"What have we become?" I keep seeing people post this, in reaction to the shootings at the Chicago hospital and the Colorado thing, whatever it was, and the bar in Sherman Oaks. A school again? A movie theater again? A concert? A picnic? A church? A fish fry? We have not become anything new. The only change is who does what brutal, sickening thing to which innocent people, I regret to opine. How often, and how near. Maybe we've become less lucky. I sincerely do regret to opine thus. And I'm open to dissuasion.
Steven Pinker, who is a popular author, and a few other things, believes we're less violent these days. He believes we've made progress as a species. It's an opinion, and he defends it well, although very often, according to historians I've heard comment on his work, he deceives himself.
I know I don't have to convince any imbibers of This Is Hell that all that's really happened is a reshuffling and a miscounting. People lived as victims of brutal violence back in the Hellenic days, and they do now. People were slaves back in the reign of Hammurabi, and they still are today. Women and children and subjugated men were raped in China and Samarkand, at either end of the Silk Road, from its opening onward, and conditions are only cosmetically different in our own time. And that's not even to mention the animals. But "better to be an uptown dog than a downtown Jew" was a saying back in the rich and colorful days of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Why would things be any different? What would have caused this putative ebb of human cruelty? The Enlightenment? The internet? "I Love Lucy"? The Magna Carta? The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights? The Geneva Conventions? "Imagine" by John Lennon? The Statue of Liberty? Star Trek? What do we have more of now than before? Technology? Detergent? High fructose corn syrup? Pollution?
We try. We try so hard. We have ideals. We exalt the best of human nature, and castigate what is base. And you know what? It was ever so. There has never been a time when kindness wasn't considered a virtue. There was never a time when hypocrisy, betrayal, and malicious behavior weren't frowned upon. Even back in ignorant times, ignorance was a human foible. We've always known the right and good thing to do.
But there has also never been a time when ignorance wasn't considered a virtue, a kind of pure state, blessed by the grace of heaven. There's never been a time when authorities didn't recommend giving an uppity servant a swift kick in the kidney to remind them of their place, and likewise with children and women. There's always been a sizable faction of people who believe extending kindness to strangers is foolish. There have always been xenophobic mobs and smug, stupid despots, and an intelligent, benevolent despot is a despot all the same.
We've never come to a consensus on the virtues. We've just forced those who disagree into superficial obsequiousness while pushing their more substantial beliefs into the shadows for a while.
We do have a social ideal, laid out in the universal declaration of human rights, various treaties and such. Nowhere is the right to exterminate an irritating population enshrined. Nowhere is the right to enslave enshrined, or the right to deprive, or the right to degrade, persecute, torture, exploit, or abuse. That there's usually a sizable portion of any given population or government that would like those rights enshrined just shows how right has triumphed over might, at least in the ideals we pay lip service to.
But I really don't think even billionaires have a choice. I think they're forced to fall short of ideal behavior by a language that enshrouds us like a gas, that's in our bloodstreams. I was watching on YouTube a conversation hosted by urbane impresario Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library between Yannis Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky, in which Varoufakis talked a lot about dealing with the muckety-mucks at the at the Eurozone conference. Varoufakis was at the time the finance minister of the Greek government, and went there to negotiate a restructuring of Greece's debt. And in the end he was given an ultimatum to agree to a plan for Greece to take on even more debt, a plan that would actually make Greek citizens' lives substantially worse. I remember when these events were playing out, and I couldn't understand how such a deal could be broached. And in talking with the muckety-mucks, Varoufakis asked if they couldn't see what a bad idea this deal they were trying to force him to make was. And they said, yes, they understood. But they had become part of this institution and that was what the institution did. They had "invested too much political capital," as one muck put it, too much to change course now.
You would think a person with courage could stand up and do a reasonable thing. But apparently, one doesn't gain a position as a muckety-muck in the Eurozone Finance establishment by having courage, or breaking with accepted wisdom, no matter how foolish such wisdom is on its face. The structures create the choices such elite people make. The same way society prepares the crime, which the criminal then commits, the financial system creates the illogic and stupidity which then the finance guardians enact. Of course it serves the purposes of those in power, but they are trapped. There is no way for them to decide otherwise. They are programmed by their place in the absurd system. The system tells them they would be considered foolish to behave any other way than selfishly, and they fear being considered fools, or considering themselves fools.
What have we become? We have become what the system we've acquiesced to wanted us to become. We don't know how to design a system that doesn't use violence to control dissident speech, because the system can't assimilate such a design. Sure, if you began designing a social system in a vacuum, you might have a chance to ingrain in it some curbs on irrationally excessive accumulation and exercise of power and wealth, but no society is created in a vacuum. The language we're already immersed in is too well-established and rigid.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, "the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice." I can only assume that he spoke from his faith, because there was and is no evidence that this is so. The arc of history doesn't have to bend any particular way. Maybe our lofty ideals, enshrined in the idealist language of a collective body of nations, will shame the arc of history toward bending towards justice. Or maybe instead those who find unity and compassion dangerous and repulsive will have their way, and the manifestations of our lofty ideals will be burned down.
En masse we are just a big herd of clamoring apes, as liable to get to the watering hole and share its sustenance as to begin beating each other with clubs until a large percentage of us has died. As liable, or perhaps more so, to destroy the world, as to take the drastic measures necessary to save it. What have we become? Nothing that we weren't already.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!