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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Goes Around Comes Around–Deja Vu All Over Again And The Endless Repetition Of History

Determinism is a scary prospect.  It is much harder to gin up enthusiasm for a new day when it will be pretty much the same as the one before, all the rest, and all those to come.  Forget Christian determinism – God’s has planned your life out for you and he will elect you as one of the saved regardless of what you do – natural determinism is far more unsettling.  Human nature – innate, permanent, and absolute – has not changed for millennia and for good reason.  The survival of the species depends on aggressiveness, territorialism, perimeters, self-interest, and limitless ambition; and some unfortunate consequences necessarily result.  Wars of territorial expansion and political hegemony while consolidating power, enriching the kingdom, and enabling the growth of high culture, kill tens of thousands of unwilling conscripts and peasants.  Economic growth – a pacific expression of national power and influence – is not a neutral enterprise.  There have always been haves and have-nots.  For every benefit of human enterprise, there are always consequences expected or not. 

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This natural calculus is obvious; but its predictability is often overlooked.  Human activity, generated by the same, unchanged, natural engine that has never lost speed, direction, or inertia, will always produce the same results.  Of course the expressions of human nature are infinite.  Shakespeare, a confirmed determinist, understood that history would always repeat itself.  Jan Kott, a Shakespeare critic noted that if one were to lay all of Shakespeare’s Histories down in chronological order, the characters, scenario, setting, staging, and lighting would be different but the drama would be the same.  The Bard saw no contradiction whatsoever in writing about superficially unique individuals marching to the same drummer.  In fact, that is the nature of drama.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, but are fascinated to learn how.   We know that Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romances cannot possibly end well, but we can’t put them down for wondering just what particular twists of fate will doom the lovers.  Turkish soap operas show unvarnished human nature as well as any serious drama.  Greed, ambition, and deceit are their staples.  There will be winners and losers but who, how, and why?

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All of which is why no one should be surprised at the news.  Why should presidents, politicians, Wall Street bankers, evangelical preachers, generals, and university presidents behave any differently than kings, popes, tribal warriors, and shoguns? The capacity for ambition, greed, venality, and self-service is limitless.  Competition is hardwired and absolute.  No one in power takes defeat lying down; no one on the way to power is careful not to trample on the flowers; and no one up and down the social phylogenetic scale will take insult, dismissal, or disregard with a smile.

Yet idealism is hard to dampen.  Life simply cannot be so predictable.  Human beings can harness the power of human nature for the best.  Why not an aggrandizement of good? A juggernaut of progress? A demanding, insistent, aggressive movement for peace, harmony, and a better world? Because people bicker, movements fracture, and competing interests destroy whatever unity there might have been.  Not only do religions disagree on salvation, but the many sects, branches, and affiliates of each religion disagree.  The pie is only so big.

Environmentalism is the biggest tent around, and in principle there should be room for those who want to protect the spotted owl, the snail darter, the air over the Mojave., the water in the Chesapeake, the small farmer, and organic agriculture.  All are welcome, but resources are never infinite and every dollar that goes to cleaning up the Bay is a dollar not invested in solar power. While the overarching principles of protecting the Earth may be universally respected, the fight for territory, resources, and political support is as internecine and bloody as any.

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As in all events, there will be environmental winners and losers.  Evangelical, mediated religions will get more adherents while Catholics, discouraged at their church’s dereliction of moral responsibility and leadership turn away.  Women who have benefitted from feminism and the civil rights movements will move from the kitchen to the boardroom and contribute to capitalism’s amoral acquisitiveness.  The virtues of motherhood, homemaking, and tradition will be diluted and finally forgotten.  Something has to give.  Human nature is unforgiving; and history keeps a well-kept balance sheet.

Why do so many people, then, persist in their idealism? Isn’t an even casual glance at history enough to conclude that there are no absolutes, that horrific things are done in the name of good, and that there is no such thing as progress? The Twentieth Century saw dramatic improvements in life expectancy, material wealth, and well-being; but it was also one of the bloodiest in history.  Not only were there as many wars as in previous years, but the nature of the wars took on a more sinister character.  Hitler did not only want to conquer Europe and Russia – that would be very understandable – but he wanted to exterminate an entire race.     Stalin and Mao were strong and powerful leaders but were responsible for the death of millions because of their policies.  It was not enough for Pol Pot to follow the example of Mao in his desire to create a perfect socialist state.  He had to murder millions to do so.

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This ‘ignorant’ idealism may have its roots in religion.  God cannot simply let the world fall apart.  He cannot let us destroy ourselves through war, environmental neglect, greed, and divisiveness.  He will have to intervene, perhaps with another Flood, a new start, and a new vision.  Jesus Christ’s words of compassion, love, and inclusivity must have metaphysical importance.  If we follow his example, the world will indeed be a better place.

Of course this may all be hokum, religion only a fancy myth, and the Catholic Church built on mythical false promises of Christ in the desert, may have taken advantage of man’s simple desire for miracle, mystery, and authority to build a powerful political institution. 

It is even more likely that idealism is an ironic by-product of human nature.  One must be convinced that the political struggle for individual rights is a noble one, of a higher order than mundane affairs.  Belief in a cause makes that cause more valid and energizes those in the struggle.

Or perhaps idealism is simply a happier version of life than doom-and-gloom determinism.  A Disney, Hollywood version.  Life may be sordid affair, but why look that closely?

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Besides, who wants to dwell on the fact that we are random, valueless bits in an equally random and valueless but infinite universe? We are better off at the movies.

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