Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Baboons and Monkeys

As a lover of all non-human primates (gorillas especially), I'm never pleased to see them used colloquially to stand for human misbehavior or stupidity--as in "stop monkeying around," or, "you've got the table manners of a chimpanzee," or "you big dumb ape!" It seems to me bad enough that we've managed to drive the majority of our closest genetic cousins to the brink of extinction without suggesting that they, who never did anything nearly as bad to us, must somehow be held responsible for our sins.

But I've been reading a lot of Thoreau and Emerson lately (all in the context of a class I'm teaching), and I have to admit, both of them get a lot of mileage out of simian analogies. Here's Thoreau, in Walden (1854):

Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.

And here's Emerson, in his 1851 address on the Fugitive Slave Law:

I thought it was this fair mystery, whose foundations are hidden in eternity, that made the basis of human society, and of law; and that to pretend any thing else, as, that the acquisition of property was the end of living, was to confound all distinctions, to make the world a greasy hotel, and, instead of noble motives and inspirations, and a heaven of companions and angels around and before us, to leave us in a grimacing menagerie of monkeys and idiots.

I resort to sentiments such as these when I hear people blather on about extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and leasing national parks to oil companies, and drilling in the Marcellus Shale, and building more strip malls, and leaving uninsured children to the mercy of the streets, and dropping more bombs on Afghanistan, and buying more handheld technogadgets, and refusing to tax carbon because China refuses to do it, and lifting regulations on Wall Street, and buying bottled water, and polluting the water that's left, and lots of other things besides. I find comfort in the thought that some people, past and present, knew the true purpose of life, and refused to allow anyone to tell them otherwise.

And I find even greater comfort in the thought that baboons and monkeys have known this all along, and never needed to be convinced.

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