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Sex and The Commons I: The Erosion of the Common Good




I taught college for most of four decades, and it just seems to me that these sentiments have become alien to citizens of a nation for whom identity politics has trumped any motivation for the common good. I have no doubt but that this is the result of many factors, including information overload, increasing levels of anxiety, social fragmentation, an endemic loneliness and separation reflected in our precipitously increasing tendency to live alone, and to our sadly disembodied world of electronic entertainment and communication. Yes, one of the symptoms of this is the sexual recession documented by Katie Julie in her article in the December 2018 issue of the Atlantic. What I want to explore is the sad likelihood that difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimate bodily relationships, and from them the personal autonomy necessary for stepping beyond oneself to an increasingly diverse social world, are precisely what is behind the erosion of the common good.


They say the Blues had a baby, and its name was Rock & Roll. But however universal the Blues, which Son House once famously defined as “you love someone and they don’t love you back,” they are rooted in racial experiences of oppression going all the way back to slavery, and to more than a hundred years of social and political strife. A one-time international student of mine, now a friend for over a decade, was trying to translate several Blues songs, mainly ones sung by women, for contemporary Spain. It wasn’t Alberta Hunter’s version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” or Etta James’ powerful paean to womanhood “W-O-M-A-N,” but Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” that produced the most difficulty for cross-cultural translation, rooted as it is in the history of civil rights in mid-twentieth century America. “Mississippi Goddam” became an anthem of the civil rights movement, which Simone sang at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King. Here’s a few stanzas:

Hound dogs on my trail

School children sitting in jail

Black cat cross my path

I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy o this land of mine

We all gonna get it done in due time

I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there

I even stopped believing in prayer

Just try to do your best

Stand up be counted with all the rest

For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

I recently watched All the Way, an HBO biographical drama powerfully evoking the era, with Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) playing Lyndon Baines Johnson, succeeding Kennedy after his assassination, wheeled and dealed on both sides of the aisle to see that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 got passed. Having learned to hate Johnson during the escal