and Taboos: Those Times Are Constantly A-Changin’
Star Press, March 14, 2005
East Central Indiana
By Chuck Avery
When I was in the army, I admired the tattoo on the
shoulder of a fellow soldier. It was a skull in black and red, under which
appeared the words “Death Before Dishonor.” At 19, I was convinced that
such a sentiment was an eternal truth. I was tempted to get a duplicate, but
social restraints held me back. Since then, I’ve learned that some truths
are more eternal than others, and today I’m not so sure about the meaning of
either “death” or “dishonor.”
The time and place of our birth—along with the social
changes we see during our tenure—greatly determines our attitudes. The
culture of my youth, for instance, sneered at tattoos. They were worn by
crooks and carnies. Today they are nearly de rigueur for that class that H. L.
Mencken identified as the “boobousie.”
I have nothing against tattoos except for their relative
permanency. A 19-year-old who acts on his—or her—impulse to have a design
indelibly placed under the skin assumes his taste in designs will not change
in the next half century. This is an assumption about which I am skeptical. I
suspect many of the today’s young people will regret their tattoos each time
the nursing home worker comes around to give them a bath.
At any rate, tattoos, like other fashions and fads, are
personal matters of little consequence to anyone except the tattooee.
Likewise, a half century ago, homosexuality was shameful
and, in most states, criminal. But attitudes change over time and place. There
is, for instance, much evidence that the practice flourished during the Golden
Age of Greece, the very period and place we so admire for its civilization.
(Of course, historical precedent is not always sanction; the ancient Greeks
also held slaves.)
In recent years the gay population has become as visible
as tattoos and as vocal as the dreaded rock-and-roll that augured doom to
traditional Western values. Consequently, our federal and state governments
But, as the American Shakers learned, no civilization
that eschews the basics of reproduction lasts long. Homosexuality is a
personal, self-limiting aberration and therefore not something a nation’s
lawmakers should get too worked up about. The only exception would be that of
a theocracy where religious sins are incorporated into the criminal code. We
have several examples of such in the world today. They are places where
blaspheming the latest popular deity is punishable by death.
(Mark Twain, who served for a time as a correspondent to
the Sandwich Islands—presently Hawaii—once wrote that he admired the
religion of the natives there. If someone committed an act that offended the
local gods, he could atone by sacrificing a relative; e. g., throwing his
grandmother into a nearby volcano. Therefore, Twain wrote, one could go on
sinning as long as his relatives held out.)
The middle-class WASPs, of which I am a member, should be
grateful for the recent emergence of the gay communities in our society. We
are a dwindling demographic in this country and need lesser minorities to
which we can feel superior.
On the other hand, WASPishness is probably an attitude
independent of numbers. There will always be those whose greatest pleasure is
to tell others how to conduct their personal lives.
That, I suspect, is an eternal truth.
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