And Also Much Cattle

The death of humanism

“I’ve given up on love. I’ll settle for common decency.”

~ Kurt Vonnegut


“I’ll give this much to George Bush: Ever since I was a little kid I've wanted to be a pirate, so today is sort of a dream come true.”

~ Michael Moore

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4/13/03

Compared to pacifists, most advocates of war are trained in technical disciplines rather than educated in the humanities where critical thinking and pursuit of the elusive bluebird of truth takes priority over applied mechanics. Eternal students, lovers of ideas, devotees of reason, admirers of beauty and wisdom, tend to a liberal curiosity which brings them into contact, over a lifetime, with the creative edge of human thought, and become thereby imbued with a desire to perfect their natures by the cultivation of the critical faculties by which they might recognize the sources of human error, brutality, excellence and felicity. Warriors like Generals Patton and Schwartzkopf, together with their armchair counterparts, are, to the extent that they are scholars at all, admirers of the history of combat and the art of warfare, or perhaps even of history itself as a chronicle of power and conflict, but they are merely aficionados, fanciers if you will, wishing a broader knowledge and explication of their own bloody craft, which they love without question. Soldiers do not normally wrestle angels. Hawks predominantly favor simple patriotism in lieu of cognitive activity, but many are actually capable of something approximating a philosophy (if pragmatism is philosophy) and rational justification both for war in general and for whatever particular armed conflict is brewing for all of us at the moment. Even the current preemptive invasion of the Muslim world, perhaps the most ill-conceived and hare-brained military adventure of my lifetime, is not without its scholars. No doubt our leaders reveal their true world views between themselves, and air their Machiavellian theories candidly at prayer breakfasts and strategy meetings, though we in the propagandized multitude are sheltered from the theological underpinnings of their public pronouncements. It falls to hawks of our own acquaintance, to the extent that they chance to be informed and thoughtful, to argue the causus belli with us. The best among these warlike souls are not at all stupid people, and I have to say that the most cogent of their arguments are difficult to debunk

In debating the war with my bellicose friends, I’ve noticed that they tend without exception to see themselves as realists, and by extension to see we dovish types as idealists in the most pejorative sense. Like the distinguished Machiavelli himself, they live in the world as given, and not as it ought to be. Since the argument proposes to be about what course of action, what real life practical choices, our society would be best off making at this actual point in history, it is not possible to dismiss out of hand the lay of the chessboard, in favor of some utopian ideal. The pacifist case must be made in the teeth of a relatively nasty world. One does not, as a right-wing Christian friend told me last week, sit down and sing Cumbaya with ruthless dictators. The question thus arises whether it is appropriate, as a practical matter, to introduce goals such as world harmony with reference to a realpolitic which has no past experience with such a thing, or to invoke outrage and moral decency in a discussion of a world which operates day to day on supply and demand, survival and necessity, submission and dominance, cause and effect, hostility and deterrence, racial and cultural exclusivity, access to food, oil and weapons-grade plutonium, the terms which have shaped the course of human history to date and for the forseeable future. The quixotic goals of secular humanism, which have for over 200 years constituted the public rhetoric of warring peoples, seem today as thin and vacuous as the airy abstractions of their theological and Hegelian predecessors. Originally proposed as a palpable substitute for the empty idea of God - the concrete and attainable project of creating a just and livable earthly home for mankind - humanism today has devolved from the live agenda of the Enlightenment to a rhetorical affectation that is, for all purposes save palliating the masses and recruiting soldiers, dead.

To say that our world is in a state of declining civility fails to acknowledge the cynicism of neoconservative realism, for what declines must at least have existed at some time, and might conceivably rally and reascend. This is not the case with the apologists for Rumsfeld & Co. who are at pains to correct my hippie view of things and apprise me of the brutal truth of the historical dynamic as it is and as it has always been. They begin with a picture of man and the tribal context in which he has his being. This is not a bad starting point. If man is simply a cerebrally evolved baboon, for whom the Golden Rule is nothing but a residual survival strategy among fundamentally appetitive creatures who have become socialized for the purpose of gaining a competitive advantage over other creatures and other groups, then it is a little silly to bring fairness and compassion and human rights, let alone Christian virtue or hippie togetherness, to a conversation which is really about how to get the entire watering hole to ourselves. There is cooperation among wolves, but no Sisters of Charity. Thrust into a world of frequently scarce material goods, and lacking a better method of distribution, we fight. It may be that this is all there is to us.

An anthropologist wishing to answer the question whether the nobility and altruism professed by mankind are truly part of his nature might perhaps observe the behavior of his subject in the laboratory of history. WWII bombardier Howard Zinn entered the war to defeat fascism, convinced, as any sane person would have to be, that a war against evil of such magnitude must surely be just. Many hundreds of thousands of dead bodies later, Zinn emerged from the war a pacifist, convinced that no war is just - convinced in fact that justice, if it exists at all, was absent from the motives of the authors of the 20th century and its wars. There is no good and no evil in Zinn’s devastating romp through 20th century Europe (cf: Just and Unjust War), only winners and losers among avaricious empires, locked in a brute battle over the acquisition and protection of markets, and the savage momentum that carries us to unthinkable levels of slaughter once the logic of war has closed around our minds. Acknowledging that wars are ignited solely by the ruthless struggle for food and material resources and real estate at every level of aggression from the amoeba to Winston Churchill, Zinn trumps the realism of Rumsfeld’s disciples while revealing the dirty ambition behind their hackneyed propaganda. Where Rummy, like the monsters of WWII, is energized by his vision of world hegemony, Zinn is horrified. In revealing that our higher values and noble motives (the war to end war, making the world safe for democracy, defeating fascism, saving the Jews, liberating this or that population of good and innocent people, preserving freedom, protecting the homeland, ending tyranny) have been shown historically to be so much bullshit contrived to placate critics and motivate 18 year old soldiers to charge into enemy machinegun fire, he very nearly leaves you to question whether man possesses a higher nature to begin with. Yet for him to be outraged at all by the colossal hypocrisies and perversions of his fellow men would indicate that he believes in the thing betrayed, if not the spark of divinity jettisoned by the humanists, then at least something positive at the natural level, if not actual nobility then perhaps something hopeful or endearing or benign in our picture of ourselves. If we can not collectively come to such a vision, that at the very least we are moral creatures who have lapsed into or failed to emerge from bestiality, rather than ravening idiots given to dreams of self worth, then there is no point in proceeding further with the human project. Best we quietly succumb to the gentle oblivion of AIDS or follow the yellow brick road of natural inertia on down to the anthropophagous nuclear fireball that waits to transform our deluded enterprise into a pointless but far reaching interstellar flash.

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If it can be agreed that man possesses a moral compass, a light of reason, a natural rectitude which might lead him to a universal connection with good and intelligent people everywhere and ultimately guide him toward some higher destiny, with or without a transcendental providence, to devise or discover a meaningful direction through our chaotic sublunar jungles, if some choices are wiser than others, if it lies within us to make them, then how do we go about groping our way from the current perdition back to a place where things once again make sense?

All knowing, says Father Joe, is human knowing. During Easter Week a fellow priest disagreed. The wisdom of Christ, this guy insisted, transcends human knowing. Father Joe’s reply was that that is why Christ became man.

It is a perennially interesting debate, related, as you can see, to the question of whether we should go looking for a divine spark within ourselves, or whether we are entirely at the mercy of heavenly messengers who come to us from beyond ourselves to tell us what is what. Lacking a handy avatar in times of moral darkness such as recent American history, can we look for the resources of redemption in our own interiors, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Golden Rule, the Holy Grail? Do we simply not find them or not use them, or are they in truth absent? I personally agree with Father Joe's antagonist. Mother Theresa might follow the romance of mysticism to fake the glow of divine charity, but there are no fake Van Goghs, no fake Nijinskis, no fake Paganinis or Einsteins or Ignatovs. Something inside of us can be called forth, and this thing is elegant and harmonious and true. Perhaps it is not actually ours, but if it is not there to be touched and awakened and demonstrated, why, Father Joe, did Christ bother to teach?

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Your remember the Golden Rule... that little Franklinesque wise saying that suggests you should treat others as you would wish to be treated? It's short, it's portable, it's not necessarily religious, it doesn't tax the memory, and it's tailor made for people who don't see the big picture, but who nevertheless want to know how to act correctly in any particular human situation.

The only special abilities required to apply this common homily are the ability to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else (or how things would look it they were turned around the opposite way) and the intelligence to recognize that you can not invoke some universal standard of fair or foul play for yourself without offering it equally to other people.

Examples of such visualizations might be:

Nicaraguans who are arming and financing a guerilla insurrection in the United States place mines in New York Harbor. When the World Court demands that they be removed, Nicaragua refuses.

Vietnamese infantry on patrol in Nebraska flush large numbers of patriotic farm boys and their 4-H mothers out of their "hooches" and set fire to Lincoln with napalm.

The Iraqi armed forces annihilate Washington DC with bunker busting bombs, chase the President into hiding, loot the Smithsonian Museum, seize our timber resources and jail our UN ambassador, out of a suspicion that we represent a threat to their national security.

Families in Daytona Beach make their daughters available as prostitutes for the Jamaican Navy when the fleet is in town.

That sort of thing.

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I was fortunate, following my stint with various institutions of higher learning, to be accepted into an internship program with the Gamboni Construction Company in Reno, Nevada. It was not my Masters credentials or scholastic honors that qualified me for this entry level opportunity, but the willingness to work for $5.00 an hour building ticky tack houses and condominiums for contractors whose union work force had deserted them to build the new MGM Casino, the largest gambling resort under one roof on the face of the earth. I started as a carpenter’s apprentice, hauling roof sheathing to the upper levels of Capp Homes, and worked my way downward, carrying hod for a masonry and fireplace guy, descending finally to concrete flatwork and footings. The closer I got to the grimy fundaments of home building, the trenches and forms and foundations upon which buildings are constructed, the nearer my job brought me to certain universal realities that my liberal education had, as a practical matter, omitted. The entire story of this is something I'll have to tell you later. For the purpose of the single point I want to make, the following will suffice.

Every crew that comes onto a job site builds, physically and literally, atop the work that has gone before. The first workmen are also the first potential screwups: the surveyors, the excavators, and most of all the cretins who form and pour and level the footings. It is upon the correctness of the footings that every subsequent stage of the building depends. Errors in the footings reappear confoundingly in the floor joists and the walls and the rafters, in the doors and the windows and the cabinets and the rugs and the doilies. Every crew creates a new foundation for the crew that comes after. Every crew blames the ineptness of its work on the crew that came before. Every crew is blindered, concerned only with its small piece of the job. The dry wall crew is sandwiched between the framers and the trim carpenters, seeing only what starting point it inherits and what legacy it passes along.

All I know about building a world is what I learned from journeymen in the construction trades. The world, like a house, is made of thousands of miniscule instances of correctness or compromise. As workmen, none of us possesses a master plan or is able to envision in adequate scope and detail the final perfection against which all these small decisions must be referred. All we have here, at the foot of the stairs, at the right edge of the south door, in the carpenter’s cramped domain, are three simple tools which correspond to the rules of rectitude: the level, plumb and square. Lacking any remembrance of the Platonic architecture which we are tasked to reproduce, we can usually assume that our small part of the whole will be at least level, plumb and square with reference to the earth, just as a single violin in a Mozart concerto will be in the correct key, rather than in harmony with some adjacent instrument. In this way mistakes tend not to be compounded, but corrected and aligned to something universal as we go along. For imperfect creatures to produce a harmonious and stable edifice embodying more internal logic than any of us possesses requires some such compass or intuition or tuning fork, enabling us in our relative blindness to avoid passing along errors, and to subsume instances of ineptness or negligence into an ambient rectitude. If our mothers failed to give us the wisdom of Solomon, at least they should have taught us not to tell lies.

This is why a society which might naturally function as an assembly of self-serving idiots instead lives by a rule where it does not pass along evil for evil. Like carpenters, we don't exactly know what we are building. We know only that where we leave off is where someone else must begin, and that what we pass along must be clean and correct, not a compensation for some proximal wrongness, not an equal-but-opposite error, not a reactive or retributive counter-screwup, not a patch job or a cosmetic fix, but real rectitude, lest we find ourselves like some tribe of yahoos crippling through history with only the contentious and vengeful rule of an-eye-for-an-eye to live by, and still not so much as a temple to show for ourselves.

For world-building purposes, all knowing is human knowing. The reason that the end does not justify the means is that we are utterly ignorant of the end. All we possess are the means, the rules of life, the level, plumb and square, the commandments, the present case. If in doubt, do not kill. Do not cheat. Do not steal. That might be it for the light within us, in most cases a forty watt bulb, but better than nothing.

If you don't want cement to crack, a realist once told me, don’t take it out of the bag. Actually he was not a realist, but a cynic, and the distinction needs to be clearly drawn. A cynic sees things as they are, but, like monopolists and profiteers and warriors, lacks the vision or the will to recognize what needs fixing. A cynic will declare that whereas the world is a den of thieves, it’s the best world we’ve got. He will build a crooked wall on a crooked floor. Such realists you don't want on your crew.

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If the above meander has a point, it proposes that the spark of inexplicable decency which gives meaning to any kind of altruistic behavior, or which must be presupposed even to give lip service to compassionate motives, in fact exists in us, but that it also may exist weakly, or become rare or lost or perverted or buried beneath corruption and lies. The imperatives of conscience can, like the God of the theologians, be declared not to exist without incurring any immediate disorientation or ill effects. When tough, nasty jobs have to be done, when it is time to “get real,” such abstract concerns can be peremptorily swept aside until the hostiles are safely dead and the landscape refills with churches and schools and libraries. But it is an affirmation of human dignity that if a single deed of real charity can be found anywhere, then charity itself is real, together with the ground of charity and the possibility of our connection to it, and we are not utterly lost. For the sake of one spark, even Sodom is redeemable.

The still, small, voice speaks only to individuals, and moreover speaks at a depth precluding speech or consensus. It is easily bulldozed into public silence by the rhetoric of empire, the chest pounding call to war in defense of motherhood, freedom, the troops and the children. There are people, and not simply people at the top levels of power, who today appear bereft of conscience. There are carpenters out there who have not been issued levels, plumb bobs or framing squares. There is a species of hominid untroubled by conscience or qualms about labeling and destroying evildoers who oppose their vision of a perfect world. It is historically clear that long periods of peace and tolerance have produced tangible human excellence, whereas grand schemes and wrongheaded world visions imposed by force and decree, such as our pax Americana, seem to produce only misery and death before moving on to become holocaust museums. We advocate today for the application of American preeminence for either the neoconservative vision of a centralized planet administered by white, protestant, American businessmen, or a multicultural planet in which nothing is universalized but prosperity and human dignity. We argue both visions, one a view which is fed up with the resistance of other cultures to being absorbed and annihilated by the capitalist paradigm, and which therefore advocates the imposition of control by IMF loan conditions or outright force, and the other which proposes to share the economic and technological blessings we have already obtained for ourselves, for the sake of a better, more interesting world, intact and capable of imparting reciprocal values and perspectives which our narrow American brains could never imagine on their own. We argue these things as if opposition to our point of view were merely a matter of lack of information, or failure to have realized this thought or that.

Or rather, as seems to be the case, we do not argue, recognizing that it is not a question of changing anybody’s mind. We who support or oppose the ruling junta (the perennial fleabags who appear automatically every time reason dozes off) stand in the presence of our endarkened fellow citizens, at a loss to bring persuasive arguments to the table which have not been covered before. Finally we just regard each other with slack-jawed disbelief, more from resignation and pity than outrage. What argument can you offer to somebody who can not retire because he has lost his 401K, who no longer possesses civil rights and doesn’t dare to leave the country, but thinks the administration that brought him these plagues is doing just fine? Who considers himself a Christian but condones blatant piracy and dismisses five thousand deaths with a shrug of his shoulders? You are not standing in front of a cognitive, moral creature here. You are looking across a gulf at another kind of animal, about which all you can say is that some things which you treasure highly in your own definition have been tragically omitted in his. Between two such disparate mentalities there really is no mediation and no substantive reason for debate.

From many sources you hear it said these days that there are two Americas, not two schools of thought, but two fundamentally different kinds of people. The picture is a bit apocalyptic, redolent of Augustine’s City of God and City of Death. Apart from anything we might do to affect some future outcome, each of us simply is a citizen of one or the other. It is not a matter of what we opine, but of where we stand, of who we have possibly been from the foundations of the world. The time for redemptive chit chat could be past. With the outcome of humanity perhaps already written in our hearts, we might as well keep standing where we stand and keep doing what we do, outwardly pressing our causes, while inwardly hanging on for dear life.

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