So it’s Tuesday, and it’s tax day, so I’m sort of floaty and distracted, the way I get when I have important things to do and don’t feel confident doing them.
I get into that state fairly often, because I don’t really feel all that competent to do much of anything.
But this is a head’s up, just so you know that although this post has a point, it may come through a little sideways.
Lately I’ve been reading this book called The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson.
This was advertised as a history of the ways in which people have tried to reconstruct their lives after their loss of faith. And as an idea, I think this is not a bad one.
The history of Western attempts to replace religion with something is longer than we usually remember, and contains a lot of twists and turns that seem impossible now.
I haven’t got all that far into this book yet, and I don’t want to make some grand pronouncement on it before I finish.
But reading what I have so far keeps bumping me up against a wall that may be a matter of temperament and may be a matter of education, but I can’t tell.
First, let me say that I am not usually aware of how much the rejection of religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of an equally passionate rejection of science.
The New Atheists today spend a lot of their time declaring their undying commitment to Reason and Science, but their counterparts in the first wave of Death of God thinking seem to have spent a lot of their time being really very silly.
This was especially true of the time between the two world wars, where you have men and women draped in togas and scarves wandering around the Swiss countryside doing interpretive dance because–actually, I never was quite able to figure out the because.
Everybody was passionately concerned with “wholeness,” because they felt their lives had been “fragmented” by industrialization, or something, or–what the hell.
This is a kind of talk I have heard before, but I have to admit I’ve never understood it. My life has never felt particularly fragmented, and I don’t think it’s because I’m some superior intellectual being.
The idea of being fragmented seems incoherent to me.
I have somewhat the same problem with the term “alienation,” meaning to not like your job, or feel like you’d rather be anywhere else. I do in fact experience those last two things, but they don’t seem like some cosmic state so much as an ordinary part of life.
Of course sometimes we hate our jobs, and sometimes we need to do things to eat that we’d rather not do. Welcome to reality.
But very soon after the proto-hippies leaping through the Swiss air to express their solidarity with nature, or whatever the hell, we get to the period between the two world wars, and there to the idea that Art would be a substitute for religion.
Some of you are about to point out that Matthew Arnold tried this on decades before Verdun, but Arnold’s idea of substituting Art for God was considerably more organized than what happened with Isadora Duncan, the Dadists, Bernard Shaw and the rest of them.
This is art should substitute for religion by being an experience. We will become “whole” through self-expression. We will find Joy and Meaning and Wholeness (always Wholeness) and I don’t know what else.
You get a lot of the same kind of language in the work of people like John Dewey and other luminaries of the early “religious humanist” movement.
Hell, you get a lot of the same kind of language now, whenever one of the New Atheists or The American Humanist Association or the Secular Humanism people puts out a statement about how to live without religion.
Joy! Wonder! Creativity! Awe! Sometimes it’s feeling part of the fullness of the natural world.
I never have any idea what any of this stuff means, or even what it is supposed to mean.
If people tell me they have personally experienced something, I will usually give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling me the truth, or at least what they perceive as the truth.
But this sort of language connects to nothing I understand.
Add to that this insistance of this writer on the importance of art people at large during this period–the insistance that interpretive dance, Expressionist art, avant garde literature and all the rest of it profoundly changed the way everybody thought and felt, and I’m just left speechless.
In the first place, I don’t believe that there was ever a time when the ordinary run of people was taking its identity or philosophy from avant garde anything.
While intellectuals were installing urinals in museum shows and railing against the alienation of capitalist rationalism, ordinary people were spending their time in the movies.
If they were using art to try to construct new identities at all, they were basing them on The Perils of Pauline, not the logical impracticalities of Djuna Barnes.
I don’t think art functions this way, for anybody, and I don’t think it ever has.
Whoever it was–Louis B. Mayer? Sam Goldwyn?–was on to something when he said that if you want to send a message, you should call Western Union.
Certainly art of all kinds sends messages, whether we want it to or not, but it almost never sends them effectively when it’s being done on purpose.
We learn things from novels and plays and movies and television and music and poetry, but almost never the billboarded intention even if there is one.
I become aware every once in a while that this kind of thinking about art is still alive in certain places and among certain people. There are a number of art groups and individuals out there who “use dance to express…” whatever.
I have never understood what such people think they’re going to accomplish, because staging an interpretive dance about racism in Harlem is likely to attract mostly the population of Morningside Heights. The actualy Harlem people will all be off somewhere listening to hip-hop.
Maybe it’s that I think that what these people are trying to express is inherently false–that life is not what they want it to be, and that on some level they know it.
I feel the same way when humanist groups start going on about Wonder and Awe and Joy and…whatever.
The words are coming out of their mouths, but they don’t seem to connect to anything that actually exists in reality. They’re sounds without meaning, fill-in words meant to pretend to content but not actually to have it.
I end up wondering why people feel the need to talk like this, what it is that they perceive that I don’t.
Because, really, my idea of the Meaning of Life is a Monty Python movie.
So, here’s the thing.
I actually tried to check out that story before I posted it yesterday–the one on Creationists in Oklahoma responding to the airing of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.
I checked it out on Snopes.com, which had nothing on it. And I found the same story a couple of other places.
In the end, though, I bought it for the reason most of us buy hoaxes–because it sounded completely plausible to me, and because I’d been expecting something like it since the show first began to air.
On the other hand, I really should have known better.
Unlike a lot of the other people on the net who have the vapors over Creationism, I’ve read a lot of actual Creationist material.
And what should have made it screamingly obvious that this story was false was—the spelling.
So let me backtrack a bit here and see if I can work this out.
1) The most important factor in my falling for it was the fact that I was expecting something like it, and the something like it had not been showing up.
Let me start by saying that I like the new Cosmos series quite a bit, even though it’s pitched to a child’s intellectual and instructional level, which sometimes makes me a little nuts.
But the series is both clear and engaging, and its quirks–some of the emphases (see Giordano Bruno, who gets LONG stretches in episode 2) are a little off-kilter. But by and large, a good introduction to the history of science, at least so far.
It is also uncompromisingly secular, and uncompromisingly critical of the role of religion in retarding the progress of science over the centuries.
It is not, however, inaccurate about the role of religion in the progress of science–it acknowledges the places where the Church actually aided the progress of science and it manages to at least mention the fact that Galileo’s problems were largely the result of his political activities rather than his science.
In spite of all that, I have been suspecting, for some time, that there would be complaints.
This isn’t a New Atheist diatribe, but it is, as I said, steadfastly secular. It doesn’t pull its punches on things like evolution and the age of the universe. It doesn’t say that everybody’s “way of knowing” is just as good as anybody else’s. In fact, it’s quite clear on the idea that some “ways of knowing” are a LOT better than others.
So I was, as I said, expecting some blowback, and when I saw this thing, my brain went: ah, finally.
But I still should have known better, because there’s a big giveaway here that anybody who has ever read Creationist literature should pick up right away.
Which gets me to
2) I know people who really are like this. I have them in my family. They roam the landscape like addled lemmings just asking to be an example of evolution in action.
What these people are not is part of the organized Creationist movement.
Anybody who has spent any time reading Creationist literature, or who has gone to Ken Ham’s Creationist Museum, or has even looked into the writing of people in the Christian school and homeschool movements will notice one thing right away.
These people spell better than the rest of us, and their grammar tends to also be much more strictly correct.
That’s because the curricula for Christian schools and homeschools put a lot of emphasis on basics like grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Even when the ideas are migraine-inducing, the presentation tends to be very good indeed.
If Creationists actually spoke and wrote as the people in that article did, they’d have no credibility beyond their very small circle.
Instead, these people do have credibility with a lot of their fellow citizens who don’t actually know much about science, but see there is a controversy and try to be fair to both sides.
In fact, to the extent that Creationism has had any success at all in this country, it is due not to true Bible believing Christians who want their point of view represented in public schools, but on the non believers around them who read their material, see that it’s well put together, and decide that the fair thing to do is to represent all sides instead of just one.
And yes, of course, I know that this is not the kind of case where the “fairness” approach makes any sense, but we are never going to get out from under the fact that the fairness approach is deeply and probably ineradicably American.
And in spite of cases like this, where it shouldn’t really apply, that’s not a bad trait for a people to have.
3) My falling for this reminds me of something I’ve brought up on this blog before–the tendency of major news outlets and university administrations to fall for fake “hate crimes.”
If you take some time and look around on the web, you’ll find that there have been a remarkable number of these things over time, starting with the Brawley case and coming right on down to just about now, with students caught red-handed spraying racist grafitti on their own dorm room doors and sending themselves racist or rapist e mails.
The one that’s stuck with me over the years had to do with a university professor in, I think, Wisconsin, who faked a redneck pick-up truck stalking incident in the days after he’d published an anti-religious letter to the editor in the local paper.
I don’t know what these poeple think is going on, but my first advice to any of them would be to note that the police are a lot smarter than hoaxers ever think they are.
But the bottom line is that we all think we know how the world works, and we’re all subject to confirmation bias in all its myriad forms.
That’s why we all find ourselves believing things we want to be true.
4) I was asked, in e mail, whether, when I said I wanted local communities to make their own decisions about the curriula in their local schools, I’d include local communities like the one invented in this article.
And my answer, as always, is yes.
Self government does not promise that people will always make the wise choice, or the best choice, or even the choice most in line with reality.
It only says that self government is the great moral obligation we owe to our fellow men and women.
I’ve got to go work out things with student papers.
And then there’s this
because the issue is not which side is bringing the stupid, but the attempts by the stupid to shut other people up.
So, it’s Sunday, and up until a little while ago I had Gustav Leonhardt playing Well Tempered Clavier 2 behind me. I have that on a two disc set and the first disc is finished, but I can’t seem to get myself out of the office and over to the CD player to change out.
It’s a clammy, half-rainy morning and there is no wildlife outside my office windows. I’ve got a chicken for Sunday dinner and I’m about a third of the way through watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the FOD.
That’s the kind of thing I do in the late afternoons when I’m too tired to write intelligbly or even read intelligibly. I admit I tend to take about three months to get through a series of any length, and sometimes I just get sick of it and stop.
This afternoon I am unlikely to have any time for Star Trek, and I’m equally unlikely to have any time for the book I’m reading, which is a study of how philosophers and others have responded over the decades to the idea of the death of God.
That sound absolutely awful, I know, but it’s actually very interesting, and I’ve even started to develop theories about the entire phenomenon. Maybe I’ll get to it in a later post.
It’s the Sunday dinner thing that’s on my mind this morning.
Sunday dinner was not a ritual in the family in which I was brought up. We were definitely the kind of family that had dinner together or quasi-together every night–quasi-together because my father was the kind of attorney who worked 80 hour weeks, so that he was often not at home and dinner was attended by my brother, my mother and myself.
Sometimes my mother would get sick of it and just set the two of us children up in front of the television set with television trays, so we were sometimes harbingers of a future not yet in sight.
Sunday dinner became important to me after Bill died, because it ended up being the way I convinced myself that Matt and Greg and I were going to remain a family in spite of our fourth part no longer being with us.
In the early years, this was, for me, a very frantic thing. It was not just a matter of grief, although I had plenty of that. It wasn’t even a matter of the fallout from one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life: having my mother come to stay with me after the funeral.
You have to understand that it wasn’t just a matter of my mother and I not getting along–saying we didn’t get along is a whale of an understatement. The woman hated me, and told me about it, starting when I was about 5 years old, although she would never have put it in exactly those words.
Let’s just say I was an enormous disappointment to her, not at all the kind of daughter she wanted, and far too much like the girls she hated all through school and later. She wanted a frilly girly girl who liked dolls and clothes and celebrity gossip. She got a passionate bluestocking who wanted books and a PhD.
I knew about PhDs early. I read a children’s biography of Marie Curie and never looked back.
Of course, I never would have read that biography on my own. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was adamantly opposed to reading “children’s books” of any kind. The entire idea of “children’s books” seemed to me to be an insult–the adults were telling me I was too stupid to read real books.
I read the Marie Curie biography because my teacher insisted that I use it for a book report. She was adamantly opposed to all the books I suggested, some of which–like Anna Karenina–were a little above my comprehension level.
My original idea, after Bill died, was that my mother should come and stay with me for a year. I think I was afraid of being alone, of the silence in the house where Bill used to be, even when he was out.
Whatever I was thinking didn’t matter all that much, I suppose, beyond the fact that it really was a very bad idea. I had forgotten how much acrimony there was between us, and how fast it all went bad when it started to go bad.
She ended up staying until Christmas, when my father came up from Florida to visit. She went back with him. And I was relieved.
Relieved or not, though, I was back in the same place I had been when Bill was first dead, and that was stuck in a situation that felt as if it had no coherence at all.
Genesis says that before the creation, the world was without form and void–and that was my life in those early months. Oddly enough, all the fighting my mother and I had done had actually helped keep the void at bay. Now it was here, and I couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do with it.
What I ended up doing about it was Sunday dinner. Every week I would go to work cooking something elaborate that we would all sit down and eat together.
I like to cook, and always have, but these weren’t that kind of elaborate dinners. I had two small children in the house, and their tastes ran to double quarter pounders with cheese.
During that exact period of time for no reason I know of, the local IGA ran sales on turkey breasts nearly every week, and nearly every week I’d buy one and make rice pilaf and corn and have cranberry sauce.
Turkey is not so much a holiday-only food as it was in my childhood, but it still felt as if I were doing something Very Special, and the predictable Very Specialness of it calmed me down.
Calming myself down was the thing I needed most. If I didn’t do that, I couldn’t function.
What interests me at the moment, though, is that I still have the need to do Sunday dinner each and every Sunday.
We’re no longer coming apart. We have demonstrated that we will be together and a family as long as we live. My life may still smash up and come to nothing on a lot of different levels, but the family level is not going to be one of them. We survived, intact, as Us.
But here, you see, is the obvious question–if we have survied, intact, as Us, why is the whole Sunday dinner thing such a compelling drive in me, every week, without fail?
Why am I upset and off balance for days afterward if we don’t do it? If there’s something else we have to do on Sunday, I stage Sunday dinner on Monday. If I can’t do even that for some reason, I’m in a bad mood until Sunday comes around again.
And nothing else, no matter what happens, makes me feel better about it.
I am always very aware that the way I am feeling makes no sense–but there it is, and it won’t go away.
Today, I am enormously calmer than I would be otherwise because I know that, barring some catastrophe, the chicken goes in the oven at three and the vegetables for the pilaf get chopped into pieces at 5:45.
Maybe my children have a point, and I’m crazy.
I’ve been looking at the comments from yesterday, and I find them very interesting. I seem to have confused two different attempts at railroad building in 19th Century America. I’ll try to be more careful as I go on.
But the really interesting thing is the statement that “absolute property rights” would have resulted in there being no Paganini.
In the first place, it’s important to note that I said NOTHING about “absolute property rights.”
In fact, most of what I was talking about had nothing to do with property rights at all, unless you’re using the Lockean formulation that the origin of property rights is that every man owns first and foremost himself.
It’s not that I don’t think that property rights are important. They are very important, and they are more important for the poor and disenfranchised than they could ever be to the rich and powerful.
Running on about “absolute property rights” is a straw man argument. No one denies that there are times and circumstances when there needs to be a public project for the long term advantage of the country or the city or the county or the town–the building of dams, the building of roads, all kinds of things.
The trick is to frame the policy of what we now call “eminent domain” to make sure that the use of it is a) restricted to absolute necessity and b) restricted to actually public projects and c) not available for use by the government to deprive some people of their property in order to enrich other private parties.
In other words, I think the Interstate highway system is defensible. I think the Kelo decision is not. Kelo, by the way, is a great example of why property rights should be closer to absolute than they now are. And you’ll notice that the majority decision that gave New London the right to through Kelo et al out of their homes was a result of the legal philosophies of the justices that call themselves liberals. The conservatives were all on the side of the homeowner.
But on top of that, none of what I said even implies that civilization COULD NOT advance without the use of coercion. I don’t think it’s possible to know.
I DO think, however, that if the only way we could get Paganini would be to make people suffer through slavery and oppression, then I’d be happy to give up Paganini. That’s no choice at all. I am not George Steiner. Art, no matter how great, is no excuse for millions of people living in misery.
There is nothing to say that civilization would not have developed anyway, although more slowly. And there is a lot to say that every country that has increased properity and comfort for the majority of its citizens has done so through respect their individual natural rights as human beings.
Democracy may or may not produce great art–personally, I think it can do that, too, Steiner notwithstanding–but what it definitely does do is give us “relative” poverty instead of the absolute kind, so that conservatives can be driven crazy by poor people with cell phones and air conditioning and plasma TVs, and liberals can insist that none of that matters because you can have all that and be poor anyway.
What I was actually talking about, though, was not the property problem, but something else: the extent to which the state should be allowed to interfere in the private decisions of private people about their private lives.
The democratic revolution–English version–says that each human being is an end to himself and may not be used as the means to the ends of others. It says that government power must be tightly restricted in order to make interference in such things as rare as possible, and even then only when there is an overwhelming need to get a job done.
There is no question that sometimes, such overwhelming need actually exists. The institution of laws forbidding dumping human waste in the streets of growing cities was definitely one of them.
And sometimes such laws are legitimate in some places but not in others–that NYC requires its citizens to have professional garbage service makes sense; in a small rural town with only a couple of thousand people, letting people make their own arrangements (even taking their own garbage to the dump by themselves) also makes sense.
The issue is to what extent must governments treat their citizens AS citizens and AS human beings, rather than a fodder (cannon and otherwise) for “the public good.”
The problem begins with the very phrase meant to defend the practice: who is the public? what constitutes their good? who gets to decide that? And the problem gets more acute when you look at the fact–and it is a fact–that most declarations of the public good have not been good for the public or even for the elite forces that imposed them.
Both left and right want to engage in cultural coercion. They see the wrong of it in some cases and not in others.
The left waxes indignant about such practices as forcing Native American children into boarding schools to be trained out of their own culture and into the white majority’s. They reject–as “cultural imperialism” and virtually without condition–any suggestion that African American children should be trained out of their colloquial speech and customary cultural habits.
At the same time, they have no trouble with imposing mandatory national curricula on private as well as public schools, with an eye to ending fundamentalist Christian teaching against evolution.
In the meantime, the right will fight for the rights of fundamentalist Christians to raise their children their way (including teaching creationism), but often vigorously support imposing cultural mandates about things like Ebonics and teen aged sex.
The list of topics about which each side is convinced that allowing people to make their own decisions will bring on the apocalypse is very long, and each side, once in power, resorts to coercion first rather than last.
And that is, as I’ve pointed out, been the truth throughout history.
But it’s also the truth that it is only when governments began to retreat from that posture that we begin to see nations with near universal prosperity, nations where even poor people are richer than rich people have been throughout the centuries.
And it’s even more so the truth that all those projects for “the public good” MOST often brought no good to the public and lead to nothing but more efficient forms of oppression and pain for the vast majority of the populations they’d been foisted on.
The Mayans didn’t produce a Paganini either.
Yesterday, in the comments, Robert brought up the building of the intercontinental railroad system in the US as a counterexample to things like the Sui building of the Grand Canal–but that’s not a very good example, because it, too, depended heavily on coercion.
The owners of railroads may have hired voluntary workers to do their building instead of pressing unwilling conscripts into service whether those conscripts wanted to work or not, but the system could not have been successfully built if the US government hadn’t been willing to confiscate large tracts of land from very unwilling farmers.
And something similar happened when we built the interstate highway system.
All such large scale projects seem to require a certain amount of coercion, if only because it only takes a single hold out somewhere to bring the entire thing down.
I am not saying that this is a good thing, only that, as a matter of historical record, it is a fact.
Democracy–or at least, the 18th century English-Englightenment version of democracy–did not end this practice entirely, although it definitely slowed it up some.
But only some.
The English Enlightenment began with the premise that in a just society, all citizens are assumed to be able to handle their own affairs by themselves and without the “protection” of an aristocracy, and to run their own governments without such protection.
“All men are created equal” may have been defined restrictively in 1776, but it still created the expectation that the lives of ordinary people were supposed to count and to be under their own control, rather than being fodder for whatever the elites wanted to do next.
And the elites always had something they wanted to do next, even though those elites kept changing and their projects kept changing with them.
An awful lot of what elites want is self-serving, even if it is necessarily (in a democratic society) presented as “for your own good.”
Elites are always interested in expanding their own power, and they’re always helped along by people who desperately want to be “safe.” It never ceases to shock me how many people are afraid of living–of risk at any level, of the possibility that their fellow citizens will run amok and do damage, at the possibility (and it is always a possibility) that bad luck may happen and sweep away everything they have.
But to say this is not to say that elites are always wrong in what they want to do.
The public health drives that resulted in cleaning up city streets and making sewer systems both available and effective did more to reduce mortality than antibiotics. Mass vaccinations made polio so rare my sons had only heard of it because it appeared in a Superman comic from the 1930s. The Interstate highway system is one of the wonders of the world.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to say that elite projects are always the right ones, or that they always do more good than harm.
And I think, if you took a survey, you’d probably find that most of them do more harm than good, in the long run as well as the short.
What’s more, they tend to erode the principle of self government. They do this by giving the impression–not only to elites, but to their fellow travelers–that the ordinary citizen is too stupid to know his own good, and therefore should not be allowed to define it for himself.
And once you get started in that direction, there’s a veritable stampede to the position of changing the status of people from citizens to children. Or, as often in the present day US, patients.
The problem with elite projects and the will to impose them coercively takes two forms.
The first is the obvious one: most elite projects that demand the ability to coerce are bad ones, wrong in fact and assumptions. We tend to get amnesia about the wave after wave of “expert opinion” that has flowed over us and then turned out to be absolutely and often harmfully wrong.
The second is that they almost always create an institutionalized presence that is virtually impossible to dislodge even once the projects are proven wrong, or once they become out of date.
None of this, of course, gets out from under the possibility that something may come along that legitimately requires such a project.
The people who concern themselves with climate change would definitely say that climate change is one of these things. I don’t support them for reasons I outlined a few posts ago.
But the fact is, it is entirely possible that under a government that strictly observed the individual natural rights of its citizens, NO such projects could be carried out, no matter what good they did and no matter how the good would outweigh the bad.
It is also entirely possible that a government that did so observe the individual natural rights of its citizens is only viable once a certain level of progress has already been made–that, in conditions of less technical and infrastructure development, say, such a government would get in its own way and leave its citizens technically free but practially miserable.
The usual way around this is to declare that some practice–not vaccinating your children, or homeschooling them, or whatever–causes “harm,” with “harm” being defined as broadly and flexibly as possible.
And sometimes it entails simply lying. A lot of people who claim to base their opinions and priorities on “science” buy into math so creative it lets them claim that “second hand smoke” and (now) even “third hand smoke” is “just as damaging” as smoking itself.
I just love the kind of contortions they get themselves into with e cigarettes.
And, of course, mostly we just get a resurgent of the same old argument that people do not know what is good for them, but somebody else does.
In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, I don’t really know. It just occurred to me how consistent this has been–that progress, real progress, almost never seems to be entirely voluntary.
But I am still me, and I’d rather see the end of large scale progress than allow government to coerce its citizens and treat them like children, so there’s that.
I’m going to go do some more work and play Paganini while I do it.
So it is Sunday, and I have had what I think of as a very good Sunday morning: Mozart’s 40 and 41 (the Jupiter), and a great big book.
I’ve also had that thing I wanted to talk about last week–remember the Sui dynasty and the Grand Canal?–and I came up with a connection I hadn’t thought of before.
So let me start with the connection, and go from there.
There is a short story out there called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin.
I know this short story because it was included among the readings in a book we used for several years for teaching composition. That book had almost no fiction of any kind, so any fiction that was included in it was noticeable just for being there.
The little biographical sketch of LeGuin called her a science fiction writer, and after I’d used the story a couple of times I saw her referred to that way again in several other places.
I have no idea whether science fiction writers and fans would agree with that assessment, and I’ll leave it to you.
It’s the story I was to talk about and the way it connects with the Grand Canal, and Athens in the time of Socrates and and company.
The story is relatively simple: there is a country that is the most wonderful place to live. Its citizens are happy and prosperous and content. No other place anywhere affords its citizens greater freedom, greater prosperity, greater spiritual satisfaction.
If you are born a citizen of Omelas, you need to do only one thing to keep that citizenship. In your early adolescence, you must be taken down to a deep place. There, you will find a small child in excruciating pain and misery, with no hope of ever escaping his fate.
You will be informed that the great happiness and prosperity of the citizens of Omelas depends on the misery of this child. If Omelas is to continue in happiness and prosperity, then this child and others like him to come must hurt, day after day, year after year, without any hope of release, until he dies.
Most of the citizens of Omelas who see this spectacle go back to their everyday lives and think nothing more about it. If this is the price of their happiness, then it is. And since they have no intention of giving that up, there’s no more to be said about it.
Every once in a while, though, there is someone who will not accept this state of affairs, who refuses to be happy and prosperous at the cost of this pain.
Those are the people who walk away from Omelas, who leave and take their chances in the harsher world outside.
This story used to annoy me a little when I was teaching it, because the symbolism was so hamfisted, and because I suspected that the writer was doing an anti-Capitalism rag. Knowing what I know now about Le Guin’s politics, I’d expect this was true.
But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, and something keeps coming up.
It is remarkable how often civilization everywhere–not just in the West, but everywhere–is a story of Omelas.
Which is how we get to the Grand Canal. In China.
Somewhere in the late sixth to early seventh century, the emperor Sui Wendi had constructed what was called the Grand Canal, which was actually a series of canals connecting two rivers in the middle of the Sui territory.
This construction brought many benefits to the Sui empire–greater agricultural production, more efficient trade routes between parts of the empire. I could go on at length.
The only problem was that the Grand Canal could only be constructed by coercion. Sui Wendi drafted tens of thousands of ordinary people into the construction. Working conditions were brutal and mortality was very high. Many thousands of people died and even more were broken in health by the time they were released from their sentence in the project.
For the many millions more who were not drafted into the project, though, life was demonstrably better.
And what’s more, life was also demonstrably better for their descendants, and for the descendants of the people who had died or been broken in the project, too.
And Sui Wendi was hardly alone. You can find similar stories concerning kings in the South Asian peninsula, about the pre-Conquest (and post-Conquest, for that matter) South American civilizations, about…just about anybody.
Even the Greek city-states had their versions. Athens, most notoriously, was only able to have a golden age because the wealth of the city was being hewed out of silver mines by a slave class that was whipped and starved and who died by the score to bring the metal out of the ground.
Civilization is spread by conquest, and it’s also spread by coercion.
All the time.
We have, of course, come to a place where we find such conquest and conversion unacceptable, and where brutality on that scale is rarely necessary.
But the question remains that we only got to this place–where such brutality is rarely necessary for progress to happen–because when it was necessary, rulers decided to go ahead with the coercion.
These days, people are less informed than the people of Omelas. They don’t worry about their own complicity in a history of conquest and coercion because they largely don’t know about it.
For them, conquest and coercion started with “capitalism,” and only continues because capitalism continues.
And in the cases where they are happy to apply coercion, the coercion is of a kind that seems so different they think it ought to be classed entirely separately from Sui Wendi’s drafting farmers or Athens brutalizing its slaves in the silver mines.
Most of them know nothing at all about the human costs of five year plans or great leap forwards.
But that’s something else, isn’t it–sometimes conquest and coercion brings tangible benefits, and sometimes it’s just wrongheaded, and all that carnage is for nothing.
But I think I’ll leave that, and the kind of coercion that is requiring all children to attend school whether their parents want it or not, and other things like that, to another day.
I’m making a pile of Greek food for dinner.
Before I get started on this short note, I want to point out one thing–I don’t moderate this blog.
But although I don’t moderate it, the program does, and what the program seems to especially dislike is links.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t post links. Links can be useful and informative, and the program doesn’t actually hate all of them.
I’m just saying that if you find your comment in “moderation,” what’s happening is the program is refusing to let you post until I check out your links, which I do eventually. It can just take a little time, especially since we’re not all on the same time schedule, never mind time zone.
That having been said–the scare quotes around the word “science” above are deliberate.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been burned too many times by social “science” “studies” that turn out to be anything but science–so much so, in fact, that I tend to hold them guilty of fudging until proven innocent.
Too much of what calls itself “social science” consists of starting with conclusions and picking and choosing the supposed “evidence” to make them look like they’re supported.
Even the “studies” that are honestly done too often emply inadequate protocols, unrepresentative samples, flawed methodologies (see self-reports), and correlations presented as causation in whatever direction the researcher wants them to go.
This doesn’t mean I won’t read the studies if you post them. I will, once I’ve got a little time to see if I can look into them and find the research design and other information I need to know if what they’re saying is worth paying attention to.
I’m especially hinky about studies purporting to show the effectives of Idea A in a country other than my own, because countries are very different in a lot of different ways.
Okay, that was a horrible sentence.
But you know what I mean. Countries and populations have temperaments just like people do, and what will work for largely monocultural Scandanavia may not work so well in very multicultural Brooklyn.
Hell, what works well in one monocultural society may work badly in another monocultural society.
I get especially annoyed at three things:
1) the tendency of lots of these studies to use college students as their research population, as if there is no significant difference between an Art History major at William and Mary and a coal miner in Appalachia.
2) the tendency of lots of these studies to use self reports, which seem to me obviously completely worthless. People say lots of things. They may or may not be telling the truth.
3) the tendency to use correlation as causation in the direction the researchers want it to go. It may be the case that having guns in an area makes that area more violent. But it may also be the case that in more violent areas, more people want to have guns.
I wish at least one of these gun studies would acknowledge the time factors involved–if you have one school shooting every 15 years, the fact that you don’t have any school shootings in the five years after you passed your gun laws doesn’t mean your gun laws have had any effect on school shootings.
And I would point out something else–if the old assault weapons ban had been in place at the time of the Newtown shooting, it would have done NOTHING to prevent it. None of the guns Lanza used were covered by that law, and none of them were covered by the far stricter Connecticut gun laws that WERE in place at the time of the massacre.
Then, of course, we get to the “mental health” thing, which, in a world where virtually everything is labeled a “disorder,” suggests a vast expansion of government power on a par with–well, lots of places you wouldn’t like to live.
But even on “mental health” grounds, nothing Lanza had ever been suspected of having would have predicted his violence, and none of it would have prevented him from buying a gun if he wanted to.
Unless we’re going to start depriving people of their rights and their status as citizens because they’re subject to “anxiety” or “depression”–which I’d fight to my last breath–we’re not getting anywhere in that direction either.
So I’ll stick to my conclusions in the last post, and go check out Michael’s links.
I’ve been having a long and stressful week. First, and most important, the copyedited manuscript of the new Gregor, called Fighting Chance, was due in yesterday. In order to get it done, I had to spend a lot of time with papers strewn out over the living room in little stacks with Post It notes on them. The Post It notes were mine. I was trying to keep track of two different sets of questions.
The other thing was the fall out from midterm grades, which were posted where students could see them just as we started back up from spring break. There was a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.
In the midst of all that, I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a post about the Sui dynasty in China and the building of the Grand Canal, but just as I thought I was in a place where that was possible, the second Fort Hood shooting happened.
I’m not going to write about the Ford Hood shooting here, at least not now. The cable stations are doing a valiant job of blathering nonstop with no real evidence to inform anything they’re saying, and I’d do no better.
No, what’s been striking me over the last few hours is what I think of as the bounce back phenomenon–in no time at all, FB posting and blog opinion started to circle around this case as another example of why we should impose much stricter gun control, or even get rid of all the guns.
I suppose I could fulminate here about how such outbreaks are opportunistic and morally wrong, but I won’t, because I don’t actually feel that way. If there is some issue you care passionately about and an event occurs that seems to provide proof that your position is the right one, I thought you ought to use it as part of your argument.
My problem is not with the use of the issue, but with something that makes me considerably more nervous, and that is this:
To the extent that the people using the second Fort Hood shooting as an example of why we should get rid of the guns are sincere–and I think most of them are sincere–they’re asking for something that never has been, never will be, and never can be.
It’s not just that gun control laws as they have been devised up until now haven’t had the effect of reducing guns in private hands to anything near zero, it’s that no gun control legislation ever devised could do that no matter what it said.
The problem is structural in a way that cannot be changed no matter what we do or how we do it.
We could wipe out all the guns in the Northeast and California and everyplace else with even a mild cluster of population density. We could end gun manufacturing and seal off the borders so that no unauthorized guns got in from outside.
But you see that “unauthorized” thing? That’s in recognition of the fact that we have places in this country like Wyoming and Idaho and Montana where people live on ranches and farms many thousands of acres in extent, and where the nearest law enforcement is a good hour to an hour and a half away.
Those people need guns. They cannot rely on law enforcement to come to their aid if they’re robbed or raped or in danger of being murdered. They need to keep wild animals out of their livestock pens.
And unless you’re ready to install internal travel controls between states–and I’ll bet none of the gun control people actually would–then guns in those places means guns are going to reach all the places with the super duper gun control.
This is not to say that I’m happy with all kinds of very unsuitable people having guns. It’s just to say that if you’re going to do something about the gun violence problem, you’ve got to deal with reality and not with a fantasy less likely to occur in real life than a Sharknado.
Granted, I also wouldn’t put up with the non-solution of giving the social services people more power to declare more people at-risk and therefore locking up or forcibly medicating people who have committed no crime and whom the psychological profession is not in fact capable of identifying as real threats–but the constant ideological skew of the gun control debate has driven all discussion of ACTUAL approaches to the problem off the field, and left us with these two.
The other area in which fantasy is trumping reality is the climate change debate, and I’m NOT talking about the fact of climate change itself.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stipulate that climate change is happening, the world is getting warmer, and man made actions are a large part of the cause of all this.
Because of all this, lots of people are jumping up and down demanding that we reverse this by doing all kinds of things, like lowering carbon footprints and eating less beef and a hundred other things.
I have no idea if all these measures would work if the world as a whole committed itself to meeting them–but it doesn’t matter.
Because the world as a whole is not going to commit itself to meeting them.
The whole “what to do about climate change” argument is an exercise in ethnocentrism so profound, I find it sometimes hard to credit.
Even if the climate change people could get everybody in the US and the EU and the scattered other countries (Australia and New Zealand, say) to do everything exactly as they proscribe, they’d still be stuck with India and China.
India and China are the two most populous countries in the world, and although one or the other of them sometimes makes noises about being concerned with global warming, neither one has any intention of doing anything about it that would slow down their growing economies.
China goes farther than that. On several occasions, when pushed too hard by the rest of us on carbon emissions, it’s made itself perfectly clear: global warming is a fiction invented by the West to stunt and destroy China’s march to becoming the greatest economy in the world.
If China and India are not on board with doing things to reverse global warming, then nothing the rest of us do to reverse it will do much good at all. If any.
And China and India are not on board. China is even perfectly willing to allow near lethal levels of pollution in its own cities, affecting its own people, rather than reduce the rate at which those people buy and use cars.
All the actually possible, realistic answers to these problems are politically unworkable. I suppose we COULD invade China and try to take it over and impose our will on it, but we won’t. We don’t even want to.
We are not going to reverse the effects of global warming. It can’t be done.
Which means we ought to be concentrating on how to adapt to it–but we’re not doing that, either.
Climate change has become an ideological question, and ideological questions tend to break free of reality rather quickly. We therefore don’t do what can be done to ameliorate problems, and each side goes home smug in the conviction that THEY’RE the true and virtuous ones.
I’ve picked on two mostly left-leaning questions for this post, but there are certainly issues on the other side. My favorite one is “abstinence,” whose proponents seem to believe that with the right kind of sex education (“abstinence only”) they can stop teenagers from having sex.
Hell, there are countries on this planet that will execute teenagers for having sex, and teenagers still have sex.
Somebody once said that the best is the enemy of the good.
I think the ideological is the enemy of the possible.
I am sitting here having a rather interesting morning, if interesting is what you call a situation like this.
Late yesterday afternoon, I went to a place–which shall remain nameless, for reasons that should become obvious–I went to one of my usual places, and there in the office where I work was a big plate of frosted cookies made by one of the secretaries.
There is nothing in the least bit odd about this. The secretaries in that place often bring in stuff they’ve baked or stuff they’ve bought. Sometimes somebody is having a birthday. Sometimes it’s a holiday, like Valentine’s Day or Halloween.
So as I was passing through the office, I took a couple of these cookies and went to the back to get some work done.
I was very tired, because it had been an unusually early morning, but otherwise I was feeling all right–until about half an hour later, when I suddenly began to feel not very well at all.
This was not the usual kind of thing you get with food poisoning, but it was very bad, and when I finally got home I did something I almost never do–I went to lie down in the middle of the day.
Greg made dinner. He even tried very hard not to fry everything, which is his usual approach to cooking. If it was possible to fry air, Greg would fry it.
But he did all right, and I was still feeling awful, and all I wanted was–tea.
With lots and lots of sugar in it.
Enough sugar to drown myself in.
I don’t usuall put sugar in tea, although I do sometimes when I’m sick, so that in itself wasn’t so odd.
What was was that the tea I was drinking was definitely the kind with lots and lots of caffeine.
And that wouldn’t be odd either, except that usually, when I drink tea with lots and lots of caffeine in it within, say, five hours of having to go to sleep–I can’t sleep.
Last night, I managed to go to sleep without a problem, and I even went early.
This morning I’m a little better, but not much. The symptoms are less like food poisoning than like the reaction I get to certain milk products.
No, I’m not lactose intolerant, but I do have an allergy to milk in some forms. I’m fine with milk that’s been made into something, like cheese and most yogurts, and I’m fine with heavy cream. But the lower the fat content of the milk, the more likely I’m going to end up with the kind of cramping I’d imagine you get when you swallow glass.
Anyway, I woke up this morning with some of that going on, but also ENORMOUSLY hungry, and I’m sitting here before eight in the morning craving crazy things like pizza with sausage and fried eggplant, which I couldn’t indulge in if I wanted to.
I’ve got to correct papers today, and I think it’s going to be interesting.