Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite

Keep your cotton, ladies and gentlemen. For my money, Linum usitatissimum is the finest gift Mother Nature has offered humanity, narrowly edging out hemp for the most useful non-cereal angiosperm ever cultivated. While hemp gives us seed oil, plastics, paper, and textiles, its traditional use is cordage. Nothing on earth surpasses the cost performance of a length of sturdy hemp rope when your business is stretching a neck.

Luckily for our delicate species, waltzing the grim marionette is a part-time occupation. Flax, dear sweet linseed, cherished Linum usitatissimum claims top spot thanks to its ancient use in clothing, animal feed, and polymerization. Though lacking in a few of the qualities that make cotton and wool so excellent to cover the nude human, flax is distinct in its ease of harvest, its simplicity of processing, its resistance to disease, and its soil comity. “Soil comity” is a term I just now made up. It means that as a crop, it requires little in the way of fertilizer and it doesn’t deplete the loamy soil it prefers of many nutrients. Flax is so easy to grow and process that archaeologists have found it in 30,000 year old settlements. Cotton, in contrast, is a neolithic crop, 8000 years old, tops. Furthermore, cotton requires a great deal of intervention to thrive. Weevils are such a threat that this natural perennial is typically uprooted, incinerated, and replanted from seed to guard against infestation. Manual harvesting and processing is intensely laborious, and when grown in dry areas, cotton requires extensive irrigation. In contrast, linen can be prepared for the loom by hand in three steps so easy it is usually a task given to the children. It is generally true that cotton undergarments are more comfortable and cotton outergarments are more durable than their linen equivalents, but when you have to grow, harvest, and process the materials by hand yourself, you might want to rethink your insistence on wearing denim.

“We can’t do either one on the islands.” Florid, bentback Dave emerged from the hold bearing bowl, mirror, pitcher, and blade, all a-gleam with vanadium vigor, ready for his dawn shave. “Any pirate sightings in the dread night?”

“Either one?” I tugged my own whiskers, wondering how long it would be until I could free myself of my chin’s scraggly tyranny.

“Llamas. Llamas, alpacas, and old reliable sheep. Grass grows well enough on San Juan Island, but the crappy volcanic soil isn’t good for much else apart from blackberries and that damned Scotch Broom. So we raise sheep.”

“I wonder if you can blend linen and wool. I’ve never tried.”

“Nor I. I take it you’re evading my question because there’s nothing to report?”

“Huh? Oh, the pirates. No, no pirates last night. None that I saw. I have to admit that I was a bit distracted by the head buzzing.”

“Yeah, me too. Couldn’t sleep for shit.” Dave poured a measure of water into the gleaming bowl and began laboriously working a lather. I did not envy him the task of shaving at sea, particularly with that fearsome-looking cutthroat straight razor of his. “Let’s drop anchor and camp onshore tonight.”

“A fine idea, Dave.” I tried, unsuccessfully, to chase away speculation about the presence of beachfront suicide shacks of the same sort I routinely encountered along the Gulf coast.

“How about a story to ease our troubled minds?”

“Another fine idea, Dave. Shoot.”

“No no, Sam. You tell me one. I’m occupied. And after last night’s futile attempt at rest, I fear my fragile mind is in no condition to drum up a work of fiction. You tell me a tall tale.” He inspected the daub of foam at the tip of his horsehair brush with a squint before resuming the attack against the stubborn soap. “Make it a whopper.”

A whopper. A tall order from a guy who routinely sleeps in a hammock strung thirty feet over unused limestone stock. I discarded an errant thought I had about the relationship between tax incidence and the relative share of surplus transaction utility in a competitive market for being both too esoteric and too nascent. I decided to go with something altogether lighter in tone and sensibility. “How about abortion?”

The razor paused, mid-strop. Dave’s foamy grin abruptly transformed into a sudsy scowl. “Go on.” The grit in his voice told me I was on the right track. Summoning an irked reaction was a more sure balm against the dead man’s hum from below the waves than anything else I’d tried in my travels so far.

“This was something of a local news story ages ago. Forgive me if I can’t accurately recall the specific time or place. For the purposes of the tale, let’s say that it was 1997 and that the last working clinic that provided surgical abortion services for the greater Topeka metropolitan area was being threatened by a pending house bill that would require exceptionally rigorous health and safety standards to be implemented in any clinic that provided surgical services, uh-” I clawed through my memory, trying in vain to conjure the tortured legal jargon legislators once used to niggle and harass abortion providers. “that, you know, well, um. Basically, the language of the bill specifically targeted abortion clinics without explicitly naming them. You know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean. Most legislators get their start as lawyers. Finagling legal wordplay is second nature to them. And if not, it’s a simple matter to have their team draft up something that should pass judicial review.”

“It used to be worse than that, if I recall correctly. Think tanks would very often draft model legislation and ship it out to friendly representatives at all levels. These things were very carefully worded to pass constitutional muster while still fighting specific skirmishes in the culture war.”

Dave had mounted the palm-sized mirror on the windward gunwale and had started to part his face-follicles from their beds. “Dirty business.”

“So anyway, the proposed bill, and remember that at this point, it was just a proposal. It hadn’t even been voted on yet. It wasn’t even out of committee. This proposed bill picked up steam in the media and before you know it, the whole damned country from coast to coast was up in arms.”

“You sure know how to spin a yarn, Sam. This is as fantastic as a lost dwarf civilization under a mountain.” I couldn’t see him smirk, since he was stretching his face-skin to get a close shave, but it was impossible not to hear the wry tone in his remark.

I refused to acknowledge the barb. “The next thing you know, celebrities are jumping into the fray.”

“As they are… hang on…” He deftly sheared the patch of scruff under the tip of his nose. “wont to do.”

“Quite so.” I saw a swell headed our way. “Wave coming.”

“Cheers.” He moved the razor away from his face until we again stopped pitching.

“A couple of Baby Boomer-era musical acts made a big loud show of cancelling the Kansas leg of their arena tours until the legislature could extract their heads from each others’ rectums.”

“Is that the correct plural for ‘rectum’?”

“I’m not sure. Do you have a dictionary I might consult?”

“Not on board. We’ll check when we get back from Alaska.”

“Where was I? Ah yes. So anyway, the great flatulent fuss and holler over this,” I paused, not sure how to select my next word, “this what, boycott? Embargo? Strike? Whatever you want to call it, it quickly overshadowed the boring substantive discussion of the bill. Most folks, including the offended celebrities, couldn’t be bothered to parse the language of the bill or even bothered to read it at all. They sure could be bothered to pose and preen, convinced of both their moral superiority and the hypocrisy of their ideological foes.”

“Surely one side was more guilty of peacock imitation than the other.” He wiped the remnants of the shaving soap from his jowls and reached for a shirt.

“Maybe. One of the big criticisms of the greying musicians was that they were keen to punish Topekan concert-goers for the sins of their elected officials, but had no problem touring countries in which abortion was outright banned and had been since time immemorial. Another was that it was egregious to claim on the one hand that something like the Cuban embargo was unjust since it punished citizens rather than politicians, but then to turn around and use the same ill-targeted, unjust tactics when it suits their own political peccadilloes.”

“I don’t know, man. Those sound like pretty solid criticisms.”

“Possibly. I’m not sure what the appropriate comparison is, though.”

“Come again?”

“Private citizens have few options to register their displeasure. Very broadly, they can complain with their voices, with their feet, or with their wallets. If they can successfully petition the sovereign, they can add knobby truncheons to the list.”

“You must be one of those ‘the state is violence’ types.”

I silently resolved to respond to Dave’s goading once the continuity of my story was no longer at stake. “My point is, they can either do nothing and risk alienating their fans, or do something that their opponents might identify as hypocritical. When fans’ hackles are up, ignoring the offense of the day throws fan goodwill on the fire. It might be morally inconsistent, but who really cares about that when there’s money at stake?”

“You’re a funny guy, Sam. A real economist. It all boils down to money with you guys.”

“There’s no need to be snippy. And that’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, it seems pretty likely that they’re honestly following their conscience. It just happens that their conscience aligns well with the conscience of their fans, and the money follows suit. The money is probably an afterthought, if it’s even considered at all.”

“Uh huh? And how about the sin of punishing the innocent fans for the trespasses of their elected representatives?”

“That one’s a little harder to justify, but like I said, what are the alternatives? I think that the fans who paid for tickets are probably on the same side. I’d bet that they even admire the artist for taking such a principled stand on such an important issue. Principles are important to Americans, right?”

“Are you referencing yesterday’s conversation, with the local fundamental culture and all that?”

“I am, Dave. I am. One thing common to all Americans is to value big, overarching concepts. God, country, bedrock principles: Americans admire these things, even if the particular objects of admiration change from place to place.”

“I think I see what you mean.” We deftly swapped helm duties now that he had completed his morning rituals. “We’re willing to forgive, ignore, even encourage hypocrisy when our principles are threatened. Charges of hypocrisy are peanuts compared to betraying shared values.”

“Sure, unless your shared values are things like consistency, integrity, intellectual rigor, or honest self-reflection.”

“I don’t know anyone who fits that description. I doubt they exist.”

“Same here, man. Same here.”

The humming inside my skull quieted enough to find a decent mooring before nightfall. We ate squirrel stew.

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