I’m old enough now to have some life experience to look back upon. I’m disciplined enough to have not wasted the first ‘phase’ of my grown life (that is, the post-school period) on debt, drugs, alcohol, immoral living or other things that coax us from our paths. And I’m lucky enough to have been born in the United States (that is roughly a 4% chance, so already an extraordinary benefit and something that had nothing to do with me) and not in northeast Nigeria or Cambodia.
Nevertheless, just as there is no such thing as “settled science” there also isn’t (or shouldn’t be) such a thing as “settled people”. We are all a work in progress, one bad decision away from the precipice but one good decision away from real significance. The question, then, is about how to choose that decision. And, alas, there isn’t just one. I am faced with a dozen decisions a day. And not just trivial decisions (like where should I go to lunch, or what should I wear) but much bigger ones, how to go about trying to free a hostage, how to end a dictatorship.
The interesting thing is that all the decisions I am now working on (and have been, luckily, while I learned and grew) involve enemies. There is nobody in the world who will tell you “No, you shouldn’t indebt yourself to that expensive school you can’t afford” or “Hey, you probably shouldn’t have that beer” or “Hey, she’s up to no good and you’re married.” Nope, nobody will stop you from making those decisions – in point of fact you will find only the wind at your back and everybody trying to help you into the pit. Yes, misery loves company; but you know who is more gregarious? Failure.
Decisions of significance will make you enemies. Because there is always somebody benefiting, profiting from our unbalanced world. And there is rarely one well-lit path. Those enemies and the coalitions they build from the ignorant adherents to ‘isms’ and the tremendous rewards available for those willing to deny the preeminence of scarcity make the fight very hard, and the enemies very strong indeed. And this is the same in democracy as well as dictatorship; nobody governs in a vacuum, and while democracy is the worst form of government, besides all the others, it’s still pretty ineffective. Oh, but at least I can march in my parade!
I am struck, sitting here (un)comfortably in middle age, by just how crazy things have become. I am currently reading Sean Carroll’s “Biggest Ideas in the Universe” about physics (review forthcoming). What has impressed me so far (besides the actual physics stuff which is fascinating) is that what we know about physics has been built over the last 500 years, with each brilliant physicist adding one idea, one breakthrough. Archimedes and Galileo and Newton all building off each other (through the greatest technological achievement ever, writing) until we arrive at quantum physics and dark matter. I think the issue probably boils down to the fact that while knowledge advances progressively, human character is cyclical. We all must start from 0, that famous tabula rasa, and learn discipline and how to control our baser instincts and urges; only then finding balance and maybe harmony. And by the time we have found harmony (and only a precious few ever do), we are old and our children or grandchildren are having to learn this stuff all over again.
But the tech is there (thanks to the straight line between Archimedes and Carroll), which makes the opportunity for evil for our children so much greater. Injecting children with gender-bending hormones because they are depressed (probably because their unharmonious parents didn’t ‘make it’, and got stuck in debt or divorce or substance abuse)? Marie Curie would be mortified.
The issue, again, is balance. Our utopianism says that there is a recipe for harmonious living which involves no reckoning with the ‘ghost in the machine’, which is scarcity. They are ideological fixes, coming from deep, dark, bottomless wells of ignorance. Communism, Nazism, Islamism – Liberalism. All are ideological solutions to the problems of scarcity, but they are all devoid of common sense and reason (this is, incidentally, Why Liberalism Failed). The other side of utopianism believes that we will be rescued somehow by a “deus ex machina” – God will come again in rivers of blood; our Ancient Alien overlords will return to clean up the mess; or an answer in more accumulation of data points, scientism for those who gave us little boys in dresses. None of us want to accept the fact that we might be smart monkeys on a rare earth. And that the raping and pillaging of our natural world comes from an imbalance in our soul that liberalism has tried to fill with stuff. And that is where the real problem truly lies.
And how do you make this case to a 19 year old college student who in a rush of euphoria thinks they just discovered “inequality” 200 years after Lermontov was exiled; or to the African camp-dweller who was told if they only vote in the next election they too will finally get a house in the suburbs with a car and a dog and a Starbucks at walking distance?
We in America, especially those on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum (if you haven’t figured this out yet, that ain’t me) love to point at Europe, and say “Oh, the Europeans have found balance. Look, they have longer vacations and their apartments are smaller.” Forget that Europe was build upon the rape of Africa – who will Africa rape? Forget they live under a nuclear umbrella provided by we the unbalanced. And that, as we have seen by the return of war, was a parenthesis utopia anyways and only another sign of Marco Polo’s returning world.
Back to decisions. There are many ways which we could begin to right the ship, but all of the “isms” of the world make finding consensus impossible. And we are running out of time, because the advocates of scientism, who gave us hormone injections for toddlers, are talking about seeding the stratosphere. What could go wrong?