Trip Reports

Bonfire Of The Inanities (01-Oct-2001-06-30):
6:30 AM local time, Tuesday, October 2nd (2030 Oct. 1st UTC) 09 45 S 142 15 E. Temp. 79, Humidity 84%, Cloud Cover 50%. At anchor at Rennel Island behind the Great Barrier Reef, waiting for the tide and current window to make our attempt throught the Torres Strait.

A while back, before you knew what happened, the Captain promised, in the dispatch entitled "Missionary Impossible," to comment next time on a remark on penis sheathes contributed by one of our readers. The editors held this back for a spell as being too frivolous, but we now pick up where we left off and offer it as part of our ongoing dialogue on matters of consequence. Torres Strait debriefing will follow as soon as we make it through and the Captain has worked on some issues about it with his therapist.

And now on to the discussion, promised in our last dispatch, on penis sheathes and the argument of old friend and reader Bob Riedel that, "A penis sheath is surely little worse than a codpiece, and serves the same purpose." Mr. Riedel is, as we can see, a man of the world, but he is also a man of the cloth, a consequence, no doubt, of his faith and of his sensitivity to profound religious and moral questions like the meaty one we consider hereunder. It is no small matter for the Captain to presume to gainsay a man of his stature, as the Captain himself, since Little League, has sometimes been called but seldom chosen. But if by chance our inquiries lead us towards the unhappy burden of taking exception to his thoughts, for any error the Captain makes in this presentation, he has little doubt that his hubris will receive its proper comeuppance on That Great, Gettin'-Up Mornin'. Pastor Riedel's argument was offered, we believe, in defense of the practice of the peoples of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, and to sound the bell of racial and cultural equality, by showing that penis sheathes, worn by what some would call the primitive (and non-white) inhabitants of distant lands are really of the same category as codpieces, worn the Captain must confess that the good pastor has the advantage on him, as he cannot claim to know who exactly wore or wears codpieces. For the sake of argument, however, let's stipulate that except for Mick Jagger and perhaps the more flamboyant members of the gay community, they were (white) Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries. If Mr. Riedel is to be counted among their number, he will be happy to learn that his secret is safe with the Captain.

We will begin, as we should, by determining what, if any, features of this argument deserve our praise. In this we will not be disappointed, for the form of the argument rests squarely on that most solid of moral principles, the Categorical Imperative. "Act only on that maxim which, by thy will, could be made a universal law," said Kant, or words to that effect. This means that if it's OK for me to do it, it's OK for you to do it.

As the reader surely knows by now, the Captain is no relativist. (Relativism, a boring but popular view with an ancient heritage, cannot actually be practiced for reasons the Captain will forbear explaining here, but be assured he could if he wanted to so consider yourself lucky.) So he believes that if education is good in Kansas, it is good Vanuatu, no matter how or to what extent it may cause villagers there to question the decisions of their chief. If equality before the law is correct in Alabama, it is correct in Fiji, no matter what group got there first. And so on.

The form, therefore, of the argument, the Captain is pleased to conclude, is sound. With the following reservation. As feminists discovered in the seventies, insisting on this principle sometimes may lead to unexpected results. Some women found themselves arguing, for example, that, like men, they should have the right to go bare-chested in public. When at the time the politically correct Captain (who was then just an ensign) heard this, he lost his bearings and wandered in a daze out of the protest march, and was found unconscious with his placard by a wandering group of Picts. If, at any rate, the Categorical Imperative were to force us into the position that we must include women among those people for whom, we find, we endorse the wearing of penis sheathes, some will find this unacceptable, and by reductio ad absurdum find Kant's rule unacceptable as well. Notwithstanding this twinge of reserve, having satisfied ourselves with the form we will briskly move on to the content of our argument. We have established that it is no more wrong for person X to do A than it is for person Y to do A. It remains to be determined whether "A" is really the same in both cases and whether it is, in fact, praiseworthy to do A. The Captain believes that in the former we will find a small difference and in the latter a rather more troubling fallacy.

We will assume that the function of codpieces and penis sheathes is the same, if the form is different, and that function is to advertise the virility of the wearer. Apparently, however, in the case of the Ni Vanuatu, the penis sheath is a tribal advertisement, whereas the codpiece seems to be a purely personal one. Or is it the case that there was a sort of arms race, if you will, in the 15th century between the French and the British in this regard? Whether tribal or personal, this difference may be seen to have little effect on the substance of the issue at hand.

Moving on to the question of whether we should endorse act "A," it will not be necessary to point out to the reader that here we have a clear case of the fallacy of petitio principii. For even if we have established that's it's no worse to wear a penis sheath than a codpiece, we haven't begun the difficult task of determining whether we can indeed recommend "A," i.e., whether it's in general a good idea to wear a codpiece. And so the question is surely begged. To demonstrate, if we say that Pastor Riedel is "surely little worse than" the Captain as a counselor of spiritual verities, we render unto him quite faint praise indeed. If on the other hand, we say that he is "surely little worse than" St. Paul himself, and in addition has--as far as we know--no prison record, we are on the verge, and I think I can say this without offense to the good reverend, of blasphemy. The point is that though we have established their moral equivalence, as long as the question of the advisability of codpieces remains unsettled, in our argument the advisability of penis sheathes remains unsettled.

So, finally, to address this important matter. It is the Captain's view that any person who would denigrate another on the basis of the gifts nature has failed to bestow upon him reveals himself to be an ill- bred boor. But just as surely, to attempt to conceal whatever shortcomings one may believe one has by the use of prosthetic devices is to play directly into this ill-bred person's hands and to confess that his assessment of one's liabilities is a sound one. Moreover, in adopting these appurtenances, whether they be penis sheathes, codpieces, elevator shoes, falsies, or toupees, the wearer inadvertently calls attention to the very inadequacy he or she wishes to conceal. Further, there is a touch of dishonesty as one represents oneself, even to one's friends, as someone other than who one is. It is far more effective, in the Captain's view, to learn an honest trick or two to distract the intended audience from the alleged lack. It might be drawing funny pictures around one's belly button, wearing one of those amusing balloon hats, or becoming a drummer, songwriter, or sailor. The Captain believes it is a far better thing to be pilloried for deeds one has accomplished through his own pluck and daring, than ridiculed for the feckless and sometimes cruel accidents of nature.

But without question the most damning problem here is that attempting to appear more virile, or larger, or bustier, or more hirsute than one by nature is, is clearly an act of vanity. And vanity, as Pastor Riedel knows very well, is one of the seven deadly sins. The reader is referred to the Summa Theologica, wherein St. Thomas gives the subject the thoroughgoing treatment we would expect, for further details. (The Captain is sorry he cannot verify the exact status of vanity in the hierarchy of sins according to Aquinas, although he believes it to be number one. Alas, he had to hock his copy of the Summa a few years back to raise funds for hairstyling and a manicure.) Now, the Captain certainly does not presume to know more about sin than the professional, and here he is most willing to yield to the superior expertise of Reverend Riedel. But surely he would admit that, if the Captain is correct and vanity is indeed the motive behind codpieces and penis sheathes alike, then right-thinking people everywhere will shun them both and seek the high ground of moral sanctity found comfortably, and at reasonable prices, in standard underwear.

Or, to take another tack entirely, if we accept, as is taught in Ecclesiastes, that "all is vanity," it follows that no particular vanity is any worse than any other insofar as its being vanity is concerned, be it sailing the wide ocean, wearing a penis sheath, or delivering the Sunday sermon. So on these grounds the pastor's point stands. It apparently depends on what the meaning of "is" is, and there's the rub; but the Captain will save that discussion for another day.

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