I listened to the news yesterday, and learned that things overseas are to go on much as before, only they are to be entirely different. These delighful asynchronies would frustrate me if they did not intrigue me, or would intrigue me if they did not already frustrate me.
The robot hummed like a 17-year cicada as the scythe it used instead of an arm swung through a full field, reaping the fullest harvest.
I like ants. They organize themselves in ways I find utterly cool. Although their societies have an altruistic quality, it is a curious altruism. Imagine a thousand maiden ants, working to feed and clothe nieces so that the family DNA might be preserved. They'll kill, maim or enslave anything that stands in the way of their sense of duty.
Ants are ruthless, if you wish to view them with human morality, and unfortunately, they are a bit aimless and even arguably stupid if you take them as individuals. Contrary to the story of the grasshopper and the ant, it is the accumulation of ants, and not the individual, that makes for social success. Only as a group do they succeed, and only by protecting the group as whole.
I don't think ants make a great model for people, though. All too often they go about committing genocide against other ants, or displacing competitors. But I think it's curious how people spend much more time than ants on self-justification.
In 1998, Pol Pot died. His Khmer Rouge movement created the "killing fields", in which over a million of his countrypeople died. But in an interview prior to his death, he remained unrepentant: "I did not join the resistance movement to kill people, to kill the nation. Look at me now. Am I a savage person ? My conscience is clear".
The problem with "great notions" is that folks who have them often are blind to their own limitations. Enver Hoxha, whose choices as leader of Albania kept his country's economy in near-feudal backwardness, wrote assuredly that "Today we are living in the stage of the collapse of imperialism and the triumph of proletarian, revolutions". Not surprisingly, the Albanian hard-line economic model did not prove the model for the world of proletarian revolution. Khomeini spoke of ridding his Iran of the perils of western imperialism, but then promptly upon taking power took steps to ensure that the Bahai religious community, a local innovation, was
persecuted for its belief structures as "heretics" and "conspirators" with the West.
Even in a democratic society one can encounter profound wrong-headedness. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had many strong points as a president in times of peace and of war, but the decision to mistreat Japanese-Americans through "detention" during wartime stands as a monstrous act of bigotry and racism. I find it ironic, of course, that the key saboteur incident during World War Two was perpetrated by German-Americans, who were not "detained".
I like that word "hubris". I think that hubris is the downfall of many a well-intentioned soul. Nations imagine that they hold the One True Key to All Mythologies. People posit for themselves a moral superiority over others that can justify any wrong in the name of right.
I don't wish to be misunderstood. I am not a moral relativist. I believe that some values are more important than other values. Compassion, democracy, meekness, and an economy of spirit seem to me to be absolute and elusive virtues. But the problem is that sometimes a nation can lose its way in the name of spreading the One True Way among everyone.
It's a bit like those folks who desperately want to convert you to something you don't believe in. Like the big bad wolf, sometimes the arguments just huff and puff and hope to blow the house in. I'm a huge believer in the free marketplace of ideas, and I value input about faith and fortune from almost anyone. But that certain kind of glib sales technique for religious belief is a very curious thing. I must admit that I have allowed missionaries with storyboards into my home a time or two, just to quiz them about parts of their particular faith that had puzzled me when I read the direct sources. I suppose that it's a bit unkind, really, to be interested but immune to conversion. Surely a good missionary prefers someone hostile but convertible.
One of my reading hobbies is to read the works of disparate "new" faiths. There's some very interesting literature out there, whether it be the Book of Mormon, the Baha i writings, or a Course in Miracles. I am intrigued by the rise of atheism and the "death" of God, as well as by the ways in which heterodox faiths become orthodox faiths. I do not wish to tell you, as did the missionary on the Ship of Fools, that all belief systems are equivalent. But I do tend to view faiths by the fruits of their practitioners.
I often marvel at how much emphasis is placed upon "proofs" of the unknowable, or, worse yet, "disproofs" of the non-assessable. Although I won't go so far as to say that it is "all words", I do wonder at how much time is spent on finding ways to create disunity among folks.
I'm not playing coy. I believe in God, and I pray in traditional ways and I live a morality that most would deem "middle class". I think we're rapidly reaching the point, though, when professed belief or disbelief in any particular faith or creed is less important than taking steps to heal the rifts between people. It's not going to matter whether lethal chemical weapons were used in the name of God, Allah or democracy, if a state or nation is decimated by those weapons.
We had a local incident in our area which illustrated to me in a microcosm the problems at hand. A local school vice principal ran into trouble with the school administration. Her direct supervisor, the principal, determined to call a teacher conference in order to assist the vice president by "defending" her against the
teaching staff. Quoting liberally from the Bible, the assistant principal then apparently suggested that the teaching staff included "adulterers" and "abortionists" (including people who had engaged in the "sin" of remarriage), implying, apparently, that those teachers were "no better than they should be". The principal was driven from her position over this fiasco, as she should have been. But what in the world prompted her to erect herself as an odd sort of "moral authority" over her teaching staff? So often it seems to me that a sense of proportion and "vision", if you will, is missing these days.
I think that one of the greatest virtues possible is the virtue of tolerance, and that a wonderful secondary virtue is the virtue of keeping perspective. In this time when we deal daily with intolerant folks who commit violent acts, it's so important not to reach like so many ants pouring out of a nest. But it seems as though this is a time when the ends are used to justify the means far too often.
The whole problem, it seems to me, is knowing what to use as foundation stone, and what to discard. I am a traditionalist in some ways, but I believe that a blind clinging to tradition is simply impossible. We're learning each year how outmoded things we once accepted as fact have become. At the end of the 19th Century, people seriously discussed the day coming when no patent office would be needed, because everything useful had allegedly already been invented. Genetic research, to name a single field, will show us within fifteen years that most of what we believe now about the genetic basis for behavior is either wrong or crude. We have used our limited telescopes to confirm what we have known intuitively for generations--that we are surrounded by other planets circling other stars.
But there are a few lessons that we can learn even amid the blur. One is that non-engagement is not an option. Every nation lives in a world from which it is nearly impossible to withdraw. But the other lesson matters just as much--engagement must be positive and useful, and it will not suffice that it stems from misplaced idealism.
I personally believe there is room enough for a vast many of the world's faiths and philosophies. I believe that the problems are so large as to swallow most of them, and require additional ones to be improvised and devised. But all of the laws and all of the prophets aren't going to amount to much if the gunfire doesn't quiet, and the disparities don't get addressed. I'm not saying there's no place for security and a military. That's not my view. But the problems are too large even for governments.
We can see the molars being drilled. Perhaps a few teeth can be saved. But when it is all over, the only hope is for simple kindness and tolerance. I think that those things, more than fundamentalism and efficient killing technology, are the hope we have left.
But in order to move from platitude to reality, folks are going to have to vote and
speak and dream and do. That's always the hard part. The pontificating is the easy part.
After the Cold War ended, I recognized that we were moving into a more delicate, sensitive time. But I never thought that I'd see such ambiguity and confusion.
I don't know the "big answers" or really even the "big questions".
But I'm watching the ants streaming from the ant hills, and wondering what will be left of the ant hills when this phase is done.