How in the Sam Hill have we gotten this stupid?
And why is it that during my four days in the crowded streets of Aspen, Colorado, during this Leftfest, at a time when the town was so blue as to be ultraviolet and visible only to bees, did I see one – one! – black person, and him driving a cab? How long are we going to let these celebrity millionaires, these limousine liberals, these champagne socialists, tell us they are the party of the people, of working people, of the middle class? How many times are we going to let someone who makes 25 million dollars for two months of standing around making faces tell us we need our taxes raised and that they’d be willing to give up a million or two to show what good sports they are? How long are we going to tolerate being called racists by professional race baiters and how many Uncle Tom / House Nigger insults will Colin Powell and Condi Rice have to endure from these self-appointed champions of African Americans? How many times is a suspender-wearing gasbag going to wish me “Courage!” before he realizes that he and the rest of his defeatist ilk are doing their level best to destroy every last semblance of courage in this country and are in point of fact the exact last place we look to for encouragement? How many times are we going to hear from famous high school dropouts how stupid the President of the United States is? And how, dear God, how immeasurably far is the fall from Winston to Ward Churchill?
I, for one, have had enough of it, as Ponytail discovered in LAX a few weeks ago. I’m done. I’ve had it. Even at my most liberal, I was enthusiastically pro-capitalism and pro-military, and even so it just floors me when I think about how many opinions I had assembled on top of a foundation of near-total ignorance.
The kind of willful corrosive rot eating at the foundations of our Sanctuary cannot be explained away by mere stupidity – much as I had hoped these past few years. So we’ll have to take a close look at this world of ours, and a deep look at the kind of creatures that have built it.
Not too long ago, I was watching a documentary concerning large numbers of adolescent bottlenose dolphins that were washing up on shore. The cause of death was unlike anything seen before. Each had suffered a severe blunt trauma injury to the midsection, like they had been rammed with a broomstick. Similar deaths were occurring among harbor porpoises across the Atlantic.
Naturally the first thought was to blame ourselves. Perhaps the Navy was responsible. US sonars are astonishingly powerful when they need be – they boil the seawater surrounding the emitter with just the strength of the sound they can generate.
But that would have resulted in the compression and damage of the air-filled areas of the baby dolphins – the lungs, mostly – and this was not the case. This was a sharp, pointed impact. They tried to string this out into an hour-long mystery, but I knew from the first few minutes who the real culprits were.
I grew up on Flipper. As a kid I completely freaked out at the end of the movie when the blood trail in the water led to Flipper dying on the beach. I have written science shows on dolphins, swam with dolphins, worked with dolphin researchers. And so I knew, almost immediately, what was killing these dolphins. I’d seen Flipper ram that same damned drugged tiger shark right in the gills something like fifty thousand times. I knew what was going on.
It wasn’t humans. It was other dolphins. Males were killing the children that they had not sired. This is common in the animal kingdom. It is a survival trait among mammals, ensuring that the strongest, most dominant bloodlines survive.
I mention this because while I love and admire dolphins, I don’t fetishize them. They are highly intelligent, very social creatures, but I do not think we will find them at the edge of the galaxy as astral travelers propelled by advanced spiritual auras.
Some people do. Some people think dolphins are the most advanced life form on the planet – far beyond we filthy killer apes and our evil, planet-spoiling technology. To many people, being a dolphin is as good as it gets: the pinnacle of gentleness and insight and playfulness and non-violence.
So it’s a little hard to watch the video of grown dolphins ramming these sleek little infants hard enough to send them flying across twenty feet of open sea. And make no mistake about it, these killers are indeed playing with their prey: tossing them, chasing them, and bashing their little perfect bodies again and again, long after they are dead. We know that female dolphins that lose infants in captivity become morose, depressed – practically suicidal. What were these female dolphins feeling as I watched this video in horror? Who could they call for help? What price would these young males pay for this act of torture and murder? How could they be sure that these killers don’t kill again?
The Simulated Progressive I keep in a little mental cage for moments just like this wanted to know: who taught these young killers the cycle of violence? What part of dolphin society was responsible? How do we break this cycle of violence? What are the root causes of this aggression? What governmental agency can we form to prevent such deaths in the future? And most importantly, how was Karl Rove able to issue instructions to these killer dolphins so that I could use them to advance the Right Wing Agenda?
Of course, this wasn’t really murder. This is nature. These are animals. This aggression is instinctual; dolphins share it with all other mammals. We don’t think twice when we see a male lion murder a rival’s cubs, or when two mountain goats battle for dominance, or two elephant seals, or two gazelles. It’s nature. Mnnnnn…nature….
I have seen footage of the gentle chimpanzee, Man’s closest relative, with whom we share 98% of our DNA, nuzzling their parents lovingly, eating fruit and playing tag with their siblings. I have seen a chimp die of a broken heart after the loss of his mother. I have also seen a platoon of chimps split up into teams and herd a terrified, screaming monkey into a kill zone, and then watched as these playful, gentle cousins tore that shrieking animal literally limb from limb and gorged themselves on bloody little hands and arms.
What’s the difference between a Chimp digging a small twig into a termite’s nest, and a scientist firing a high-energy proton to split an atom?
Practice. Nothing more.
Like humans, chimps are intelligent, social, warm-blooded mammals, just like bottlenose dolphins, just like the Killer Whales that likewise torture and play with sea lion cubs and often leave them floating, uneaten: murdered for sport.
This is what intelligent, social, warm-blooded mammals do: they kill things. Sometimes they kill their own. Wolves do it. Lions do it. Chimps do it. Even the gentle dolphin does it.
But when we do it, it’s murder.
Progressives will see me using this argument to defend murder and killing as natural and unavoidable. They will, as has become routine for them, be precisely, 180 degrees wrong.
Murder and aggression are indeed a natural, inborn quality that often manifests itself among the young males of social mammals. It lurks there in the R-complex of each of our big brains, just waiting to be cut off in traffic. You could make a case that humans deserve the same break that chimps and dolphins and all the others get: that killing is part of nature, and that underneath all the Old Navy lurks what is essentially an animal – an animal of a species at least one million years old, wearing around it the thinnest veneer of civilization for about one-half of one percent of its existence. I’m not going to make that case at all. THAT is where the road to Nazism lies.
Why have so many people become so ashamed of themselves? Murder and rape are universal in the animal kingdom: only one species even tries to prevent such things and punish the perpetrators, and that species is us. We are not the only animals that kill. We are not the only ones that hunt terrified prey, we are not the only ones that murder our own kind (freaking dolphins, people!), and we are certainly not the only ones that destroy ecosystems – far from it.
We are, however, the only ones that try to do something about it. We should be taking the energy we use to beat ourselves up and spend it patting ourselves on the back, for human history is nothing but the upward, halting, tentative progression out of the world of death and misery and into a world of law and decency.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote of such a natural state in Leviathan:
…No place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
All Hobbes could imagine to remedy such an existence was an absolute monarchy. I believe if he could have read Jefferson and Paine he would have amended his solution.
The world Hobbes describes may still be found in a few places in the world, places like the rain forests of the Amazon and New Guinea. Progressives speak of such places as Nirvana. As Nirvanas go, the rents are very reasonable, and the people who speak of such primitive cultures as such could pocket some serious change should they sell their houses in Connecticut or the Marina District or the Hollywood Hills, and do what any sensible person would do upon discovering Nirvana: move. They certainly have the means to go. And yet they do not. Why? If our society is so poisonous, and their primitive one so authentic, then why do they not go? Could it be that deep down they understand that the only thing truly authentic about hunting dinner and gathering firewood and carrying water and wearing leaves is that such authenticities are an authentic pain in the ass? But if such people are seen wearing cotton, or wishing for indoor plumbing, then somehow their lives are judged to be ruined by these same avatars who would no sooner live like that than do any other species of hard, relentless, grueling work.
We are related to nature – we carry those killer genes, and they have brought us a long way. But we are more than genes. Laws and Justice and Freedom and Sanctuary are inventions like fire and the wheel, and like fire and the wheel we have been improving them steadily with each generation. Science and art and literature – medicine! -- human inventions, unique to us.
Why then, do so many people – most of them on the far left – so fundamentally hate humanity?
I think it must be the constant frictions between what they hope people are and what they really are. The French Revolution produced the New Man, free of religion, and fully decimal. The streets ran red with blood for a decade – then came Napoleon, and then back to the Bourbon kings that they rebelled against in the first place. If I shared that history, I’d be a cynical, defeatist, Frenchman too. The New Soviet man was to be different: communal humanity Mark II with all the latest improvements. 50 million died, shot in the back of the head in basements and forests, or starved in frozen camps and coal mines, followed by collapse, ecological ruin and endless misery. And still these leftists push the same ideas. Poor bastards. No wonder they are so damn cynical and depressed.
Here they sit, surrounded by laws and medicine and art and culture: despising themselves. Remarkable, isn’t it? These people, who pride themselves on nuance, see no difference between a naked human pyramid of ten prisoners lasting two minutes and piles of corpses six million deep. Both shameful, therefore, both equal in their eyes. And we are the ones who only see things in black and white?
I believe that in general, humans are good and kind. But some of us are beyond the laws and civility we have created inside our Sanctuary, hidden from the brutality of nature and lawless men. If there are killers spawned anew each generation among the gentle dolphins, then there are killer humans, too – and this will not change no matter how deeply we may wish it. And that is why I continue to argue for what to so many of us is plain to see: no people are perfect, but some societies behave better than others. It is one thing to kill to oppress people and make them do your bidding, and something else again to kill those oppressors and expand the bubbles of safety and security that are so pervasive in the West that many cannot possibly imagine what the natural state of man is like.
I wrote, “can’t imagine,” but can’t remember is much more on target. Our parents knew more about the reality of human nature than people my age: they saw what the Japanese did in Nanking and what the Germans did in Poland. My grandmother grew up in an America without electricity, running water, or an indoor bathroom. Depriving a convicted murderer of these things today would be considered a human rights violation. The whole idea of “Human Rights” is an invention that we basically gentle and kind apes have made to protect us from the horrors and savagery of our ancestors’ existence. Our parent’s grandparents knew death and pain up close and personal; they slaughtered animals with their own hands, lost half or more of their children before they became teenagers, and lived in a very hard world where stealing generally meant that someone would die as a result of what was stolen from them. These people had no problem discerning victim and perpetrator, and determining where the blame and the responsibility lay.
Such a world becomes ever more distant and fantastic. We will have hell to pay if we don’t remember such times, and many that were much worse, as a measure of how far we have come. The hell we will have to pay is that we will have to go back there, as a species – again. And again. And again. Until we remember what we have built for ourselves, and what it has cost, and what it continues to cost us to maintain.
So why -- someone? anyone? – why do otherwise intelligent and educated people so despise American society, which has achieved more in the way of individual rights, science, arts, medicine, diversity, cooperation and prosperity than any other in history? Why would they oppose such a society when it is trying to bring these blessings to people who have spent thirty years cowering in dark places, fearful of letting the slightest word slip, or betraying their entire family with an askew glance or unguarded moment? Why would someone so viciously oppose freeing a People who have lived for a generation in total, abject fear?
It’s because they have never lived it. That is what I mean when I say reality has left their building. How many people would be opposing the war in Iraq if they had to watch, actually witness, three or four hundred thousand people being shot in the head in front of their families? At the rate of one life taken every single second, with one unique and irreplaceable person being extinguished every tick of the 60 Minutes stopwatch, going without sleep or rest, you would be at it for three and a half days. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Every face unique, every one someone’s son or mother or precious grandchild. Bang. Bang. Bang. All night and all day, every second for three and a half days. How long to wipe out your entire family? Four seconds? Eight? Thirteen? We have found that many in Iraq, more will follow, believe me.
How many children – four or five year old boys and girls – do you need to see raped in front of you before you change your mind about Iraq? Fifty? Fifty thousand? Will that make a dent in your stainless steel belief system? How many cries for mercy in the muffled corridors of prison basements? Ten thousand? Ten times ten thousand? They were there. They happened.
They just didn’t happen to you. Not in Berkeley. Not in Manhattan. Not in Santa Monica, or at Columbia University. Not in your Sanctuary. If they did we wouldn’t be having this discussion, would we? You’d be dead, and it would be your relatives begging for good and powerful people to come to their rescue to stop this horror.
There’s nothing “progressive” about what these people believe. It is refined selfishness and moral cowardice. I can understand not wanting to go overseas and lose blood and treasure to solve other people’s problems. I can at least understand that. But these “progressives” should be thanking whatever they take to be sacred – which is nothing – and hit their knees in gratitude that better, braver people have built them the kind of Sanctuary where torture and state-sponsored murder are so far from their closed eyes that even the act of imagining such horrors is beyond them.
How far from the reality of human nature do you have to be to see our culture as a curse on the Earth, rather than being the only ones willing to roll up our sleeves, shoot the wolves that are eating our kids, go out into the blizzard to collect some firewood and then paint the goddam house?
So what can we do? We can stop, in little ways, taking so damned much for granted.
As an exercise in perspective, let’s briefly compare our civilization to another. Let’s compare our supposedly soulless, banal, hum-drum society to the splendors of ancient Egypt.
And let’s tie both hands behind our backs while we do so. Let’s not compare the Great Pyramid to one of our skyscrapers, or airports, or hospitals, or even our shopping malls. Let’s take a moment to compare the Great Pyramid of Cheops with the most common and drab and ordinary structure on the block: The Great Pyramid vs. the 7-11.
Assume that we could transplant a corner 7-11 to the Egyptian desert, with all of the support systems that make it what it is. It is a tiny speck compared to the gleaming white marble sides of the pyramid. It looks small and poorly made. From afar.
Pharaoh comes by barge and litter to inspect the competition, laughing at the mismatch. He and his princes and a retinue of servants approach the plain, unadorned metal doors and step inside.
By the Gods! It is cool inside! As cool as the desert night, here, in the middle of the relentless day! Outside the servants sweat and minor officials fan themselves, but Pharaoh is, for the first time perhaps, comfortable in the middle of the desert sun. He turns to exclaim this wonder to his underlings, and -- By the Ghost of Osiris!! The walls! You can see right through them!
Ten seconds into the contest, and already Pharaoh has been rendered mute by miracles.
He commands endless lines of bucket-laden servants to throw water upon this transparent wall, flinching and then laughing endlessly with his children as the water stops in mid-air and slides to the ground. It is called, glass, Great King. It’s cost? No, hardly a years harvest. It is a trifle, the cost a nuisance should it need replacing.
After an hour or so of pressing hands and faces against the glass, of running inside and out, of feeling the smoothest surface they have ever experienced, Pharaoh reluctantly moves on to the magazine rack. Glancing at one, he recoils in horror, making a sign of protection against evil. There, like a tiny row of jail cells, sits face after face of imprisoned souls, bound into small rectangles. What else can they be? We have all seen Egyptian hieroglyphics: they are entrancing, but photorealistic they are not. How many monuments, how many man-years of backbreaking labor, how many deaths could be averted for a man obsessed with being remembered, if only Pharaoh had been able to be photographed? Immortalized! Captured with a precision and nuance greater than that of all of his artisans working together for a thousand years?
And there, on the rack beside the magazines: newspapers, pictures and text detailing the most significant events across the entire globe, covering an area that makes the Egyptian empire look puny and insignificant. How to explain to a king who must wait weeks or months or even years for critical information, that each bundle of paper contains news no later than a day old from every remote corner of the Earth, and sells for about a tenth of what our most poorly paid laborer makes in a single hour? Now he begins to think we are mocking him. Yet there is much more to vex and amaze Cheops.
Toilet paper. Draw your own picture of what the highest-born Egyptian must do in those circumstances. Down the aisle to the back – wonders on either side. And then: Ice.
Likely Pharaoh has never seen ice, let alone touched it. At first he recoils, thinking he has been burned. You grab a handful, and gesture for him to put a cube in his mouth. Pharaoh grows enraged – you are trying to kill him! You do so first, sucking on an ice cube. Tentatively, he tries, for the first time in his life, something cold – a diamond that turns to perfectly pure water in his hand.
Think, for a moment, that you have drunk river water for your entire life. Think what a taste of cool, clear water would taste like. Just imagine that one, garden-variety wonder. Then beers and wines, refined and brewed and filtered, not the murky swill he will have known. And as Pharaoh hesitates with each can and bag and box of food he opens, you will have to reassure him, time and time again, that even though you have no idea where the food was made, or when, or by whom, you know it absolutely to be safe to eat. Corn flakes and potato chips – how many lives would a bag of Ruffles be worth to this man, he who has never seen, let alone tasted a potato? How many men would Pharaoh send to die to obtain another box of Oreo cookies for his sons? An army? An entire fleet? Cans of ravioli. Peanut butter. Eggs and milk, of course, but of a quality and size unheard of.
Grab a frozen lasagna and hand it to the Great King. Frozen, like a brick, and like a brick he gnaws on it. Delicious! Then across the room to a small black box, which opens with the same magic lantern that lights this palace of wonder day and night. A moment of conversation passes, and Ding! What was frozen is now steaming hot! Without fire, and in an instant!
The Princes have been exploring every nook and cranny, reporting back to their father: In back, water which flows endlessly, purer than any they have ever tasted, and some of it is hot! It flows from the walls, father! A stream unending! Behind the counter, scores of small, beautifully-colored cylinders which make fire! Made of – what? Not wood or metal – something smooth and hard and perfect! Soaps, of wondrous scents and soft as pillows! Father! Come and see this!
But Pharaoh hardly notices. He is staring up at a box mounted in the corner of the wall, and there, for the first time in his magnificent life, Pharaoh can see…Pharaoh!
Cheops raises his arm, and the small shwabti Cheops raises his! Pharaoh advances, makes a face! The imprisoned Pharaoh does the same! And there, in one of the four corners! The back of the slave Pharaoh’s head! And in another small square, the Crown Prince! He is not in the room, and yet Pharaoh sees him plainly! When he emerges from the storeroom Pharaoh hugs him as if he had returned from the dead.
Yes King, we can on such boxes see any event of significance around the entire world, as it happens. And we can see singers and minstrels and performers – not only those alive today, but those who may have died many years ago! Yes, as real as any other! Preserved forever in language and form!
What would that be worth to such a man?
Over there, in a corner, another magic tablet that communicates back to you, and upon following a set of instructions you give it, disperses money at your command, a seemingly bottomless pot of gold (although, it must be said, the only flash of disappointment Pharaoh has shown was for the quality of money – gold coins would have made a much better impression.)
The sun is setting, and yet the magic of the palace grows ever stronger. Light does not fade. Having read by candlelight his entire life, the idea of day during night is powerful magic indeed. The princes have fallen silent. They have discovered the Slurpee machine and mortgaged their birthrights, entire kingdoms to the clerk for another refill.
There, behind the counter: a machine that will do mathematical calculations to eight decimal places, flawlessly. Instantly. There sits a machine that can do in five seconds what it would take an entire court of astronomers and scribes five years to calculate. The eyes of the underlings, the Egyptian bureaucrats who must count and account for everything in the kingdom – by hand – begin to glaze over. What they could do in a single day with such a wonder! But Pharaoh now is transfixed by the metal of the countertop. Hard. Very hard. On impulse, he removes his short bronze sword and hacks at the steel. Impervious. Cheops’ prized sword is dented and useless. What a sword and shield such material would make – and it’s everywhere: in the doors, the cabinets…common as sand.
But Pharaoh is no longer happy. Like many of that era, he suffers from terrible toothaches. There is so much sand that even the grinding of flour produces bread that erodes the tooth enamel. Pain is a constant companion for him, and like many of his age – like many of every age, before our own – he suffers in silence. That is his life. This, the most powerful man on the planet, suffers just like the poorest. But here, in this bland, ubiquitous convenience store, there is mercy for rich and poor alike. Cold medicine. Medicines to reduce fever. Medicines for toothache, too. And medicine for pain.
In fifteen minutes, this Great Pharaoh will know a few moments free of pain. His children, whom he loves as we love our own – also free of pain.
What would the most powerful man in the world give for such a thing? How much gold? How much land? How many lives?
The pain subsides. And although perhaps not a good or a wise send off for a man with a toothache, the transcendental look of joy on Pharaoh’s face when he first encounters a Coke and a Snickers bar is a sight that his children will never forget. Even after he is long dead, they will always remember him thus, as they ride toward the river on the dark night of the new moon, the little palace glowing in the dark like a beacon visible for fifty miles and more.
Now, on the other hand, the Great Pyramid of Cheops is a massive, beautifully decorated and cunningly designed pile of stones.
We live in an age of miracles, and we just don’t see it. All of the magicians who stand on generations of other magicians – engineers, technicians, architects – go unnamed and unsung, while common actors, tradesmen whose art form has barely advanced since the days of Babylon and Egypt, are deified and rewarded as no living gods in history.
We, in our Sanctuary, who sleep in warm, dry, safe places without a second thought of the men and women who shiver in the cold to keep us free and secure, are getting very far away from the forces that have threatened us for millennia and threaten us still, as potent as the black rage of an incensed mob of religious lunatics killing people in response to some real or imagined slight.
And yet our elites – bored, pampered and without a glimmer of perspective – search the inside of our walls by night, looking for cracks to enlarge.
I can’t pretend to understand this. It is simply beyond my ability to grasp. Nor can I understand why so many rich people who so resent and revile this land do not simply move somewhere else.
Unless, of course, this is a giant game for them: a chess match of rhetoric to gain a little temporary political advantage, and the sullen petulance of someone deciding that if my candidate can’t be the one doing the liberating then entire nations can remain in darkness. This little thing for the price of destruction of all we have worked for. How can such selfishness face itself in the morning?
I don’t know why so many people can miss so many wonders and miracles that are laid right before their eyes. But I do know that their poison has cut deep in to the foundations of a country I love because I owe it my happy and comfortable life and all the opportunities – not guarantees, but opportunities – it has provided me and my family.
So we will fight this amnesia and ingratitude, you and I will, right here on these pages in the days to come. And I will do my best to fight the battle in the one place, the only place it can be won: inside of my own heart.
Recently, I was very frustrated at my job. I felt I was not being treated well. Well, actually, I felt I was being screwed, and hard. I was angry and sullen. I had been wronged, you see? Me! Taken advantage of! By the system!
Among my many complaints, I was upset that I did not receive as much extra pay as I felt I deserved for all the extra work. Life was bad and everything sucked. It just sucked to be me.
And then, on the way to my stunning girlfriend’s apartment to bitch about how unfair life was treating me, I saw a fairly common sight in Los Angeles. I saw a group of young Mexican men gathered on a street corner, waiting for any kind of work.
And there, through some act of grace that occasionally opens my eyes and reveals to me a better person in my reflection, I suddenly realized that these men are waiting – fighting -- to work long, backbreaking hours for next to no pay. They sleep in small, cheap apartments, hot-bunking it, working sometimes two or even three jobs and keeping nothing for themselves. They never eat out, never go to movies, and planning for a future is not an easy thing when every penny you make above what you absolutely need goes back home to Mexico to feed your family.
And I stopped at that light, and looked at these men. And I realized right there that I should spend an hour a day prostrate and thanking God I was born an American. How many struggle and die for this privilege?
But there is hope for us. We can change. I can change, and I am as stubborn a cuss as they come. And there is hope here, on these pages. Not my pages -- I’m but a speck of flotsam in an electronic ocean. But these pages, these ghostly pages pulled from the ether down highways of colored light. These pages may be able to save us.
Because now, for the first time in human history, a small person can talk to millions. The defeatism and cynicism of our betters is no longer the only voice we hear. Now, for the first time, we common people, we citizens, can speak directly to each other about life within the Sanctuary, and those unseen people, those builders and maintainers of decency and civilization have at their command a tool with which to make their voices heard. We can patrol and repair these crumbling walls from within and man the gates ourselves.
There are millions of us. Millions. And we do not have to go gently into that good night.
Posted by Proteus at May 18, 2005 8:00 PM
(If you would like to support essays like this one, you can purchase SILENT AMERICA: Essays from a Democracy at War, right here.)