"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.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Memory–The Only Validation Of A Life Lived

There is nothing romantic about tripe soup, but one cannot choose one’s memories; and Robert Alton's dinner at the Munteanu Restaurant in Bucharest featuring the Romanian specialty, a spicy soup of offal in broth with Usha Ismail have been forever twinned.

Tripe soup

One thing about memory - one can never decide which ones will stay and which ones will go, and why soup and Usha Ismail – one tasty but ordinary; and the other beautiful and permanent – should be fixed in my memory will always be a mystery.

It is unfortunate that tripe soup is popular only in Romania.  Robert said that could not find a place that serves it in Washington and have his memories kick-started; so the lovely Usha could only be recalled through photographs, postcards (of the old Soviet-era spa hotel in the Carpathians), and teary letters.

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He used to try Nabokov’s mnemonic method – deliberate retention of immediate events and frequent, repetitive recall to fix the memory as part of the personal archive – and he ran the reels of dinners, lovemaking, trips to the Carpathians over and over so that he would never forget them; but the memories either faded or were crowded out and all I was left with was tripe soup.

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He loved Usha very much. There was enough in common – education, professional experience and interest – to overcome the dramatic differences in breeding and background.  She was a Karachi Parsi whose family, along with the Tatas, Birlas, and Aluwalas, had built Bombay; but who moved to Pakistan not long after Partition to repeat the success and build the country’s major city into a regional maritime and trade center.  He had always wondered at what point culture trumps personal affect if not love; that is, when are cultural differences so pronounced that they get in the way of intimacy; but Usha and he apparently had enough psycho-social resonance that nationality and religion were unimportant.

The ease of memory recall is a function of the degree of emotional involvement and the depth of love or disappointment of the relationship.  In Usha’s case, Robert needed little more than the tripe soup and the trips to Sibiu, the Carpathians, and the Black Sea to keep the memories alive.  Not so for Berthe.  Robert had played the reels of tape of his long midsummer nights in Copenhagen and, ironically, in Islamabad, so often that there was no way that they could ever lose salience or permanence.  Or so he thought.  When the relationship ended, it was more a question of how quickly and completely he could erase the tape of his affair than how to retain and curate it.

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The voodoo drums in the mountains above Kenscoff are rhythmic memories of his time with Louise, a French Canadian doctor with whom he spent four years, off and on in Port-au-Prince.  He could never sleep once the drums started and spent hours on the balcony of the Splendide listening to them. He remembered his excursions to Carrefour and the dancehalls on the water, to Macaya Beach on the South coast, or dinners at Côté Cour Côté Jardin, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Petionville; but for some reason memories of them were too vague to call up the substance of his relationship.

Recollections of the toilettes and the Haitian ironwork marlins on the walls intruded, and broke up the integrity of his relationship.  No matter how he tried to rewind the reel and go back to his table on the terrace, the wine list, and the pleasant maître d’, he could not.

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Why is memory so capricious and incomplete? As Nabokov said, the present is instantaneous, immaterial, and useless; and the future only imagined possibility.  It is the past that most defines us.  The more we remember, the more whole we are.  The more we forget, the more diminished. Yet we dwell more on the future and the inconsequential features of the present than the past; and before long it has become as inaccessible as an old 8mm film uncared for in a basement.

As most people age, they regret missed opportunities, love lost, and unhappiness unavoided. The good old days might have a general appeal; but individual lives are judged far more harshly. The true memorist – or rather, those who understand the unique, one-time-only life of the individual and fight to retain its memories – is one in a thousand.

The irony is that even as one comes to appreciate the defining value of the past, it fades and diminishes in importance.  A life remembered is nothing compared to the eternal life to come, say the religious or spiritual. Fragments of romantic memories are not worth keeping let alone recalling when put in the context of infinite life after death or eternal extinction.

Tolstoy spent decades trying to decipher the meaning of life.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a chilling story of a dying man who cannot believe the mistakes and miscalculations he has made in his short life.  How could he have so misunderstood the nature of life, let alone friendship, society, and family? Had he known how conclusive and abrupt the ending of life could be, he would have husbanded his life and curated its memories. Caught between a meaningless life and the prospect of eternity, he panicked. There was no way back and no way forward.  Happily in the minutes before death he had an epiphany which explained all.

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Memory plays tricks.  What we remember may have little bearing on what actually was. Psychological researchers suggest that perhaps only ten percent of what recall is real, and the rest filled in by friends and family. The tape Robert played of his midsummer evenings with Berthe in Copenhagen may be corrupted and inaccurate. The integrity of his past, no matter how much he might value it as essential to his being, might only be a pastiche, fragments of events randomly put together.

Memory, however faulty, is all we have. It is worth something. The cynical say that memory is a cruel trick.  A suggestion of meaning in a meaningless world.  The spiritual say that the past like the present is illusory, bits, scraps, and pieces of physical dross which hold us back from spiritual evolution.

It is neither. It is the composite reality which defines us; and those of us who remember most when we are on the edge of life are the most complete and fulfilled. 

Human Sacrifice And The Gospel Of John

The Splendide was an old Victorian gingerbread hotel on the old road to Petionville, half way between Port-au-Prince and Kenscoff. The stairs, bannisters, and floors were all teak and mahogany, the urns and fittings were polished brass, and the porches and verandahs covered with bougainvillea.  The Splendide was similar to the Oloffson, the so-called ‘Greenwich Village of the tropics’; but never had its cachet. In its day the Oloffson had been the favorite winter watering hole of writers, artists, and celebrities and the locale for Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a novel set in the dark days of Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes.  The Splendide was more polished, reserved, and formal.

 Hotel Splendide

From the balcony of the Splendide one could see the city, the port, and the hills above Petionville, and when the breeze blew from the north, hear the sound of voodoo drums.

Haiti in the days of the Duvaliers, before the country descended into into political anarchy, crime, and civil unrest, was unique in the Caribbean because it had never become the modern resort destination of its neighbors.  The Duvaliers had no interest in developing the country either economically or socially, and it always ranked at the bottom of every developmental indicator for the Americas.  The roads were bad, electricity and water marginal, and public services scarce and inefficient; but because of this inattention and thanks to the many old gingerbread houses in the neighborhoods where wealthy mulattoes lived, the city had a shabby but romantic feel to it. 

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                    Randolph Langenbach

The presence of the Tonton Macoutes, easily recognizable in their porkpie hats and sunglasses added an air of danger and menace.  Both the Macoutes and the little dandy, Aubelin Joliecoeur who knew everyone and could arrange anything, made the Oloffson even more romantic and desirable.

“The one good thing about repressive dictatorships”, said a guest at the Oloffson, “is law and order”; and indeed Duvalier’s police state ensured an untroubled, crime-free capital. Foreigners could drink in the dancehalls of Carrefour, eat at the best French restaurants in Petionville, spend weekends on the South Coast beaches of Macaya and Les Cayes, and walk the streets of Port-au-Prince at night.

Voodoo – a charismatic animist religion brought to the Caribbean by slaves from Dahomey – was a powerful expression of faith and, in such a repressive political regime, a validation of individual belief.  Duvalier himself revived the traditions of voodoo and later used them to consolidate his power. He claimed to be a houngan, or voodoo priest himself; and deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi.

Baron Samedi

Voodoo ceremonies were celebrated everywhere and involved animal sacrifice, chanting, and African ritual. Participants were thought to be visited by voodoo spirits who were powerful and all-present. 

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Ritual sacrifice has been part of religion since antiquity, and even the Hebrews of the Old Testament were called on by Yahweh to sacrifice animals in atonement.  Cannibalism and human sacrifice has also been common.

As Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, 1978) points out, the Aztecs killed thousands in ritual sacrifice and then ate the victims:

“There really is no mystery concerning what happened to the bodies since all the eyewitness accounts are in fundamental agreement. Anyone with a knowledge of how the Tupinamba, the Huron and other village societies disposed of their sacrificial victims should be able to come to the same conclusion: the victims were eaten.

After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it.

After they had slain them and torn out their hearts, they took them away gently, rolling them down the steps. When they had reached the bottom, they cut off their heads and inserted a rod though them, and they carried the bodies to the houses which they called calpulli, where they divided them up in order to eat them.... and they took out their hearts and struck off their heads. And later they divided up all the body among themselves and ate it...

The Zapotecs, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society, lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.    There was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods. Human sacrifice was the ultimate appeasement of powerful gods.

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   Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70 (Wikipedia)

Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.

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At the other end of the religious expression is the Gospel of John, the opening verses of which are the most esoterically complex of any in the Bible.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Here John explicates the essence of God and Man – logos, the Word, the ineffable essence which preceded God, which was God and which was the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Theologians in the first centuries after Christ wrestled with the impossible conundrums of the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, existence before existence, and the contradiction of spirit and flesh in one being.   Although Christianity has as many ‘pagan’ expressions of faith as any other religion, it is based on Hellenistic thought, itself derived from Plato and Aristotle.   

So concerned was Pope John Paul II about the move away from the logic of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and the embrace of charismatic cultism that he spared no words to express his hostility to evangelical Protestant sects.  The Los Angeles Times reported on his visit to Brazil in 1991:

In a scorching blast at evangelical Protestant "sects," Pope John Paul II accused them Sunday of seducing with "false mirages" and misleading with "distorted simplifications."

He exhorted Brazilian bishops to stem the rapid expansion of rival religions in this traditionally Roman Catholic nation of 150 million people by leading a counter-campaign of Catholic evangelization.

On the second day of a 10-day tour in Brazil, the Pope made it clear that he is not happy with the state of Brazilian Catholicism. He told a national convention of bishops that religious ignorance and "serious lack of doctrine" among the people has left them vulnerable to moral deterioration and "to the seduction of sects and new religious groups."

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Was John Paul right? Does ecstatic experience have no place in religion?  Is Catholicism, so based on logic and the rational exploration of divinity, a more evolved religion that Voodoo or Zapotec paganism?

Evangelical churches will say nothing of the sort.  Catholicism, with its inflexible, arcane theology; its authoritarianism and insistence on Church intermediation in spiritual affairs is not at all evolved but retrograde. True religion is not decided by the Vatican but by individuals who find their personal Jesus.

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In fact many of the services in charismatic black churches in the South are reminiscent of the ecstatic ceremonies of Dahomey and West Africa.

Hinduism offers the best of both worlds – a highly sophisticated philosophy, similar to that expressed in John; and an exuberant popular faith. It doesn’t matter whether a believer is an ascetic contemplating the One or a devotee of Ganesh, both are expressing religious faith.  There is no question of evolution.

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The Christianity of John and the Catholic Church is more persuasive.  Man is a rational being who was created with faculties of reason and logic, and therefore to dismiss these gateways to spiritual experience seems wrong. This is not to deny the mystical, but to accept the foundational arguments that must precede it. In other words, expressions of faith can be even more fulfilling if the mysteries of divinity have been explored and understood.  

Yet what more powerful human experience could there be than to stand praying at the altar of the Zapotec gods in the Valley of Oaxaca, feeling the immanent spiritual power of mountains, sky, and thunder, and in one ecstatic, purely elegiac moment of ritual death, join in supplication, penitence, and fear?