Herman Melville spent several weeks as an involuntary guest of the Typee, Marquesan Islanders known for their fierce cannibalistic ways and their exquisite tattoos.
It was 1842 and Melville was a rebellious twenty-two-year-old hand who had jumped ship from a whaling vessel.
Several years later, in his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, Melville recounted his deep fear that his hosts would tattoo his face.
Facial tattoos were common among the islanders. Some Westerners got facially tattooed as well, but those were men who had relinquished their homes and become the original beachcombers, white men who belonged neither here nor there.
Tattooing in general was hardly a respectable thing. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, tattoos were the distinguishing marks of sailors, ex-cons, prostitutes, and carnies.
Then the markings began to creep over the shoulders, scapulars, and forearms of young people who just wanted to take a walk on the wild side.
By now, of course, tattoos are everywhere, and though far less common on the face, they’ve invaded that portion of the dermis too.
We are told, to be sure, “face tattoos are for bold men,” and I’d say even bolder women.
Why did Melville find them abhorrent while today they are merely “bold”?Fashions change, of course, but this touches something deeper. We have as a culture undergone some profound shifts in our sense of bodily integrity and personal autonomy.
“Transgressive” has gone from a term of condemnation to a way of praising those who defy the stultifying conformity of society.
The trouble is that so-called transgressive styles and ideas are themselves a recipe for conformity, and a pretty stultifying one at that. People tattoo themselves with mental ink far more indelibly than with needles and pigment.
When a cluster of tornadoes recently swept from Arkansas to Kentucky, wreaking havoc and killing dozens, this cerebral tattooing instantly shaped the public response.
As President Joe Biden put it, “All that I know is that the intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet and the climate change.
”President Biden is far from alone in this speculation, but there is no evidence at all that “climate change” had anything to do with this storm, or for that matter with any other severe weather.
“Climate change” is just a mental tattoo — a phrase we invoke with an air of scientific sophistication to give some sense of knowledgeability about the unknowable.
To be sure, weather is inherently chaotic. “Climate” is just a way of talking about relatively durable patterns, but those patterns themselves are also ever-changing.
We’ve talked ourselves into a degree of certainty about the deeply uncertain: the direction, degree, and causes of change that rest not on science, but on supposition, emotional urgency, apocalyptic fantasy, and a great deal of unwarranted extrapolation.
A lot of hardcore physical scientists doubt the whole apparatus of the International Panel of Climate Change and the various worldwide summits that attempt to leverage bad weather into a commitment to undo the Industrial Revolution and to dismantle Western civilization.
Pseudo-certainty is not a good foundation for public policy. Perhaps significant and dangerous global warming exists, but we couldn’t know it from current science.
The evidence in favor of the idea is largely cooked up and gets us nowhere near the conclusion that deadly tornadoes in Kentucky are — in President Biden’s words — “a consequence of the warming of the planet and the climate change.
”Why did he say such a thing?And why are speculations like that the first thing that leap to mind when Americans (among others) attempt to reckon with unusual events?
A certain kind of cultural conformity is in play — not just with weather in Kentucky, but with many issues for which we have resorted to ready-made conceits.
Covidity, structural racism, transgenderism, election integrity, borders — the list is long and as rigidly bound to its established formulations as Big Bird is to the alphabet.