Due to periodic moments of weakness in which we contribute to NPR, we have a ‘free’ subscription to Newsweek. Making virtue of contingency I have discovered that Newsweek is perfect bathroom reading – so much so that I suspect it is edited with this venue in mind. Each issue has a perfect mix of shorter and longer pieces calibrated to characteristic contemplative dwell intervals. Interest is generated quickly and no great commitment is required. This may not make it a great source for a deeper understanding of the world, but it’s a useful niche nonetheless.
So in the natural course of things I recently read a review of Judd Apatow’s new movie, “Funny People.” In general, this confirmed my impression that Judd Apatow movies are to be avoided. The one I’ve seen is “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which I found to be an unpleasant, cringe-inducing mess. The same people who liked that one seem to like this one, so no thanks.
Newsweek’s reviewer, Jennie Yabroff, illuminates my own impression by pulling on the thread of Apatow’s widely-noted misogyny, observing that it’s part of a more comprehensive misanthropy, a generalized “poisonous hostility and rage.” Adult life is a joyless slog of self-destruction, disappointment, betrayal, and constipation. But wait, there is redemption! “The one bright spot in Apatow’s dark vision is children—the point of sex and marriage; the friends who will never betray you.” She concludes with this uplifting summation of Apatow’s oeuvre: “Life, his movies suggest, is filled with angst, frustration, and tedium. The best you can do is laugh about it all, then pass it on.”
Well, I sure agree on the laugh about it part; I think the rest is largely a matter of intention and interpretation. But taking the point at face value, what are we to make of this notion that children exist to redeem dreary adult existence? How many movies does it take to notice that inflicting this nasty life on critters you’re planning to love, and then milking them for all the joy they can produce before ushering them into a long, miserable adulthood, is nothing but another betrayal, perhaps the biggest of all?
In the last couple of posts we’ve been talking about memes as units of culture whose first priority is to reproduce themselves. They don’t do it mindfully, or even ‘selfishly’ in any intentional sense; it’s just what they do, whether that’s a good idea in the scheme of things or not. I’ve generally observed that humans (like ducks and viruses) work the same way. When I was newly married in my early 20s I pretty much just assumed we’d go ahead and have a couple of kids. My then-wife didn’t think that was a good idea; we were young, poor, not done with our schooling yet. I argued that we were better off than billions of other humans who had managed to raise kids successfully, but she had a higher standard in mind and wisely prevailed. It wasn’t about whether, though, it was about when. In the years following I watched other people ‘decide’ to have kids and it gradually dawned on me that the thought of not having them at all had never been entertained, or if it had been was swiftly dismissed. The decision was not about whether, it was about when.
Of course if people actually decided whether to have kids, there would be many reasons not to and that would happen much more often. But it’s not a reasoning process, or rather, ‘reasons’ to have kids come and go. Many of us don’t think any more that God wants us to have children, or that this is women’s essential mission, or that family names and properties need to be preserved. And anyone paying attention to climate science knows that Nature doesn’t need us to have any more children at all, although Nature (of which we are a part) will just adjust to whatever we do, including the one where we breed and consume ourselves and the rest of the world’s biota into extinction. It may be, as Apatow thinks, that life’s a bitch. This would seem like a good reason not to have kids (or not to be a jerk in general), but instead he’s twisted it into a reason to have them. Or it could be that we need to balance everyone else’s bad babies with our good babies, by whatever standard. Mine, I’m sure, would be magnificent and make the world a much better place. Of course everyone thinks theirs are good, and someone must be wrong. The point is there’s always a ‘reason’ to reproduce if reproduction is the unit default. That doesn’t make it a good idea, though.