The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

The Fanatical Cultists Among Us

There’s a good chance that people aspiring to murder those who disagree with them about politics are, among other things, fanatical cultists. We tend not to view them as such because they espouse no traditional religion, and indeed often profess atheism; but an immovable conviction in the existence of a universe that bears no resemblance to the realities before us isn’t just metaphysical in nature, but fanatically so.

If you believe that everyone deserves state-of-the-art health care and that politicians who stand in that initiative’s way should be executed as murderers, then you’re a fanatical cultist. What you desire is a real-world impossibility. We must all die in the flesh of something someday, and most of us—alas—will be ill on many days along the way to our last one. It’s the human condition. Miracle drugs may come along occasionally, but they are so expensive to concoct in their early stages that not everyone can afford them. A triage of some sort is inevitable. Maybe it shouldn’t be based on degree of wealth… but should it be based on degree of poverty? Maybe the young should go first—but is it not more sane to appeal to the community for charitable donations that a child might be saved than to legislate that the older guy has to get the ticket to the next world?

You’re not living in any world possible within our given dimensions if you refuse to weigh any of these questions, plug your ears, and keep droning, “All for everyone! All for everyone!”

If you believe that anyone who opposes the complete disarming of society is an accomplice to every murder that occurs and hence deserves execution himself, then you are a fanatical cultist. If only cops have guns, then Black Bart can drop a brick on a bypassing cop, steal his revolver, and inaugurate an irresistible crime wave. If you disarm even the cops, then the brick itself becomes a highly effective assault weapon… or a pitchfork or baseball bat or steak knife. A 98-pound female can currently chase off a 250-pound male just by waving her Smith and Wesson. Once we return to the Stone Age, her assailant will not need any weapon at all to do with her as he pleases. Your insistence that things would not degenerate to this point is childish and, beyond a certain point, lunatic. A responsible adult has no right to walk around with a kindergartener’s estimate of human nature. Your lunacy is probably attributable to a cultic belief system… which makes you yourself a potentially dangerous quantity in any society that allows you to vote.

If you say that anyone who obstructs the complete dissolution of national borders is impeding beleaguered people from finding food, shelter, and freedom and hence deserves to be executed as a passive mass-murderer, then consider yourself a fanatical cultist. Among other things, we must consider what diseases an alien population might introduce among us if not screened. Particularly in societies that offer an extensive net of social services, we must realize that thousands will rush our cities to gain access to free food, free police protection, free education, free medical attention, and so forth. Such resources are not inexhaustible; on the contrary, they must be doled out very carefully to those most in need and in a manner that encourages eventual self-sufficiency. Along with the poor and oppressed, as well, a criminal element will be sure to cross any unenforced border to a wealthier community. The situation is a goldmine for evil-doers: gather loot where it proliferates, then skip back across to another territory that will not pursue criminal acts committed “over there”.

If, in spite of all these liabilities, you really believe that we can and must exist as one big happy family in one great house—and that naysayers should be shot like mad dogs because of the obstacle they pose to “real progress”—then you are seriously delusional and a menace to yourself and others. You are a fanatical cultist who has no use for the world as it was made and must ever be.

How many of these are out there, I wonder? And why are we preoccupied with ISIS when our own society is nourishing a variety of fanaticism at least as dangerous and—now, it seems—homicidal?

 

On the Absurdity of “Gender Multiplicity”

Cogar leat, as the Irish used to say: “a whisper with you.” If gender is now to be considered mere cultural conditioning (like the preference for trousers or a kilt) rather than biological hardwiring, then why are we as a culture expected to tolerate all genders? I can put on a tie if it offends the group into which I seek acceptance for me to have an open collar. Why, then, should we not expect people to desist from, say, transgender behavior if it isn’t part of our broader culture? People eat stray cats and dogs in some parts of the world, but we don’t. If your puppy wanders off and ends up on my table, do you have a right to be upset with me? I should think so, in the context of the culture that we’re supposed to share! Do you have a right to sit in a restaurant without having to listen to people all around you slurp, burp, and smack their lips? Inasmuch as our cultural context disapproves of such behavior, I should say, “Yes, absolutely!”

So why should I be expected to tolerate without a whimper the teaching to my children of promiscuous sexual practices or a complete comfort with homosexual marriage? To the extent that the educational establishment has ever been able to construct a rational case for imposing such a curriculum upon us, it has done so on the assumption that sexual behaviors are dictates of nature rather than free choices—and that persecuting someone for being attracted to the same gender is as unfair as persecution of redheads or people of short stature. (Personally, I would strongly contest that restricting the definition of marriage constitutes persecution, any more than the limited opportunities for employment as jockeys indicate a persecution of six-footers… but let that pass for now.)

If the new doctrine of the educational elite has now abandoned that moral premise (i.e., that our sexual habits are in fact forced upon us by an irresistible genetic program), then why should we any longer be required to be lectured and schooled in matters of taste and preference? If you as a teacher insist that my child not only be allowed to belch, but that he accept that behavior in others and even wag his finger at me if I show disapproval, then you’re not teaching “diversity” or “tolerance”: you’re imposing one set of cultural values—your own—upon another culture that rejects them. You are manifesting an intolerance of my culture and demanding that my divergent ways fall into lockstep behind yours. You’re not just a dictator: you’re a pious hypocrite.

For the record, I believe that a very few people probably have, indeed, been dealt a bad hand by Mother Nature and cannot relate to the opposite sex in a manner that will give them access to the joys and comforts of family life. I regard them with commiseration, for Mother Nature has shortchanged most of us in one way or another. As old Seneca says, Nulli attigit impune nasci: “No one has entered this life without some shortcoming.”

I’m just as convinced, however, that the vast majority of people who are wrestling with their sexuality today are refugees from the sexual revolution that has raged since I was young. Heterosexual dating has grown so carnivorous that many flee the opposite sex; and as for family, our “Where’s mine?” culture of egocentrism as so undermined the ethic of self-sacrifice that only bad examples of conjugal life and bad experiences with it seem to surround us.

From some elevated perch in the high towers crowning the impenetrable citadels of politics and education, a few perverted and corrupt minds are smiling at all this and devising new ways to promote it. The fragmentation of gender into a million pieces, as a mere “cultural construct”, is one of those ways. The more we are uprooted from the significant relationships natural to human beings, the more we become putty in their squalid, ambitious hands.

 

On Pessimism and Misanthropy

Pessimism is the routine expectation that things will happen for the worst (pessimus being Latin for “worst”). Misanthropy literally means “hatred of mankind” in Greek (misos + anthropos)–but in common usage, its tone is somewhat milder, as in “not trustful of people”.

I have been called both of these; and while I certainly haven’t a lot of trust in people, especially in an age where young high school and college graduates are constantly encouraged to “follow their dreams” in idiotic commencement addresses (a recipe for disaster, given the irresponsibility of dreams nourished on video games and Netflix fantasies), I think “the worst” is most often averted when we’re suspicious of our neighbors. The founders of the republic thought the same thing. In my lifetime, it has been the optimists who typically open the door to disaster: the people whose expectations are so absurdly self-indulgent and rose-colored that cynical manipulators run circles around them and create a hell on earth. Then, when the “snowflakes” finally wake up and realize that they’ve been played, they become as naïve in their mistrust as they were formerly in their gullibility. They tend to lay the blame for all that has gone wrong at the doorstep of a certain designated group of villains, in a romantic kind of Manichaeism—good guy versus bad guy—rather than growing up and recognizing that all people have at least latent corruption nestled somewhere within them.

The trouble with optimism is that it can leave those whom it burns stupidly pessimistic. And on their way to getting badly burned, the naïve can get innocent people killed. I won’t repeat my remarks of a few weeks ago about Pope Francis.

Let me toss out just a couple of examples that sailed past my bow this week in illustration of why I don’t feel just all peachy soft and fuzzy about human civilization’s future.

One case stares at me from my Kindle almost every time I fire it up. The murder mystery seems to be to our casual reading public what oats are to a horse. Now, my mother loved mystery novels, and I think most of us enjoy a good crime drama on occasion. I had to give up watching Joe Kenda, however, because at some point I just couldn’t take any more young single moms letting strangers they’d picked up at the bar into their lives and winding up in a dumpster. Real murder, you see, is anything but glamorous. It’s the most squalid crime imaginable. The motive is generally some mix of lust, greed, egotism, and stupidity—with a very strong dose of the last: murderers are almost never evil geniuses. The murder itself is usually a brutal act of superior physical strength asserting itself over a victim screaming piteously, and pointlessly, for mercy. Even the higher predators in the animal food chain show more heart than the average murderer.

Yet nowadays, even as we create safe spaces and trigger alerts to coddle our epidermis-free sensitivity, we willingly accept murder into our amusements as an integral part of escapist fantasy. It’s the sanitization of murder in the pulp romance that gripes me—the degradation of mass taste that is implied in that makeover of human depravity. Joe Kenda’s tales were real enough to leave me mildly nauseated after a while: Joe Kindle keeps insulting my intelligence with teases about the latest “humorous, sexy murder mystery”.

One more quick example: I was looking up the Romanian word for “bull” because I know almost no Romanian whatever, and I needed to make a linguistic point about the modern languages descended from Latin. I’m not kidding you: the first full page of a dozen entries that popped up on my computer screen when I Googled my question offered Romanian street parlance for “bullsh*t”. Seems that we have all forgotten about the male bovine with a bellowing voice and what Jack Falstaff called a “pizzle”. How did we come to the point where coprologisms have more currency among us than basic words for basic realities? What does that say about us?

So, no, I’m not real happy with things. It’s because I can still generate the energy to be upset that the notion of effective action continues to mean something to me. Would we be better off just smiling every time our decadent culture serves us up a dish of “bull” when we ask for bread?

Except for People

Just got in from checking on my garden. The sweet potatoes are starting to send their leave up out of the ground—it happens literally over night. My bell peppers are doing much better now that I’ve transplanted them from the raised, boxed garden with its rich soil into more sandy terrain; they just didn’t take to the high-rent district! My goji bush is exploding; an odd little tree that I think (and hope) has sprung from a jujube seed continues to thrive; and the ever-screwball butternut squash have actually volunteered this spring (after I had given up on them after so many years of wasted time) and are producing plump gourds that, by all lessons of the past, just shouldn’t be there!

One can usually make peace with Nature. If things aren’t growing, there’s a reason, and one may be able to figure it out with a lot of patience—though it would have been even better to have preserved some of that ancestral wisdom which we’ve trashed along with Grandma’s sewing machine. Many times, I have the thought that a large part of our postmodern malaise is owed to our having ruptured our bonds with the soil and the seasons. Life and death, health and sickness, the stages leading to maturity, the rain that must fall so that the sun may give further life… even the electricity released by violent thunderstorms, I suspect, must be balancing out something in the atmosphere that would prove toxic if the weather were forced to be “peaceful”.

Yet all I hear and see in the human world is irksome whining about natural limitation (e.g., our paltry two genders), arrogant rejecting of cycle in favor of strict linear progression (e.g., our looming immortality as human/robot hybrids), and tasteless self-insulating in childish fantasies (e.g., the newly released Wonder Woman—and should she have hair under her arms, or not?). Plants can talk to you through how they look: my bell peppers told me that they preferred the sand when I saw them putting out new green leaves. Their language always makes sense. It’s about sun, and water, and survival, and supplying the next generation. People, in contrast, just don’t make any sense at all to me any more. Their audible language is much easier to assemble—but its message, the combined product of its words, is gibberish.

As I was walking back inside, I had the kind of thought that isn’t typical of me these days—and it came to me so powerfully that I was actually saying it out loud: “God, the world is beautiful… except for people. Except for people.” Yeah, that last part is typical “me”, I suppose, as I’ve now become; but I sometimes forget how Edenic life on this planet can be if you can just escape the clamoring, yammering apes in clothes. The alternative is well worth seeking out.

 

Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

Manners vs. Measures

I’ll be consumed by other chores over the weekend, so forgive me for making this a long entry.  Nevertheless, it represents just a few notes on what could well be a book. (My specific reasons for having such a spate of thoughts on this subject are substantial but also pretty subjective, and so not relevant.)

Manners are, etymologically speaking, mere arbitrary measures of behavior. If the Hoolahoop tribe blows a whistle through curled fingers while hopping on the left leg whenever one member greets another, then hopping on the right leg or failing to produce a whistle might be styled a gross breach of etiquette. Yet few instances of mannerliness are thus divorced from any sort of moral value in modern society. Most courteous behavior is also generous, charitable, protective, or otherwise beneficial to its recipients. In the same way, the Latin and Greek words mos and ethos have come to signify right conduct, not simply habitual conduct, even though these words both mean “habit” in their original tongue.

Consider some examples of mannerly behavior:

Physical Assistance: holding the door open for someone carrying a heavy load or impaired in some other way is basic courtesy. Even keeping a pneumatic door ajar so that the person right behind you doesn’t have to fight against its being sucked back in shows real consideration that costs little effort. Now, feminists over the past few decades have started to object to the opened door’s implication that they are weak and need male assistance; and as an aging man whose gray hairs occasionally attract similar homage, I can understand feminist irritation better than I once did. In such cases, however, I think one must be mannerly enough to respect the doer’s intent: accepting the “annoying courtesy” without complaint is itself an act of courtesy.

Honorary Observances: Yielding to the venerable graybeard is, in effect, an example of saluting someone for having navigated life’s shoals for several decades. Likewise, we allow our guests to be seated first if we host a dinner, and the speaker or honoree at a banquet is given the best seat at the highest table and served first. None of this implies weakness and need on the recipient’s part: it’s all aimed at giving a little bow, so to speak, before a person who deserves recognition.

Anticipatory Behavior: You remove a large hat in a crowded arena because you anticipate that it might obscure the view of someone behind you. Likewise, you shower after profuse sweating before attending a formal public event, you seek to contain unruly hair that may shed, and you cover up body parts not particularly pleasant to look at. This last, of course, is often a somewhat arbitrary measure of taste. In many cultures, a woman’s baring her breast to feed an infant is a routine and unprovocative sight; in ours, it draws stares and makes men, especially, uncomfortable (not so much because they object as because they feel themselves a little too eager to forego objection). Asking permission of one’s neighbors before lighting up a cigarette or a pipe also shows respect for the comfort of others.

Hygienic Consideration: Obviously, covering one’s face when coughing or sneezing shows a regard for others that might conceivably be required by law in situations where deadly flu is circulating. Even in less toxic circumstances, nobody wants to share your germs.

Traditional Observances: Finally we arrive at the kind of behavior which has no ethical component whatever in the more sophisticated sense. Here belongs the greeting of the Hoolahoop tribe. Practices of this order in our society include wearing a coat and tie or formal dress on the “right” occasion, putting the proper silverware on the proper side of the plate, using said silverware for the proper dish, or uttering the vapid “doing quite well” when someone asks after you as a splitting migraine explodes in your head. These acts are entirely “measure” rather than “manner”: they determine whether you are a tribal insider or a barbarian outsider. (I might comment further on how religious practices sometimes Pharisaically elicit these acts rather than others of true moral content—burnt offerings rather than deeds of mercy; but that would draw my entry out into a treatise).

Sensitive Gestures: I have deliberately put the ethically subtle after the ethically null to create a clear contrast. One abstains from cracking crude jokes in mixed company, from laughing when the mood is grave, from conversing about certain subjects when they are implicated in a present party’s loss or distress, and so forth. It’s almost impossible to teach real sensitivity, which is probably why these lapses of etiquette are the most common. Since a sensitive act requires that one divine another’s state of mind and soul, a kind of talent or special gift is involved.

Observation 1: As with the case of the door-opener who means no harm, the person who innocently commits an insensitive act should not be reproached, for the reproach itself would be rude. We cannot require that other people be able to read our minds.

Observation 2: Building on the previous point, we should recognize that sensitivity and tradition often collide in implicit (or explicit) contradiction. A person may easily violate an arcane social taboo. In that case, sensitivity would require that a truly mannerly onlooker seek to help the offender recover from his gaffe (e.g., as when a man removes his tie upon seeing that a younger, less tutored man has appeared at a function in an open shirt: this might also be style chivalry).

General Observation: When manners are mere measures, they exclude outsiders from the group and thus gravitate against the accomplishment of moral purposes, inasmuch as the bedrock truth of moral behavior is that we are all human brothers and sisters in spite of superficial differences.

Concluding Comment: If you write to me via email and I, despite many duties and preoccupations (and also an ongoing struggle to keep computers from damaging my eyes and wrists), dash a response back to you lest you feel ignored, please do not denounce me as rude if I forget to append a “Sincerely Yours”, etc. Once you’ve treated me that way, I’ll have nothing more to do with you, for you will have just slapped my face.