Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Snapshots

This culture is morally hopeless.

...Real Americans don little tri-corner hats and carry on about "freedom" and "the constitution" but all they know about either one is what they learned at Disneyland. They are paranoid about a non-existent invasion of killer immigrants and are freaking out about a non-existent plan to send gun owners to Fema camps. They threaten to kill census workers who ask them how many times they flush their toilets.

But torture? Not a problem. Whether it's administered by the CIA or some minimum wage security guard, they seem to think electric shock, waterboarding or any other sick form of coercion worthy of the worst low rent dictator in the world is just ducky. But only if the subject is unarmed. If anyone tried this with a guy who was packing, the screams of horror at "the government" trying to disarm a law abiding citizen would be heard for miles around. I give up.

I share Digby's anger and despair here, even if I find a slightly more conservative view helps put this sort of thing in perspective. I'll get to that in a moment. First, let me offer this general advice: reading the comments to videos on YouTube will always end in tears. Any thinking, sensitive person will be brought to immense grief by contemplating the legions of subliterate troglodytes with computer access out there. Remember, back in the mid-nineties, the panegyrics to the technocornucopia of the Internet, and how it would raise the general intelligence of all humankind, allowing ordinary folks access to the wisdom of the ages and the latest scientific advances? Did you hear anybody gushing then about how it would make it easier for people to steal music, jerk off to free amateur porn, and giggle at videos of fat girls flying over the handlebars of their bikes? Hold that thought; it segues fairly neatly into the next part.

In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition...Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be.

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

Many Enlightenment thinkers accepted that scientific advance might slow down or stop, as in previous periods of history; and in that case social progress would stall as well...What none of the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged, and their followers today have failed to perceive, is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific knowledge advances.


So let me reiterate: yes, it's abhorrent to see how casually people accept the idea that it's okay for authority figures to jolt someone with thousands of volts of electricity, especially for the most trivial reasons. It's lamentable that, more than two centuries after Benjamin Franklin stated that people who trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither, millions of Americans are just fine with other people being forced to show their papers on demand, because hey, it'll never happen to them, fishbelly-white, patriotic, taxpaying, god-fearing citizens that they are.

And yet, and yet, when has it ever been otherwise? The majority of humankind has always been stupid, self-centered and unreflective. My former neighbor was ranting about illegal Mexicans ruining health care for all of us more than a decade ago, and I eventually started speaking to her less and less because I was tired of every conversation inevitably ending up on The Oracular Wisdom Of Lou Dobbs. Did I mention that she was an Irish Catholic, single mother, second-wave feminist? You'd think she'd have a little sympathy for scapegoats and ethnic minorities, but the urge to kick someone lower than you is a powerful one, and apparently very resistant to logic.

Humans have always understood the basic principles of ethics; the Golden Rule has appeared all over the world since time immemorial. The question has always been over who deserves the privilege of being treated with that consideration, and there has always been some out-group that doesn't qualify. Right now, Mexicans - or brown-skinned people in general - are being demonized, but it won't always be that way. Demographically, it can't. And I might suggest that anger and hatred are always going to be louder, gaudier and more aggressive than love and kindness, but that doesn't mean the latter aren't still around. I'm sure there are just as many people out there who would be appalled at the spectacle of a teenager being tased to the cheers of onlookers; they're just not the ones who hang around YouTube's comments.

Deep breaths. There's probably an asteroid out there that will render all this discussion moot one day, so until then, try not to take it all too seriously.