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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Pray For Peace - Even Though God Never Seems To Listen

Brandy Oates prayed for peace, or as prayerful a secular humanist could be.  His prayers were more of a wry complicit nature than entreaties.  Brandy knew that although the world was troubled, God had set the table for peace and it was simply up to him and his fellow reformers to provide the meal.

Brandy had come to the Peace Movement easily and logically.  Everyone at Swarthmore was involved in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the demonstrations on campus were happy affairs.  Their protests were not heard outside the campus walls, nor were they meant to be.  Protesting en masse was a social statement of generational solidarity.  If you were under 25, peace defined you.

Soon antiwar sentiments morphed into an even more concerted effort to promote civil and gender rights. Brandy felt lucky to have lived in such heady times when all seemed possible and nothing was impervious to social challenge and right thinking.  Although he was never on the front lines – few students at Swarthmore were – he felt that the the outpouring of resolve in the daily demonstrations on campus would certainly be noticed.  The entire world was coming together in protest against a backward, over-privileged world, and he and his classmates were doing their part. Selma, the March on Washington, Paris ‘68, Berkeley Free Speech, Occupy Columbia were part of the creation of a new world order.

After college and graduate school Brandy continued his subscription to progressive causes, and in particular World Peace.  He worked tirelessly for a nuclear-free world and universal disarmament.  He applauded the new dialogue and colloquy among nations.  He was a passionate supporter of the United Nations and felt that internationalism was still the world’s one best hope.

There was only one problem.  Ever since Brandy was a boy, he had been aware of the aggressive and territorial nature of the animal kingdom.  He was awakened in the middle of the night by hissing, screeching cats in the back alley.  In the morning his cat came in bloodied.  Patches of fur had been bitten off, and one day he had only half an ear.

Dogs were no different, and in those days they roamed as freely as cats. Most dogs had only one eye, half a tail, and a scarred snout.  They roamed in packs on Arch Street where most of the Chinese restaurants were, and fought over pieces of lemon chicken or stringy beef gristle. They fought among themselves for dominance, females, and food; and fought enemy packs who tried to invade their territory.

Blue jays are an invasive species, fearless of taking over other smaller birds hunting grounds; but Brandy watched sparrows, starlings, and buntings dive bomb the jays when they entered the yard.  Squirrels chased each other and bit. Fighting fish were best sellers at the pet shop, and if left in the same water for too long they would both be ragged, torn, and dying.  Brandy’s friend Filler liked birds and wanted a companion for his cockatiel. His parents bought him a budgie, and despite the difference in size, the budgie beat up on the cockatiel until he had plucked his plume and all his head feathers.

Territorialism, aggression, and brutality were the hallmarks of the animal kingdom. Ant colonies were the most impressive.  The battles between soldier ants of different competing colonies were fought to the death.  There were advance scouts, rear guards, forward phalanxes, and lines of supply.  They used implements, chemical warfare, and the use of overwhelming force.

Everywhere he looked there were pigeons with their throats ripped out, birds nests taken over and occupied by invading interlopers, gnawed squirrels, and swarms of dead ants.

Brandy never got over these childhood images; and even at his most passionate about World Peace, the images of the insatiably barbaric animal kingdom were as vivid as ever; and the comparison with human societies could not be more appropriate and relevant. Human beings were just as aggressive, territorial, and warlike as ants, baboons, or piranhas. War and hostility were as integral to human society as reproduction.

Just when he felt he was convinced that evolution had finally righted itself and was once more guiding mankind towards a more pacific future, an image of Genghis Khan would pop into his head.  Genghis Khan is considered the biggest mass murderer in human history with over 40 million deaths attributed to him. Despite this memorable  slaughter, the Mongol warlord would have faded into history if the world had progressed and such depredations disappeared.  He would have been considered ‘the last of his kind’, a latter-day throwback to pre-history.

The world did not progress, however, and as recently as the Twentieth Century Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler managed three times the deaths of Genghis Khan.  Not only were the Mongol hordes not the end of a brutal line, they were just the beginning.

There were times when Brandy was ready to throw in the towel, give up his support of the Peace and One World Movements, and enjoy early retirement.  His wife had always wanted to move to Florida, and perhaps it was time.  A few months on a warm beach, 18 holes of golf every day, and congenial friends would do wonders for his spirits. Or, as his wife confided to her sister, “He would give up all this peace nonsense”.

Wilma Oates had always been a no nonsense woman.  The daughter of Milwaukee engineers (her mother had been the first female to have graduated from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Engineering), she had grown up in an uncompromisingly practical, down-to-earth home.  Neither one of her parents had an idealistic bone in their bodies. A furnace could be fixed with the right tools and ingenuity, but it would break down again, her father said.  And life mirrored engineering. Things broke and got fixed, models changed, motors got rejiggered and rewired, but they all had a given lifespan and a very similar repair record.  “Wars will come and go”, said Wilma’s mother. “No different from anything else.”

Everyone marveled at Wilma and Brandy’s marriage.  It was a tribute to love, many said, that two such different people could stay married for so long.  The consummate idealist and the flinty pragmatist.  The twain would never meet, but it didn’t seem to matter.

In any case, one day Brandy had an epiphany. Not the religious kind, for through thick and thin he remained a secular humanist, a believer only in logic and objective fact; but an epiphany nonetheless.

“If the animal kingdom is always at war; and if the human kingdom is matching them eyeball for eyeball, what am I doing trying to stop evolution’s juggernaut?”  In other words, Genghis Khans were born every day.

“What?”, said his closest friend and confidant, incredulous at the news of his retirement from the cause. “You’re going to do what?!”

Brandy explained that he had been wrong all along, and it was no time like the present to hang it up when he was putting his soul in order for the final roundup. He tried to explain to his friend how nothing pointed the way towards peace, resolution of conflict, or even the semblance of world harmony.  He cited Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and even Kierkegaard to prove his point.  And there was Darwin.

His most compelling points were only two: 1) take a look at the animal kingdom; and 2) remember Genghis Khan and Pol Pot.

To his credit Brandy never looked back with regret.  “You know what the Jews say”, he said to his wife. “Too soon old and too late schmart.”

Most people once they have glommed onto a universal cause like civil rights, peace, or the environment hang on like a terrier.  No amount of existential wisdom, War and Peace Shakespeare’s Grand Mechanism of (repetitive) history, or an appreciation of the great sweep of infinite time and space can shake them off.  Brandy was different. His epiphany included not only historical events put personal ones as well.  In the great scheme of things, it makes no difference whether you are a tire salesman or a peace advocate. Everyone ends up in the same place.  If you’ve had a good ride, that’s all one can expect.

The peace movement was good to Brandy. He had his share of romantic interludes at conferences and seminars.  Subscription to a common cause dispenses with a lot of sexual fol-de-rol.  No need to do a lot of sniffing and circling.  Marched with Coffin back in the 60s? Your fine in my book. Get arrested by the pigs in ‘68? We can go to bed now.

So as misguided and idealistic as the Peace Movement was, Brandy would have changed nothing – not the heady mix of youth, sex, and idealism; not the generational solidarity, the dope, or Paris.  No, peace was better than selling tires any day.

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