"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 30, 2015

GMO, The Telephone, And The Iron Horse–Social Conservatism And Fear Of The Future

Any new discovery or invention which has a potentially revolutionary effect on people’s lives is always looked at with suspicion. We fear The Other in things as well as in human interlopers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that people at the turn of the century thought that the telephone was the end of the cohesive, respectful society of the day.  It would, they said, destroy the carefully-woven fabric of the community because women would no longer gossip over the back fence, friends would no longer drop in for coffee, and the personal contacts which assured social adherence and avoided larger disputes – engagements, arrangements, negotiations, and settlements – would disappear. More importantly the very character of America – farms, small town, and tightly-woven, friendly communities -would disappear. The country would become more impersonal, less concerned with the lives and well-being of others, selfish and enclosed.

Homer whip

           Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip

The fear of course was unfounded, and the telephone expanded personal contact, facilitated social dialogue, and connected family members like never before.  The telephone facilitated commerce, increased efficiency, and became the centerpiece of rapid economic expansion.

Americans were wary of ‘The Horseless Carriage’ and ‘The Iron Horse’ for similar reasons.  The car and the train would disrupt a very pastoral, settled, and community life. They were not unlike the telephone – instruments of  social reconfiguration which would change the settled, predictable, and comfortable life of America forever.  Smoke-belching, banging, and rattling trains disturbed the tranquility and integrity of the Great Plains. They cut through the heartland, disturbing its natural rhythms.  Connection to the land was not disrupted or disordered by the horse, just modified. The natural order of things – plants, man, and animals living together – remained intact.  The train, early critics said, would destroy this harmony, one that had existed forever.

The Iron Horse

  The Coming of the Iron Horse, Greenwich Workshop

The car was even more disruptive because as an urban phenomenon, it affected many directly and quickly.  It frightened animals and children, rutted roads in new ways. Until  the days of Henry Ford and his assembly lines, cars were royal carriages, their drivers as indifferent to the peasants they knocked into the gutter as the soon-to-be-headless courtiers of Louis XVI.

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              The Terminal, Alfred Stieglitz

The nature of society is conservative. Once things are settled and in their place, life can be efficient and predictable. When change does occur, it can be easily accommodated. When it is radical, it is frightening. A new breed of horse on the market is still a horse, and while it might be faster and more temperamental, it still runs on oats and four legs. Gas lighting improved on candlelight, but it’s flickering flame was still familiar. Electric lights were still incandescent and familiar (a flame within a bulb), but electricity itself was another matter altogether. Zeus and Yahweh flung thunderbolts.  The ancient Zapotecs worshiped the gods of thunder and lightening, appeased them, and prayed to them.

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We are still afraid of nuclear power, and as much in opposition to it as early Americans were to the telephone and Horseless Carriage. There is no doubt that nuclear energy will be the fuel of the future.  It will be more universal than coal and oil ever were. It will power cars, planes, factories, computers, watches, and homes.  It will be so ubiquitous and safe that no one will give it a second thought.  Yet because Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still so recent; and because the first images of nuclear power were linked to Armageddon-like destruction, many people cannot imagine living at comfortable terms with it.

Two truisms apply.  First, technology always trumps morality.  People’s morals are flexible and are quickly adapted to new ways of negotiating the world.  Rarely have any moral or ethical concerns ever stopped or even delayed the universal spread of any new technology. Second, when the cat is out of the bag, there is no way to put it back in. Even before a new technology is on the market and only in the laboratory or in field trials, its expansion is all but guaranteed. 

There are a number of new technologies which are going through the familiar and predictable process of design, development, opposition, marketing, and universal acceptance.  The remarkably quick diversification of information technology has been perceived by many as a threat very similar to the telephone. Society will become increasingly atomized.  Whatever personal and human social glue that remains from earlier eras will no longer stick.  We will communicate and relate electronically. Love will be mediated, and life will become virtual, and dispassionate.  Without the dynamics of ‘real’ human interaction, we will lose the tests of faith that bring us closer to God.

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Of course none of this is true. The social media have expanded and not contracted our social interactions.  They have diversified human relationships thanks to hyperlinks and quick connections. In a virtual world where mind and computer have been electronically linked, relationships will take place in any imagined venue and according to every personal fantasy. We will find partners and God a lot more easily, and our relationships will be far more productive and fruitful.

Big data and cookies are scary propositions, say opponents. Soon government and business will know all about us, and our individual liberties compromised.  We will live in a frightening 1984 world of Big Brother and the autocratic state.  While there is no doubt that the contract between State and citizen will have be reviewed and reconfigured, the ability to manipulate vast amounts of data will provide a more rational, logical, and objective basis for decision-making in business, foreign affairs, and economics; not to mention in the marriage market.

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The current GMO scare is but the latest of technology scares.  Despite the fact that genetic engineering offers more practical rewards than perhaps any technology in recent years, it is roundly condemned in many circles.  Like The Iron Horse, say environmental worriers, GMO crops will disrupt God’s plan, destroy the Great Plains, and poison us all.

Nothing of the sort, of course. GM food production requires less fertilizer, pesticide, acreage, and water; and has the potential of feeding billions at a fraction of previous costs. While doom-sayers clamber to build seed banks and fight Monsanto, agriculture is quickly and permanently becoming modified and non-traditional.  There is no going back. Problems will occur, but they will be solved not by retrieving heirloom seeds from vaults beneath the Shenandoahs, but by other technologically-engineered means. 

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The latest moral panic began only a few days ago (April 2015) when Japanese scientists reported that they had successfully modified the genes of a human embryo. The implications of this discovery are clear and truly revolutionary. Human reproduction will no longer be a random event. Parental consumers will be able to choose from a catalogue of DNA choices from Michael Jackson to Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.  As long as celebrities are willing to profit from the sale of their genetic codes; and as long as custodians of the estates of the dead can find ways to open the DNA of the deceased to the public, the sky will be the limit.

Marilyn Monroe

As in Rule #2 above, the genetic modification of human embryos is out of the bag, and there’s no going back; so Rule # 1 will go into effect and people will rejigger their moral compasses to point to the new North.  We will be quite happy to have a child of our choosing rather than a product of random selection and the nasty bits from Great-Grandfather Albert and his renegade brother.

Political conservatives are conflicted about radical social change. Religious fundamentalists among them feel that new technologies are subverting God’s plan and are sinful and wrong.  Others, however, understand that the there is no such thing as progress.  Human nature in all its self-interested drive will always govern events and history will endlessly repeat itself; so new technologies like democratic or autocratic regimes come and go.  Societies continue to adapt, reconfigure, and remake themselves in remarkable ways.

Political liberals are more fundamentally conservative and consistently so.  Progressives have arbitrarily donned the mantle of stewardship over the land, the environment, and human society; but they believe in progress only on their terms.  The fight for the environment comes because of a profoundly conservative belief in the status quo.  Change in energy production and use will come, progressives say, but only if managed carefully and judiciously.  They howl at GMO foods and embryonic research not because of issues of faith, but because of the supposed predation and venality of capitalist interests.

In any case, the world will soon live in a nuclear age, a virtual world, and one in which the very basic principles of life, reproduction, and death will be drastically and irretrievable altered.  The cat is out of the bag; and we are already adjusting our moral compass.

Monday, April 27, 2015

In Search Of The Contemplative Life–Idle Chatter, Gossip, And Social Glue

I was always advised to keep my own counsel; or, in my mother’s words, “Keep your big mouth shut unless you have something to say”. A bit harsh I thought, but the years have added luster to her advice. There are far too many prolix gabbers around, and they disturb the peace.

Television is a bad place to start because talk show hosts and their guests are paid to shoot their mouths off; and televangelists purses would be empty if they behaved like Franciscan monks.

There is still one channel which broadcasts the Catholic Mass; and for all the elaborate statuary, gold and silver, flamboyant robes and chasubles, it is a silent, contemplative event. It is meant for shut-ins, but I watch it when it is broadcast in the evening.  Whether its producers intended this time slot or whether its due to ‘low ebb’ programming, the timing is perfect.  There is nothing but prescribed, familiar, silence at the end of a long day. It puts the tiresome, office meetings; the tireless ‘sharing’; and the endless repetition in perspective. 


The old priest on Our Catholic Mass mutters his way through the Offertory, Nicene Creed, Kyrie, and Gloria.  His hands shake as he raises the chalice at the moment of consecration; and he dodders his way back and forth to the altar.  However, he is devotional, pious, serious, and nearly silent. I can hardly hear his mutterings let alone follow the prayers.  It doesn’t matter. He and the Mass are calming.

The movie Into Great Silence chronicles the lifes of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery high in the French Alps. The monks pray, attend Mass, work in the garden, read sacred texts, and contemplate God.  Theirs is a silent order, and no one speaks. Only the shuffling of sandals, the rustle of parchment, the closing of shutters, and the sound of wooden spoons in metal bowls are heard.  There is no sign of boredom or restlessness in the demeanor of the monks.  They move slowly and deliberately and it seems that every movement while necessary and practical is devotional.

Into Great Silence

Recent research has shown that over 65 percent of people’s ordinary speech is gossip.  Not necessarily the snide and cruel kind; but catty nonetheless. Without thinking people share rumor and innuendo. Cancer? What else could explain a colleague’s depressive demeanor and wan look? Pregnant? Let’s hope not with all the children she already has. On the chopping block? Persona non grata? Soon to be left on the curb?

These researchers claim that such idle gossip is the social glue for a dismembered society, especially so in a socially-mediated age. It isn’t so much what we say, but the fact that we take time to say it, to bond however superficially with family and co-workers.

More cynical observers say that well over sixty-five percent of the American population has anything more to say than gossip.  Kant, Tolstoy, even Biblical exegesis are unknown. Not only do we stick to golf, casseroles, and grandchildren; we do it all the time. There seems to be no end to purposeless conversation.

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Now inanity can be worth something.  Henny Youngman, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx and the Borscht Belt comedians of the 40s knew how to make people laugh out of nothing. “Take my wife”, begins Youngman; and the audience knows exactly the shtick that follows, the ineptness of his wife and his loving tolerance of her. Beetle Bailey and Blondie were comic strips published daily for decades, all around the same, simple, familiar characters and episodes. Humor and inanity go together.

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If the 65 percent chatter had some irony, sarcasm, or wit behind it, the bar would be raised considerably; but as it is, it is permanent, low-frequency, static. Glue perhaps, but surely there must be a better way to bond.

Formal dinners where hostesses play by British and proper Anglo-American rules are the most agonizing. Religion and politics are off the table, but sexual innuendo encouraged.  At their best these parties are like Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 30s musical comedies filled with  Cole Porter wit and charm. At their worst they are painful reminders of how little we really have to say but insist on saying it anyway.

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Most older people have less patience for both formal dinners and chit-chatty get-togethers than they did when they were young and when affability and charm were means to an end, a happy pastime when life held promise and social camaraderie was a way to share optimism. When promise and opportunity are long behind in the rearview mirror and the realization that there are far fewer years left than years past, older people begin to dump their baggage, empty their closets and clear the decks for running.

A good friend of mine and his wife were out of synch when it came to social divestment of assets.  He wanted no more than to complete his exegesis of John and Galatians, to return to Shakespeare’s Sonnets and re-read Tolstoy’s short stories while his wife still wanted to step out, travel, do things. They had been together long enough for this disconnect not to disrupt their marriage, but he knew that he still had to tend to her riggings.

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The problem with all this chatter and aimless remarks is that it takes up space. By the time the moment is right to enter a more contemplative life, the mind has no moorings or better yet no compass. There is no way to suddenly change course and navigate in deep, uncharted waters if all your sailing has been done on sunny seas with only a light chop. Imagine years of playful chatter, dinners out at Serafina, La Tomate, and L’Agneau  Enchaîné, summers on the Vineyard, golf in the Hamptons, skiing at Gstaad all accompanied by bonhomie, ribbing, and gossip; and then suddenly realizing that not only haven’t you figured anything out, it is already too late to wise up. You fall asleep over Hamlet, doze after five pages of Rousseau, and can make neither heads nor tails out of Huis Clos. A socially mediated life takes its toll.

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A monastic life is not so much a calling as an intellectual choice.  Any novitiate must have incredible insight to understand the illusory nature of the world, its impermanence and unreliability. In Hinduism the contemplative life is taken for granted, one of the four stages of life.  After the long period of education and family responsibilities, one is expected to wander and finally become an ascetic. All of a Hindu’s life is preparation for the final stage of contemplation and enlightenment.

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Not so in the West where there are no preparatory teachings of the Vedas. We haven’t been taught that life is maya, free will is meaningless in an illusory world, attachment to material things senseless and ignorant.  So we chatter, gossip, and joke, fulfilling venal and ultimately empty promises; and suddenly, bang, there it is.  The flickering light at the end of the tunnel and we have no clue what to do.

Man is an economic and a social animal, so no criticism is intended of our natural and predictable bonding and competitive behavior. Idle chatter is a very good way of sussing out the intentions of friends and potential enemies, finding prospective mates and avoiding predators. Like hooded eyelids which have no particular evolutionary advantage, shooting the shit with the guys is simply fun, a way to unwind, forget one’s troubles.

I have never seriously considered a monastic life; although the older I get the more I think I have wasted an opportunity.  What do I have now to account for it all but a lot of postcards and a few love letters from Haiti, Romania, and Islamabad? Surely jumping the spiritual queue and retreating to the La Chartreuse is possible here but certainly not in Hindu India. No one cuts in line there.

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