke plain truth rather than regurgitating the preferred lies of a doctrinal culture, invented before science.
The modern government in Britain is encouraging teens to have an orgasm a day. That's basically what Dr. Elders was saying to black and Hispanic boys. There's some backlash among Britons who still like to pretend that sex and sexuality are really only a bad dream perpetuated by Satan. I wonder if they, like our American religious fundamentalists, are closeted child fellators.
The Roman hegemon will affect the medical treatment of someone you love, within the next two years. And whereas some of you will appreciate the beneficence of a free hospital, many of you will suffer a devastating loss because that church has spent considerable time and tax-free dollars impeding progress in medical science.
But let's get back to the sex.
Unfulfilled, our sexual urges make us do crazy things. Dr. Elders called it "wilding." (Slang: The act or practice of going about in a group threatening, robbing, or attacking others.) But rape and pillage are not necessary consequences of sexual repression. An inability to concentrate on algebra lessons may be the worst outcome. But when the alternative is an ability to learn algebra, why suppress the urge?
By suggesting that black and Hispanic teens masturbate with the same frequency (and vigor?) of their white counterparts, Dr. Elders sought to impose her preferred cultural ideals on millions of people.
Is this good? Yes.
Is it cultural hegemony? Yes.
Does that mean cultural hegemony is good?
Yes, it does.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK
Problematically, we are monkeys. The least evolved of us monkeys tend to be the monkeys who argue that we are not monkeys. The closer the rest of us get to the next evolutionary step, the better we appreciate our limitations, and the better we seem able to accept the fact that we are monkeys.
Who knows whether under-evolved monkeys Jeff Sessions and James Inhofe really believe the horseshit they speak. It makes an excellent distraction for their simian constituents, and that may be the reason they persist. When someone starts questioning unusual payments to defense contractors, or toxins in the water supply, these chimps need only shout "abortion!" and their lemmings lose all interest in pressing issues.
Same with Democrats and their critically-unthinking followers. They press different buttons, though. One of them is "racism!"
For me, this debate became completely absurd when I discovered the goal of eschewing "white hegemony." As if white people could agree about anything. But more importantly, what's wrong with hegemony?
In a separate entry, I pointed out that Barack Obama referred to his religion in questioning whether gay people should have the same rights as the rest of us. Because Obama is a Democrat, and perceived as a liberal, SP readers castigated my unorthodox publication of this verifiable fact.
Shame on them, yes. But heterodoxy is a weird fit, and we're all just now learning to wear it. As of July 2009, few indoctrinated liberal Democrats are willing to believe that Obama would say anything so reactionary. It simply doesn't register.
It's nearly impossible to let go of our beliefs. Not only have we decided we believe them, we've based our entire personhoods on what we believe. It's literally who we are.
HEALTH AS HEGEMON
It might strike some as cultural hegemony to mandate that people behave well in deference toward their bodies.
The free-market alternative is to afford higher insurance rates to those who persist in bad behaviors, like smoking. Unfortunately, we let fat people get by with murder (or a slow suicide) because we have a history of being too nice, and don't know when discrimination (telling things apart from one another) is appropriate.
Thing is, cultural hegemony is not only a good thing, it's the only thing that will save us from the ethical relativism of the modern liberal, and the religious fundamentalism of the modern "conservative."
The imposition of values is the key to preventative medicine. But that's okay. Imposing values is the true American Ideal. The audacity of mere men (as opposed to imaginary supreme beings or kings) restating the law, creating the law... this is our national zeitgeist.
(What does this mean for you? You can still smoke, but you'll be treated like a pariah. I'm sure you're accustomed to it already.)
Respecting cultural differences is only worthwhile where those differences are respectable. e.g. Carving out clitorises to prevent wanton sexual expression among women = bad culture. Conversely, I contend that equal protection of the laws = good culture.
I may be wrong about this second proposition, but most people seem to be on my side in this instance. We, collectively, are your cultural hegemon.
It may be that equal protection of law should be afforded only to those who can pass a basic civics test, and have not been convicted of two or more violent crimes. I would be okay with that. It's a great incentive to get educated, and not hit people.
We're not there yet.
There are murkier areas, where one culture's ideas have not yet won out, e.g. Recognizing that you can breathe better in a room with a ten foot ceiling = good culture? Bad?
Well, maybe it's not efficient. But thanks to the Chinese for conceiving feng shui. It may be irrational, but there seems to be some truth in it.
Thanks to the Germans for butter, and beer. They may not be good either. Piles and piles of polemic argue against butter. Beer is worse. Yet a lot of people love one or both. Many literally sing their praises. Some people revere beer and butter almost religiously.
Feng shui, beer and butter derived from specific cultures and are now known to improve (or ruin?) lives around the globe. It's cultural hegemony. We'll eventually decide whether it's good. (Put me down for "yes" on all three.)
But architecture, food and drink are subjects which rarely rise to the level of armed conflict, or mortal debate. Plenty of subjects do. Pederasty, for example, was once highly approved in civilized society. Today you could not concoct a more villainous scheme. How is this schism possible? Answer: Cultural hegemony.
It would be stupid to assume that one's own culture is uniformly superior to all others on all fronts. We do it. The French seem to do it, too. I'm pretty sure North Korea does. But after finding out what all of humankind has learned about any given subject — food, furniture or fucking — there comes a point when we say "we've decided which is the right way."
This is cultural hegemony, and it is good.
Poppin' Fresh has crescent rolls. France has croissants. One is better that the other.
THE FUTURE: TELLING PEOPLE HOW TO DO WHAT THEY DO
This country is founded on the principle that it's okay to foist new, improved ideas on people. The founders didn't even bother to rationalize their new direction for the benefit of conservative (non-) thinkers. They held their truths to be self-evident.
Sam Harris calls our era the end phase of belief. He argues that because people with the brains of cavemen now have access to the weapons of geniuses, we will either die, or get a lot smarter, which means losing our less intellectually rational assumptions about reality.
But renouncing archaic religious tenets is just one of the steps Homo sapiens will take on the road to Homo superior. Relinquishing a lot of other tendencies, superstitions and memes will necessarily occur. Ethical relativism will die. Comparative philosophy will say not merely that your thought process is different from mine; it will divulge that one is better.
This is not to say that we'll have an ultimate decision on the superiority of Vanilla to Chocolate, thin or thick crust, PC or Mac. It may tell us which forms of government and taxation work best. I'm not sure what it will tell us. I'm working with a Homo sapien's brain, and the upgrade is not scheduled for my lifetime.
BUT I DIGRESS
The service of anthropology to Homo superior will not simply be its ability to define cultural distinctions. It will teach our offspring good culture from bad. Chief Illiniwek will not be mentioned. Its debate is too stupid. (Sorry.)
It's hard to learn new things. It's harder to be told new things by someone else, because it makes one feel vulnerable. How dare anyone else know something you don't know? It's especially hard if you're a United States Senator. All that hubris and Vitalis.
We non-Senators are lucky to live in the west, where our traditions (and hair pieces) are not fully formed. We can open our minds to new ideas. But we must also know that a time will come when we must close the door on bad ideas.