The Moment of Truth — February 21, 2009
With capitalism, communism, science, medicine, statecraft, education, journalism and religion in their current states of bad repute, shall we turn our attention to the ancient scriptures? If today’s marketplace of ideas peddles shoddy goods, the scriptures at least possess the authenticity of being really old and the credibility of having endured through the ages, and therefore ought to be in some sense authoritative. Don’t they have something to teach us?
Sadly, the Torah and the Vedas are frequently ambiguous, written in arcane languages, and long. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic, also long. Likewise the works attributed to Homer. All are awe-inspiring both as literary treasures and in the richness they hint at of the prehistoric song traditions of which they survive as only a small taste. They are in themselves entire literary worlds which have persisted, submerged, and reappeared in numerous forms throughout the ages of thought, story and song. Because of their seniority, they seem to live in us like genetic information from our ancestors.
Why does our current world seem so second-rate compared to the ancient one?
I don’t believe humanity is devolving. That kind of thinking is just cranky-old-geezer syndrome.
If there is the appearance of degeneration, it’s because in the long view human beings are indeed geniuses. And the longer the view, the smarter we are. Like the soaring skyline of a city viewed from the air, the beauty, the brilliance we are capable of is breathtaking. Only when we descend into the streets of the city do we smell the garbage and pee and see the drowned rats floating in the gutter.
Only when the focus closes in on our short-term behavior do we reveal ourselves as imbeciles. The problem is, we happen to experience our own personal lives in the short term, not the long. This is not to say we cannot escape the limitations of the zeitgeist. The problem is far worse. We inhabit the zone of spacetime perception wherein our imbecile traits are by far dominant, to the near exclusion of anything and everything nobler. Humans inhabit imbecilical time.
In imbecilical time, noses need to be blown, petty arguments must be hashed out, dogs must be walked, lost keys must be found, strange smells must be dealt with, on top of which all the great, ambiguous, complex and long wisdom of the ages is, of course, strangled by ideology, bowdlerized and oversimplified, and crammed into bottles for contemporary consumption. For centuries—since even before they were set down in writing—the ancient works of wisdom and the ideas they express and imply have been examined and interpreted from countless contradictory angles. That a fundamentalist Jew, Christian, Muslim or Hindu in the year 2009 believes he possesses the single correct interpretation of an ancient text is all but certain proof that his interpretation is an insult to that very text and to the divinities he believes revealed it.
Unfortunately, imbecilical time’s short-term nature creates a perceived urgency to deny our mistakes and proclaim the flawlessness of our beliefs. This is by far its most toxic property. The neo-conservative movement and the neo-liberal economic ideologues of global capitalism have found their most perfect medium in imbecilical time. For them, every moment is an emergency in which societies are moving dangerously close the precipice of actually taking care of their members. For them, every commodity is in short supply and must be placed in the hands of a few wealthy uber-imbeciles whose self-appointed task is to dole the most meager amounts they can get away with to those who need the commodity most. The rest they keep for themselves. Because it’s an emergency, you know, and there is a shortage of resources. And now that there is an actual emergency, a global economic emergency brought about by these uber-imbeciles, they’re more determined than ever to be the ones presiding over the not-fixing of the problem.
When no one with know-how is around, or when know-how is outmanned by dogmatically-held mistaken belief, it can often be unclear how to proceed in the event of an actual emergency, even granting that such a thing as “common sense” exists.
Here is an open-ended quasi-parable: A grease fire has started in the kitchen. There is a contingent of people who want to use the fire extinguisher to put it out, and an opposing group whose members want to use witchcraft instead. In the long run the story will be just as entertaining regardless of who wins the argument. In fact, it may be a better story if the witchcraft people win out and the house burns down. Different versions of the story might appeal to different audiences, some in which the witchcraft people win and their witchcraft does put out the fire, some where the fire extinguisher people win but fail to put out the fire. Or maybe both ways are tried, the fire is put out successfully, and both contingents claim vindication. Or maybe both ways are tried, the house burns down anyway, and each contingent blames the other. Or some members of one or the other contingent blame themselves and suffer crises of faith. You can see why three or four thousand years of such permutations have yielded to us such a rich literary universe.
In imbecilical time, however, there will probably be consensus among the people in the burning kitchen that esthetic issues of storytelling are beside the point, and their energies would be best employed putting out the fire or running away.
That’s the tragedy of the human condition. It’s tragic, the way immediate events limit our possibilities. But even more tragic is when we react to events as if they must limit our possibilities when in fact they need not. In the process, our misidentification of the emergency often prevents actual urgent problems from being addressed.
The hallmark tragedy of fundamentalisms like evangelical Christianity, tyrannically theocratic Islam, and neo-liberal economic globalism is that they mistake the current historical moment for a fire, all their dogma for a fire extinguisher, and everything outside their beliefs for witchcraft. They siphon away time, language, energy, and other social resources as they battle with supreme conviction to solve non-existent emergencies with imaginary tools which would be inappropriate for solving them even if they were real, all the while trying to prevent others from using strategies they don’t intend to use, which in any case are not strategies at all but products of the fundamentalist imagination.
Life is hard enough without inventing extra fires. Hardly a controversial sentiment, yet it is far more often paid lip service to than practiced. I don’t claim to be wise. I would like to be, but I’m not. I do, however, know something about wisdom. I know because I’ve met people during my brief time of living who come very close to being wise. So I’ve developed an idea of what wisdom should look like, whether or not I ever come to possess it. My theory is this: Wisdom is the ability to distinguish your business from what’s none of your business.
A community’s water supply is the community’s business, not Dannon’s or Nestle’s. Consensual sex is the business of the participants, not any religious body. Conversely, the living standards of the members of a society are that society’s collective business. Of course it’s not as simple as I’m trying to make it sound. But I think it’s fair to say that this moment in history is marked by an exceptional social inability to understand what is and isn’t our business. I would like to think that with the discrediting of neo-conservatism we have an opportunity to correct ourselves. No one expects us to be wise, but our priorities about what needs policing and why seem particularly screwed up right now. Even for creatures trapped in imbecilical time.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!