Friday, November 12, 2010

A captive audience

It was a beautiful day here in Baltimore yesterday, a day off from work for me (Veterans Day, you may have heard), so we went to the zoo. I often find myself in a melancholy mood when I'm at the zoo, especially on days when I have time to think, as I did yesterday, since it wasn't too crowded. It's the big cats prowling in their giant cages, back and forth, back and forth; the giraffes roaming about in their tiny yard, butting up against the back of a rounded wall of concrete; the chimps jumping about in their glassed-in fake forest, watching, watching; the zebras and ostriches and rhinos standing around; the elephants milling about in the sort of pathetic cement wading area, pushing a ball to and fro; the birds sitting under netting, flying from branch to branch.

I find animals fascinating, but zoos make me feel bad, always have. I thought about the efforts to breed them in captivity, how long it takes, why it has often taken so long.

On our way out yesterday, we stopped in at the polar bear area. They weren't up for entertaining. There was a brilliant white fox, sitting, watching us. I considered the area behind him, apparently the full expanse of his existence. As we left, there was the snow owl, two of them, under netting, also brilliantly white, with yellow owl eyes, also watching, but for what. I read the accompanying text, biological facts, reassuring, contained science. I was struck by the given life expectancy. In the wild: 9 years. In captivity: 28. Nineteen additional years of what? Would they say it was worth it if they could?

I thought about the trade-offs we make to live in the way we do, though the decisions have long since been made for us. We're told that we live in an advanced society. I find myself often declaiming about lost, pre-capitalist cultural forms and I am accused of romanticizing feudalism, or of downplaying the necessity of capitalism superseding feudalism. I am reminded of the benefits, the fruits we enjoy as a result of capitalism, improved health and leisure and longevity among them. Though, of course, not all of us enjoy them. I have to admit that I do; I enjoy enormous privileges, but I am not everybody; I also admit that I will not easily give them up, but I believe both that I will have to and that I ought to. And anyway, were our predecessors asked? Of course they were not.

We all know the famous line by Benjamin Franklin, often trotted out by liberals rightly decrying the latest panicked security response to some so-called terrorist activity or other: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But doesn't this describe our daily existence? Are we at liberty? Do we not trade it for some version of health and for illusory security simply as a matter of course? Are we not living in captivity ourselves? Wouldn't some of us trade many of those benefits for autonomy? For a more generalized, if lower-pitched, prosperity? In which we had a say? In which we were at least consulted? And how long will the benefits last? Are we justified in taking them for granted when others not only do not enjoy those benefits, but cannot? When the whole system in which we live is predicated on the relatively few enjoying the fruits of the many? What might it look like if it weren't?


Ethan said...

Wonderful post.

I often think about one specific example of the type of thing you're talking about, which is how many of us have long, lingering, painful deaths in or out of hospitals ahead of us, as opposed to a full life leading up to a more graceful exit.

J.R. Boyd said...

I second Ethan's appraisal!

But I've been thinking about the converse: how much we prefer things we don't have any control over or responsibility for, insofar as they produce an outcome that is convenient or pleasurable for us. Consumerism is like the best of all worlds!