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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Blue Skies, Nothing But Blue Skies–Idealism, Voltaire, And ‘The Best Of All Possible Worlds’

Blue skies looking at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds from now on…
Blue days, all of them gone
Nothing but blue skies
Nothing but blue skies
Blue skies, blue, blue skies
Nothing but blue skies from now on (Blue Skies, Irving Berlin)

There seem to be few blue skies these days  Judging by the front page of any newspaper, war, pestilence, civil unrest, famine, economic dislocation, poverty, hunger, and climate change are the only events worth writing about.  The good news, if it can be called that, comes from human interest stories about overcoming adversity, defying discrimination or physical disability, and fighting for respect, acceptance, and tribute.  Good news is relative to bad, not intrinsically worthwhile. 

The National Spelling  Bee is a good example.  In principle an event showing off children’s enthusiasm, hard work, intelligence, and remarkable ability should have no downsides; yet under the glare of bad news spotlights, it does.  African Americans are very poorly represented if at all.

Although the remarkable success of South Asian children at the Bee should be a cause for celebration, showpiece as it is for the quick assimilation into mainstream culture that proudly defines America, it is questioned.   The Asian Tiger culture of success is dehumanizes and deprives children of innocence.  It perpetuates an ethos of individual superiority, thus demeaning the  achievements of those with lesser abilities.

In other words, the Spelling Bee is bad news with a happy face.

Image result for images spelling bee champion

Scientific achievement, supposedly the most objective of enterprises, is also relative to bad news.  The remarkable advances in genetic engineering, promising greater agricultural yields, a pesticide-free solution to insect-borne diseases, the excision of abnormal genes from the human sequence, assuring fewer babies borne with genetic defects, the extension of human life, and the gradual perfection of the human organism should be universally applauded. 

Advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality offer the promise of freeing the human mind from the confines of the body, enabling it to exist within an infinite world of time, space, and information.

Yet to many, this all is bad news.

GMO crops sow the seeds of environmental destruction.  Tinkering with human DNA will inevitably result in a new Hitlerian era of eugenics.  Artificial intelligence will not be liberating but enslaving, as the world’s working class will end up like the Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ distant future – deformed laborers exiled underground to maintain the machines that power the upper world.   Virtual reality will make religion obsolete.  Traditional morality, ethics, and worship will have no meaning in a virtual world.

Bad News is an industry, owned, operated, marketed, and promoted by progressives who believe that the world – with a little help from committed citizens – can become a better place.


The focus on war, crime, abortion, social dislocation, inequality is there for a purpose.  The more we confront the world’s ills and set our minds to curing them, the quicker we will enter a social Elysium.   If one were to focus only on good news, progress, and hope,  then attention would turn away from the issues.  Interest, and energy for finding solutions would flag.  We would traipse ahead.
This is not to say that we should ignore world events.  Far from it.  Human nature dictates that we act out of protective self-interest, reject territorial claims, and expand our perimeters. 

The problem is worrying about these events, labeling them ‘bad news’ rather than accepting them as normal, predictable, and quite understandable given the historical record.   Equanimity in the face of normal human behavior is liberating.

Voltaire satirizes idealistic optimism in Candide.  The world is not such a benign place as Pangloss perceives it; but his satire is in fact a very logical philosophical exposition.  The world is neither good nor bad, says Pangloss; ‘bad’ events enable ‘good’ ones, the life is no more than circumstantial events without any particular meaning.   Understanding this, man can be truly happy.

Image result for images candide

Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end…
And Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide: —All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios (Voltaire, Candide)
Tolstoy wrote of randomness and the insignificance of any one human act given the millions of purposeful and accidental events which condition it.  Napoleon did not lose the Battle of Borodino because of bad strategic decisions, but because he had a cold.  His valet had forgotten to bring the Emperor’s waterproof gumboots to the battlefield and as a result he caught cold, was miserably stuffed and sneezy on the day of the battle, and couldn’t think straight.

Image result for battle borodino

The valet, normally a very attentive and responsible aide, forgot the gumboots because the night before he was very distracted by thoughts of his unfaithful wife who took advantage – or so he imagined – of his military adventures to have liaisons with the carter and the blacksmith.   His wife was indeed unfaithful and hid her infidelities badly; but she was also an aggrieved party, suffering because her husband the valet spent all his military pay on drink.

As Tolstoy envisaged the story, the connecting web extended infinitely back in time, across continents, families, and generations.  No act was unique because it was predicated on all those which preceded it.  It had no particular meaning or importance.

Nietzsche expanded on this theory adding that if life were nothing more than the result of the random banging of billiard balls, then not only individual events but life itself had no meaning.  The exuberant expression of individual will was the only validation of individual existence.

The world is made up of progressive idealists who believe that human society is troubled, ignorant, and  destructive but can evolve if only we paid more attention and investment to resolution.  It is made up of optimists like Pangloss who see only the good news.  Everything happens for the good.   Finally it is made up of historical realists who have concluded that if human nature has not changed in a million years, it is not about to.  Human beings will continue to bang about pursuing venal, limited ends with neither good nor evil results.

It is this last group which defies bad news and is never worried, depressed, or overly-concerned about world events.  No matter what initiatives are made in the interests of world peace, a more equitable distribution of resources, or a more harmonious and inclusive society, the ends will always be the same. 

Scientific discoveries do not happen for a reason.  They are a product of human intelligence, ambition, and self-protective interest.  Wars and civil strife happen because of unequal distribution of wealth, resources, and political influence.  Disease and pestilence happen because of a wholly understandable complex of factors.  Buildings are built, green space is paved over, urban landscapes become more green, virtual reality limits travel and greenhouse gases, meteors strike, orbits realign, Alpha Centauri has life.  Nothing happens for a reason.  It just happens.

So, why worry?

Image result of images alfred e newman mad magazine

          Mad Magazine 

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