When my six-year-old son wants something that he can't have, we remind him that he has limits. And he understands this. That is, the idea of limits is not some foreign concept inside his fragile eggshell mind. We are always hearing, from the right-wing virtues crowd, about how liberal, permissive parents don't set enough limits, that the hands-off, namby pamby approach has created a nation of irresponsible monsters.
These blowhards have been talking this jive since Dr. Benjamin Spock published his Child and Baby Care book in the late 1940s. They can't stand it that he suggested parents stop beating their kids and start listening to them. The right wing scolds see that approach as "coddling." They prefer the "way it used to be," to quote that paragon of virtues, the thrice-married, Hillbilly-heroin-addicted, former welfare recipient, draft dodger, Rush Limbaugh.
Ever since Spock--who was also a leader of the antiwar movement and a political progressive--they have been angry that we "liberals" actually treat our kids like human beings, listen to them, don't physically assault them every time they fart or belch and, by supplying them with paper, crayons, books and other self-entertaining low-fi paraphernalia they don't become addicted to TV. So why don't these same rules apply to grownups? These same right-wing virtues protectors have sold the American grown-ups on the lie that you can have everything without having to pay for it.
But you can't have everything you want. You can't eat ice cream and stay slim. You can't eat beef three times a day and avoid cancer or Mad cow disease. You can't eat chicken three times a day and avoid getting arsenic in your system. You can't drink corporate made, FDA-approved sodas ten times a day and avoid drinking benzene. You can't tattoo yourself head to toe and then decide, ten years later, maybe that wasn't such a good idea. There are limits to your behavior. Limits. The only thing on which there are no limits is your imagination.
An exchange in a 2004 conversation between Gary Groth and Ralph Steadman, the great artist who accompanied Hunter S. Thompson on some of his fear and loathing forays (from Drawing The Line: The Comics Journal Library, Fantagraphics, 2004) pretty much nailed it:
GG: It's a bit of a paradox, because conservatives are usually pretty big on limitations, like sexual or social constraints, but they place no restraints on the economic life.
RS: Well, maybe they channel it all to that, to the hunger for money: all the sexual appetites become money, they become placebos for money, money placebos. That's probably what it is. I know that for some reason they don't like the arts, anything that smacks of an uncontrollable freedom--that is, one that they cannot put a regulation around. You see, they cannot put a regulation around imagination. It seems that the one place we can still expand in this world is in the mind.
Let's use our imagination then. You can't build a "gated community" (an oxymoron?) on top of a sand dune and not have the ocean in your living room ten to twenty years from now. You can't create greenhouse gases on a sustained basis and not have the cumulative impact melt the polar ice caps. You can't drive a Hummer and sport a "Save The Planet" bumper sticker. You can be self-righteous and money grubbing, but that only means you will make a better looking corpse when the Big Blow comes a calling. As the Jefferson Airplane once put it, "Compared to your scream the human dream doesn't mean shit to a tree."
Likewise, you can't invade other countries for no reason and not suffer some catastrophic consequences. You can't allow two elections to be stolen and expect the person inserted in office to be loved, or even effective. He didn't win, he didn't earn it, and yet he rules like a limitless despot. (Here is a person, indeed, whose parents didn't set limits for him). You can't intercept the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans and then tell them you are not spying on them. You can't laugh at the people you kill and call yourself a Christian.
There are limits to what language can bear. There are limits to what the planet can bear. Limits. My six-year-old son understands this.