The Baby-Boomers are going to die

By Lawrence Henry
web posted September 20, 1999

A learned friend of mine used an interesting, if sickening, word the other day. We were talking about smoking as a social issue, and he said, "Smoking has extrinsics." I presumed that he was talking about so-called "second-hand smoke." No, he said. "I mean smoking smells bad to other people." And so society, through government, is entitled to regulate and restrict smoking. (To be fair, my friend does not fully support this view; he simply points out the reasoning involved.)

Hmmm. "Extrinsics." Let's think about that. People drive by our house regularly with their car stereos turned loud enough to shake our windows. (I don't know why; all those stereos seem to emit is a repeated low-frequency "kk-BOOM.") Other people park sloppily up and down my street, taking up extra spaces. Still others fire up circular saws, drills, and Shop-Vacs as they remodel their houses.

In the yard behind us, tenants barbecue chicken on warm summer nights. A thrifty neighbor collects huge bags full of discarded soda cans. Every Tuesday, on trash collection day, Chinese and Vietnamese old people who live in the nearby housing projects tear apart our garbage sacks on the street, looking for recyclable aluminum and glass. School children leave chewing gum wads on the sidewalk. Dogs poop here and there, and some dog owners just leave it.

My learned economist friend has a century-old sumac tree in his back yard, a tree he has decided not to cut down, even though sumac is widely reviled as a "weed tree" hereabouts. It provides him shade; it also sheds its leaves and seed pods on other people's yards, where other people have to clean them up.

In mid-September, the Detroit Free Press reported on a Washington, D.C. gathering called "Obesity: The Public Health Crisis," described as "the first annual conference on obesity and public policy. The "obesity experts" in attendance - no surprise - called for "radical solutions" to the "ticking time bomb in the health care system" - i.e., to fat people. No surprise, those proposed "radical solutions" turned out to be government controls: taxes on fatty foods; a longer school day so children would get more exercise; "making insurers" cover weight loss programs; and spending (taxpayer) money on research into the causes of obesity (most of which money would go to these very conferees).

Note that the conference followed the "extrinsics" argument in proposing its "radical solutions." That "ticking time bomb" in the "health care system" will cost everybody money in health premiums and government subsidies for the uninsured. Without that "extrinsic" effect, most Americans would probably shrug and say, "If people want to get fat, that's their business."

This "extrinsics" argument, this high-profile (Washington, D.C.! First Annual!) conference on overweight, the obvious parallels to other social crusades (seat belts, air bags, environmentalism, smoking, guns), point the way to a host of arguments on a wealth of subjects. Indeed, Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason Magazine, and author of the indispensable "For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health," (Free Press, 1998) has forged an entire beat for himself around these subjects.

I'd like to ask one question and explore that: Why? Why do so many people so desperately want to control mortality-related (as they see it) behavior in so many other people?

I think the answer is obvious. The baby boom generation has now reached that critical age, their late forties and early fifties. They have finally realized that they're going to die.

Baby boomers are famous for their infatuated self-regard. But they're famous, as well, for one other conspicuous thing: Their trashing of traditional consolations and supports, especially religion. Some - hippies, political radicals, deconstructionalists, feminists, identity-politics activists - have destroyed tradition quite explicitly and deliberately. Others have gone along, adopting the "tolerance" and "multiculturalism" group-think so characteristic of their generation. Still others have grown into adulthood and a semblance of traditional normalcy (houses, careers, kids), and have breathed in the miasma of post-modernism with their morning coffee and New York Times.

All true religious communities consist of three populations: the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born. All true religion connects us intimately with eternity: through an afterlife, through fate, through predestination, through the commands of God, through the examples of ancients whom we still love as our brothers and sisters today: Abraham, Sarah, Ruth, Isaiah, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Paul, and so on.

Believers know this. We do not believe it, we know it. When we feel bad, we turn to God, and to the stored wisdom of our faith. We do not run off with Amber the cocktail waitress (in Lewis Grizzard's memorable phrase) or buy a new Lamborghini. Or, heaven help us, we do not start up web sites like the Massachusetts-based www.getoutraged.com to try to stamp out smoking - projecting our despair, in other words, onto others, then trying to fix what's wrong with them.

I've been on both sides of this issue. In my younger life, I was in a lot of trouble - life-threatening trouble. Occasionally, in despair, I would look up the sky and start to utter a prayer for help. I would always stop myself.

"Larry," I'd say, "you're too smart for that. You know there's nothing up there."

Then one day I let my prayer continue: "Oh, God, please help me." And I found myself suffused with a heavenly light. Many years later, a black man in sunglasses and a tractor cap called on me to declare my life for Jesus Christ, and I knew the time had come.

I had fought against those consolations and those traditions as doggedly as any member of my generation. I had known that, if I gave myself over to God, my personality would crumble. And so it did. Then it was restored to me, gloriously, in new life.

I came to believe, and I came to understand: You can't know your mind until you've changed your mind.

Today, I may get annoyed at my neighbors with their power tools and their loud music, their sloppy parking, their smoky barbecues, their hoorawing get-togethers around Monday Night Football, their ant-calling collections of empty soda cans. But I would never invoke the law to change their behavior - it seems ludicrous to me even to think of it.

And as for those behaviors that may have "extrinsics," I've seen the example of truly courageous people, of people who, with no physical protection whatsoever, walk from door to door in the ghettos and try to bring the saving word of God to everyone: to the drug-addicted, to the alcoholic, to the violent, to the criminal - even to people who might hurt them or kill them. A Washington, D.C. conference proposing "radical solutions" to obesity, compared to courage like that, looks like exactly what it is: cowardly, petulant, spoiled, and childish.

And more than a little dangerous. Religious people cherish political freedom, and would never deny it to anyone else. The "extrinsics" crowd will apparently stop at nothing, driven by their terror of death.

In Singapore, you can get whipped for chewing gum.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.




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