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

Friday, January 17, 2020

Genghis Khan, Trump, And The Fantasy Of The Worst Of All Possible Worlds

To many progressives, the world today is the worst of all possible worlds.  Not only is climate change happening, but the response to it has been indifferent at best and ignorant at worst.  If the impending environmental catastrophe weren't bad enough, the innate corruption of the capitalist system and the complicity and collusion of both buyers and sellers, the primary reason for environmental havoc, is ignored, glossed over, and rarely given a second thought. 

It is one thing to tamp carbon emissions at coal-fired plants, to promote energy-efficient transport and appliances, and to get rid of plastic bags; another thing entirely to dismantle the capitalist system and replace it with a progressive, environment-and-people-first regime, and to generate a compassionate, responsible, communitarian alternative to individualism.

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Not only is capitalism responsible for environmental degradation, but for the private, personal, and corporate corruption that is now endemic in American society.  Donald Trump is but the most obvious example of the inherent economic and financial greed,racism, homophobia, and fundamentalist righteousness that has infected the country and corrupted its goodness and basic charity.

According to the progressive media, things could hardly get worse.  No society in recent memory or even human history has suffered from so much rot, indignity, and callous, brutal elitism. Unnecessary wars designed and promoted by the military-industrial complex and its conservative shills in government are everywhere.  The subjugation of women and people of color is rampant.  The whole bloody planet is a sinkhole of depravity.

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Of course it isn’t.  Hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of poverty thanks to capitalism, free markets and trade, and the limitation of punitive taxes, laws, and regulations.  Quality of life indicators are up in every sector – mortality, morbidity, education, housing, wealth.  Leisure time has never been more available or affordable.  While of course every society has its infected bits, inequities, and injustices, this does not negate the remarkable positive changes in the world in the past three decades; and while of course calamities do and will occur, usually from unexpected quarters, and the boom years will bust eventually, the world will recover, reset, and move on. 

Every civilization has had its ups and downs.  The Renaissance was remarkable for its intellectual apertura, loosening the Medieval traces that confined mind and enterprise; and yet there were all those nasty wars in Europe, raging infectious diseases, mighty but authoritarian regimes, traces of feudalism and much noblesse oblige.  Every country, domain, fiefdom, and principality seemed to be fighting someone.  There might have once been a Pax Romana, an impressive 200 year period of relative peace throughout the Empire, but by the time that Europeans started fighting in earnest, it was but a distant memory.

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Looked at through one lens the world certainly seemed at the time to be the best ever. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the post-revolutionary democratic periods of France and America were remarkable episodes of illumination.  Yes, bloody wars, epidemics, civil oppression and concentration of wealth and power continued, but all in all, not a bad time to be alive.  Looked through another lens, this period of history was one of the worst, for its wars were devastating and unnecessary, the system of kingship and monarchy brutal and self-serving.  A class system devised and maintained to keep the wealthy in power was common.

In other words, there is no such thing as the best of all possible worlds or the worst.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it best when he wrote, “There is nothing permanent but change”, a thought echoed by Voltaire in Candide.  Those who hope for or believe in qualitative change – progress towards a better world – will be sorely disappointed.  Which is why the current progressive hysteria in America is surprising.  It doesn’t take a philosopher to see that history is no more than a series of changes, none better than any other, and most importantly characterized by an unchanging, permanent, insistent human nature – aggressive, territorial, acquisitive, self-interested and self-protective – a nature that assures the emergence of great civilizations and the wars, corruption, and venality that destroys them.

There were no different lenses through which to look at Genghis Khan, a  charismatic and fearsome leader; but also a brilliant strategist and tactician who often overcame larger and better armed opponents.  He and his armies were known for their cruelty and barbarity, and the sight of them advancing across the battlefield in a storm of dust, the feel of the earth shaking with the thunder of 50,000 hooves were enough to send enemies into retreat; but the thought alone of this terrible, bloodthirsty, and mighty warrior sent his enemies scurrying.  Genghis Khan was a man of absolute will and power, a frightening figure of power and vengeance.  He was a horseman of the Apocalypse.

For as much as historians and philosophers can look appreciatively if not admiringly on Khan for his acuity, his singleness of purpose, and his amoral pursuit of power, territory, wealth, and acclaim, the world that he conquered (from the steppes to Europe to the West and China to the East) was decimated and destroyed by his marauding armies.  Everywhere, according to eyewitness records, heads were on pikes along major roads and throughout conquered towns and villages, pregnant women raped and disemboweled, children beheaded and burned.  Genghis Khan had no mercy.  If one were to set aside Heraclitus and Voltaire for a moment, it would be hard to say that our contemporary American world is worse than that of 12 century West Asia.

Progressives would only have to look to the 20th century to see how Genghis Khan’s legatees – Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot – learned his lesson well.  Surely we are better off than in the mud fields of Cambodia, the gas chambers, or the gulags of these autocrats.

So Donald Trump’s alleged offences are nothing but dalliances, peccadilloes, venial sins compared to the predation of these men.  No matter how much he performs his vaudeville act, turns the White House in to a Barnum & Bailey Circus, diddles and twaddles with foreign leaders; threatens, intimidates, and boasts, he is a pussycat, an insignificant player, a cipher.

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And where are the horrors of capitalism that the neo-socialists see?  Not Silicon Valley and the remarkable advances in cyber-information, artificial intelligence; not in the research labs of premier universities and international corporations developing new drugs, immune therapy, prosthetics, and remarkable recombinations of DNA; and not in the juggernaut of start-ups which continue to provide innovation and resources for the growing US economy. 

Capitalism has inequality built into the system, and in fact it is based on competition and the survival of the fittest; but what’s new there?  Darwin understood this well, and the earliest capitalists developed their system based on it. Should the system be dismantled as progressives demand? Hardly.  History has shown that good and evil co-exist, all is relative, change is permanent and valueless, take the good with the bad.

So it is time for progressives to move on, get over Trump, forget about Satan and environmental holocaust; and demote Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  It has always fallen, or never fallen. Take your choice.

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