The African Queen

In the African Queen, Bogart is pissed at the missionary lady for pitching his booze overboard, and says it’s only natural for a man to get drunk once in a while. Her classic response: “Nature, Mr. Nutall, is what we are put on this earth to overcome.” There’s a secular truth in theIre – that our whole civilizing nature requires of us that we act consciously moral, and override our “natural” inclinations with wiser behavior. It’s the job of our Prefrontal Cortex, and it’s a job that requires full-time plus overtime! (Robert Sapolsky calls it “doing the harder thing”.)

Tribalism is one of our biggest challenges, but we also come from the factory with an innate ethical sense that helps us to “do the harder thing”. Evolutionary biologists call it reciprocal altruism. I call it the Bronze Rule: Start out treating others kindly, but if they react selfishly, hurt them back if you can; otherwise, just abandon them. (I realize that “hurting them back” is uncivil, but I’m kind of fond of it.)


Mark Twain’s (Sam Clemens’s) experience in Hannibal with racism deserves note: His whole culture, religious and civic, dictated that he should turn in Jim, the slave, to the slave-catchers, but he decided he could not do it.   Huck’s story is not fiction. It is Clemens’s story, and is notable for two things – one that religious moral rules betrayed him, and the other is that it takes unusual character to buck universal approbation. Few can do it. They are made differently. I am one; and I am made differently.

There are two painful stories in my own family. First, when our son was very young, he was mean to another kid at school, simply because the kid was Japanese. My wife was mortified, fearing people in the school figured he was reflecting an attitude from his home. But he became an admirable man – who also became father to a little boy. They recently visited a pet store whose attendant was a dwarf. The little boy was obnoxiously rude to the attendant, which got him in real trouble. My son was mortified, fearing … but you know the rest….





One Response to The African Queen

  1. cathy becker says:

    Love the Jim/Jimmy/grandson story.

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