Boogie with the Boogieman

(This particular diatribe -- originally one of my many literary digressions -- I have borrowed from my short story Adventures in a Skinner Box, which appeared in The Boehr Quarterly.)



It is to the English, who for centuries have been far too civilized to quiescently endure the petty problems of raising children, that we owe the legend of the Bogeyman. Though it may be difficult for us out here in the hinterlands to believe, not all English families can afford the luxuries of nannies to nurture, and public boarding schools to warehouse, their progeny. Some of them are forced by financial circumstances to actually wipe their own children’s noses and change their soiled linen. These unfortunate folk would welcome any artifice that would ease the odious burdens of parenthood. So, if the Bogeyman hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to silence noisy children and to set them properly on the path to righteousness.

The Bogeyman is not, contrary to the general assumption, an English invention; it is merely a clever adaptation of an already existing phenomenon. We are all familiar with the English penchant for ordering the world according to ethnic differences: the Englishman, at the summit of course, followed in descending order by the Scotsman, the Frenchman, the Irishman, the Chinaman and so forth down through the diverse family of man – and, at the very bottom, the Bogeyman.

Early English sailors exploring Indonesian waters often encountered, with ample repugnance and considerable trepidation, an enterprising people called the Bugis – a nation of loosely organized warrior tribes. Many of these Bugis had been driven from their homes during the reign of a particularly brutal prince, and, being excellent sailors and ferocious fighters, they naturally gravitated (and remain dedicated to this very day) to the comparatively lucrative profession of piracy. Moreover, they had flaunted their barbarity by siding with the Dutchmen over the English in their competition to divide the world between them.

Of course England, herself, has never been burdened with an unseemly absence of pirates among its citizenry; most of her oldest and noblest families owe their eminence to one or more of their forbears who flew the Jolly Roger. But, as civilized men, they have always had the good grace to decry the practice and to deny any taint of ancestral brigandry in their own blood lines.

In the mind of the civilized man, piracy has always been, by its very nature, among the most despicable of crimes. The size of the small wooden vessels in which they plied their trade necessarily limited the number of men in a pirate crew, and this unfortunate limitation dictated the class of citizens upon whom they preyed. Although the bulk of the wealth of any nation consists of the corn and livestock and other commodities with which, by the sweat of its peasantry, it has been blessed, this wealth is thinly distributed across the breadth of the land. It requires an efficient and well organized societal structure to properly plunder such bootie. A few men in a small boat in the middle of an endless sea would find it difficult to sustain a decent livelihood pursuing the occasional pocketful of rye to be found among the common folk. They must, of necessity, seek more concentrated riches: the gold and jewels to be found only in the possession of the most worthy of citizens – the well-to-do. And this, dear friends, will always be most vigorously discouraged.

It has been, perhaps even more than his fear of hanging, his English sense of propriety that has led many an errant mariner to forego his evil ways and retire to the luxurious life of the landed gentleman, and, on an estate purchased with his ill-gotten riches and with the full blessing of his peers among the gentry, to legally, morally and above all most courteously pick the pockets of the local peasantry.

The Bugis, being a savage and untutored race, have no such sense of decency. Not only do they remain unrepentant of their monstrous crimes, they seem to take some perverted pride in the enterprise, and they encourage their children to continue in the shameful family practice of piracy. It is certainly no wonder then, that in good English and American homes, it is the Bogeyman – and not the Scotsman – whom we invoke in order to inspire respect and piety in our offspring.