Sometimes these superior beings are pulsating, talking globs of ether watching and controlling us from billions of light years away, or it's like the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, where snappily attired beings from way away stop in for a chat. With their all-seeing gadgets, the advanced aliens watch as housewives clean lampshades, husbands change distributor caps, giddy children play hopscotch on suburban sidewalks, and fit uniformed young men load B-52s with tons of ordnance to drop on cities, lush forests, and babies.
One thing enlightened beings fail to comprehend is why our species continues to hate and harm its own. Sometimes we murder over territory, like a savage dog fight, which is probably how advanced life forms see us. Other times, like today, we're left numb searching for a reason. Too often we hate and kill over stories that were first told thousands of years ago by people who thought the world was flat, worshipped serpents and stars, and wouldn't know the meaning of social justice if it bit them on the behind. Hate, prejudice, and war in the name of ancient beliefs seems as "primitive" and incomprehensible to visitors from outer space as Aztec human sacrifice does to us.
Although I could be going out on a limb there if you think back to the GOP primary debates, when we heard ecstatic clamheads cheer Rick Perry's gold medal for executions. Audiences screamed "Hell yeah" when asked if people without healthcare should be left to die, and they booed a gay soldier fighting to secure their warped sense of "freedom"—which Obama is supposedly pilfering because he'd like everyone to have medical coverage. Allegedly, major American television networks sponsored this upchuck, starring the same "Christian" shitheels who voted this year in places like North Carolina to roll back civil rights. They talk a lot about Jesus but are among the loudest cheerleaders for policies that hurt innocent people, at the same time they cuddle the balls, which are large and suffocating, of the top one percent.
Inherit the Wackadoodle Wind
This twisted ball of synapses, bone, and water called Homo sapiens continues to make tremendous advances, but that damn hate thing remains a heavy ball and chain, slowing down progress toward a higher plain. Sometimes it shows up as an ugly trailer park fight on a reality show, a tow-headed boy ripping wings from a dazed bee, or a lone gunman who neighbors thought was a nice young man. Occasionally it erupts into wars that drag down an entire civilization, like the city the world grew to know and admire during the 1984 winter Olympics—Sarajevo. Too often one psychopath can manipulate folks who'd laugh at Abbot and Costello into hacking to pieces hundreds of their neighbors.
Chemistry, engineering, and other sciences bring us shiny gadgets that make life easier, safer, and more enjoyable. Can you imagine having an iPad 30 years ago? Even 10? And today the gadgets get better faster—faster than we do. Softer sciences like psychology and philosophy explore our inner cogs, and cultivating what we find there can lead to a more just society, and hopefully the wisdom to know how to use the new gadgets, especially bombs and shit. Sure, we have setbacks like the Inquisition or Taliban, but for every Mai Lai there's a Thoreau and Gandhi, for every Stalin a Tank Man and Suu Kyi, for every Berlin Wall a sledgehammer, and the general direction of moral evolution is up. At least I keep thinking. Recent events started me wondering, and the news this morning makes you hold on tighter.
Three years ago the world celebrated the 150th anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species, a title that's always on those lists of "Most Important Books Ever Written." Only a handful of people or ideas divide world history into "pre" and "post" eras, and Darwin's 1859 study is one of them—perhaps the most revolutionary ink applied to paper. However, by 3:1, way more than the Jesus-rode-a-dinosaur nincompoops, Americans still do not accept the book's 150-year-old mostly verified thesis about natural selection. But the same disbelieving nit-wits are happy to use social Darwinism to justify their mean-spirited and disastrous financial and political backstabbing.
Social Darwinism is neither: it's not social because it destroys community, and it's not Darwin, who never believed the dog-eat-dog claptrap that the Randies and other corporate pimps assign to him. You won't find "survival of the fittest" in Origin of Species, and even if you did, "fittest" wouldn't be measured on Gordon Gecko or GI Joe scales. Darwin's evolution means adaptation, reciprocity, and diversity, a sure sign it's working. It's creative if sometimes chaotic, but ultimately not self-destructive. Sure, there's predation and everything bites the dust, but the intricate life-death journey, learned over billions of years, serves a system in flux but ultimately sustainable. The right's so-called Social Darwinism is modeled on Lord of the Flies, not anything Darwin wrote. Especially for humans, he acknowledged collective action—yeah, socialism, not the friggin' Marlboro Man rugged individualism that the GOP's always farting out of their heads. Lookit crazy old wrinkled prunehead John Sununu this week, crawling out from under a rock long enough to dither on about Obama not being an American, blowing the socialism and marxism dog whistles because the president dared to say no single wealthy entrepreneur made it on their own. So shat Rush, then Sununu, now Romney.
But of course rightwing wankers like Paul Ryan who get moist thinking about Rand never opened Darwin. I read during Origin's birthday celebration that fewer than 30 percent of scientists have read it—forget about the pinheads who badmouth and censor books without opening them. If you teach, say, high school English, and your school bans Catcher in the Rye, ask the school board buttholes if they've read it. Ask them if they know what Salinger was getting at with the "phony" bit, and if maybe that discussion wouldn't be worthwhile in a classroom, especially today. Salinger experienced the absolute worst evil that human beings can inflict on one another—at Normandy, the Holocaust ovens, and the Nazi war crimes trials. And then he came home to Ozzie and Harriet, where the week's Big Problem was Ricky's zit the day of the dance (while America's corporate greedheads and their political-defense tools were upending governments, African Americans in the South lacked voter protections, being gay was a mental illness, and coat hangers were a deadly reality).
And then we have the tea party clowns at town halls—a scene right out of Gardens of Delight: frothing, bug-eyed pustulated ghouls shouting at and shoving people in wheelchairs. That summer, as the majority of Americans discounted Darwin and the drooling, pointy-hatted misspellers at congressional town halls pissed all over the rights and plights of others, I started to wonder if maybe human evolution hadn't peaked, like peak oil. A.I. guru Marvin Minsky proposes that we may have reached an intellectual zenith, but there's also moral development, and we've taken huge strides in that area, even in our own time. But just as Minsky wonders if we've maxed out intellectually, has something put the brakes on our ethical growth?
I used to think the hate-filled crazies at the Scopes monkey trial were just that—wacky Know-Nothings—and over time Darwin's science and commonsense would win out. In college I had a part in Inherit the Wind, the dramatic version of Scopes's story, which was made into a wonderful movie with Spencer Tracy. Back in college in the '70s, we'd laugh at how backward the Bible-thumping, fact-rejecting goobers in the play's Tennessee town were. Nobody could drag their knuckles that low, could they? Let's have a book burnin'! Today that maggot of science-denying hate has wormed its way into too much of the citizenry, congress, and state legislatures, like here in Arizona, where last session fruitloop birther Rep. Judy Burges (R-Sun City West, natch) introduced a bill that would've outlawed city and state "green" projects, conservation programs, and other sustainable initiatives because, you know, they're part of a One World plot by environmentalists (who have so much more cash and clout than bankers). Too many elected officials walked right out of a casting call for Inherit the Wind, only they weren't auditioning for the Darrow part. In college, we couldn't imagine anyone actually saying (and believing) the hate-drenched words coming out of our mouths. Today it's not a 1920s fictional crowd that sears the noggin: it's a real-life presidential candidate and the crowds who urge him to drink even deeper from the well of ignorance. And he obliges them.
The hate gene and the bigots it spawns are still too much with us, trumping scientific fact and social decency. Constantly scratching at the scab of that venomous wound, egomaniacal agitators like Limbaugh and Beck exploit the fact that, with all of our technology and sophistication, with our smart phones, low-flush toilets, and Lean Cuisine dinners, with all of our stuff, just under the surface some people are not too many generations removed from the crowds who cheered burning women in Salem. Attend one of the tea party's anti-immigration rallies here in Arizona, and make sure you wear a raincoat to ward off the raging spittle.
Evolving toward a higher plain
We read about civilizations from centuries past, when slavery and sacrifice were common; when most of the grimy, uneducated populace had few if any rights; when life was nasty, brutal, and short, as that happy guy Hobbes said; and when rulers were worshipped as deities. The forester-philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote in "The Land Ethic" that the first thing Odysseus did upon returning from Troy was kill a dozen slave girls—and no one batted an eye because everyone agreed they were mere property:
This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. (1947)And Odysseus was one of the good guys! Leopold's point is that ethics evolve too, like nature's mechanisms—over time, love, care, and empathy expand to include more than one's self. That was Leopold's great contribution, bridging humanity and ecology. Today we read Odysseus's story and sigh, "How primitive," because our ethical codes don't regard women as property (eh, most). Those early civilizations produced great art, architecture, and stories, yet we'd call their social structures and systems of government crude and unfair at best.
Hell, our own founders were "enlightened" to a point—a point most of us would not want to return to. Aristotle begat Locke who begat Jefferson (with a lot of sweaty begatting in between), but none of these guys really endorsed the egalitarian society we take for granted. Plato's Republic is authoritarian, even totalitarian, and Aristotle's Greece, the "pinnacle of democracy" (so the textbooks tell us), is a one percenters' wet dream. Locke didn't speak for the emancipation of half the population, and in his day women were burned alive because their boobs floated. And although he wrote "all men are created equal," Jefferson fudged mighty heavily on the slavery thing, and few signers of his Declaration were thinking of their mothers, wives, and daughters when they scrawled their name at the end. And don't even get me going on what Manifest Destiny did to this continent's first residents.
During the Depression Pinkerton's goons beat strikers like Grandpa, who just wanted a living wage, safer working conditions, and his scratchy Woody Guthrie 78s. A good deal of the head-busting was condoned, or even carried out, by the government, and union strikers and protestors were silenced by imprisonment, assassination, or deportation. Here in the Southwest, we had the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, when Phelps Dodge Mining Company, with help from government authorities, rounded up nearly 1,200 striking workers, herded them into boxcars, and dumped their mostly immigrant asses in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. A generation later, 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, lost their homes and livelihoods when they were sent to internment camps for the crime of being of Japanese ancestry—an Executive Order signed by FDR and upheld by the Supreme Court (Eleanor disagreed, as did history). Two of the largest camps were here in Arizona, at Poston and Gila River—both on Indian reservations (prisons within prisons). At the same time, on the other side of the globe, persons of Jewish descent were gassed and shot by the millions while world leaders smiled at the cameras and waved meaningless agreements.
More recently, we've seen lives ruined because artists wouldn't name names to McCarthy's mob—trials beamed into our homes on tiny, flitty TVs. Later, African Americans protested for the right to sit at a lunch counter, beaten in the pursuit of that basic liberty. Few things make one more angry and ashamed than watching those gritty black-and-white videos from the 1950s and 1960s: angry white faces shouting and spitting at little black girls who just want to go to school, George Wallace pledging "Segregation now, segregation forever," the smoldering remains of a Birmingham church, a broken-down bus of beaten Freedom Riders, big-gut-no-ass Bull Connor hosing marchers and setting siliva-fanged dogs on men, women, and children.
The hopeful thing is that human society adapts. Darwin later wrote of ethics itself as evolutionary, like the processes he had recognized in nature. When we care for one another society improves, so, like a better bird wing or beak, care gets coded into our moral makeup, and anyone who's been around since the 1960s has seen that. We have a long way to go, but just look at how much the ethical circle has expanded; consider how many more people and even other species have been invited into the community of rights during the last half of the 20th century. The Endangered Species Act! Signed into law in 1973 by that spotted owl-loving marxist Richard Nixon. Still, we have yet to fully implement the fundamental notion of rights, and right now its future is too much in the hands of a gaggle of robed flaccid fools and the corporatists who installed them. Their economic doctrines, educational reform, environmental policy, and civil rights rulings throw a monkey wrench into the spokes of progress, ethical or otherwise. Are we stuck?
Logic Is an Enemy and Truth Is a Menace
We accept that the technologies of early civilizations, like agricultural practices, are part of a continuum. Farming with an ox and wooden stick seems primitive when compared to modern John Deere contraptions, but it's understandable, given the period. The same is so for social evolution. Eras works within embedded ethical conventions and restrictions, which is why some people consider it unwarranted to dump on Jefferson for owning slaves, as much as we wish he hadn't. But while we can "explain away" many vicious and unfair events by placing them, few of us want to go back to the ruling social norms of 16th-century England or even 1950s America.
The "I want my country back" crowd wants to do just that—halt the expansion of rights and the cultivation of diversity, and revert to some idealized white bread Mayberry RFD universe that never existed anyway. Sure, Donna Reed had a perky smile and could scramble eggs in heels, but how many real housewives of her day were tranquilized out of their gourd? And how many people of color played anything but a maid or handyman on her show?
Just as Bull Connor setting dogs on marchers is repulsive, so will future societies judge us as primitive or unenlightened, especially if they watch videos of town halls, a Glenn Beck show, tea party slurs and lies, murders at women's clinics, random shootings that kill young innocents, or the anti-brown racism that, sadly, my beautiful state represents—where the GOP majority is "turn it up to 11" facepalm Arpaio-birthy-creationist bonkers.
To future citizens, our computers, cars, and weapons—the technologies that inspire much of our hubris—will seem like quaint devices, the way we snicker at spaceship cabins in a 1951 movie. Beyond that they'll judge us harshly. Tea party hate and bigotry. Health insurance companies that kill. LGBT rights denied. Women fighting for control of their bodies. Media that bend over to do the chickenhawks' war bidding. Ultra-rich dicks who controlled and brought down the financial sector. One nation with food, many without. Leaders who reject scientific proof and knowingly destroy the planet's resources for economic and political gain. Loughner, Seung-Hui Cho, Harris & Klebold, Holmes.
There's one piece of social DNA we're taking way too long to evolve our way out of. With all of our philosophies, technologies, smarts, and knowledge of past civilizations, we continue to breed stupidity and hate—more than willing to indulge the forces that want to keep citizens afraid and stupid. But Aurora means dawn. Let it come.
You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future—not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history, since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man—that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under "M" for "mankind" in the Twilight Zone.