Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shorter Everything:

America Proposes to Commit Suicide.

Rest of World Shrugs.


jimf said...

> American public discourse and institutions are simply failing,
> the county is in conspicuous decline, climate change and resource
> descent will be pressuring everyday lifestyles even under the
> rosiest scenarios in unprecedented ways, I am truly worried about
> my students' prospects.
> Shorter Everything:
> America Proposes to Commit Suicide.
> Rest of World Shrugs.

Well, you know, one can't get **too** carried away by all this.

I started first grade the year after Sputnik (not that I had
heard of it at the time ;-> ) and I spent my entire elementary
school career practicing duck-and-cover in case The Bombs
came raining down (as if that would have helped). I was
just a little kid, so I was spared most of the terror, but
anybody who was a teenager or older at that time, and who
took the post-Hiroshima doomsday predictions to heart
(I suspect only borderline or outright misanthropes actually thought
_Dr. Strangelove_ was funny at the time), must have endured
a kind of psychological oppression that it's hard for
me to imagine.

By the time I was old enough to react that way, we were in
the era of Earth Day and Paul Erlich's _The Population Bomb_
(which I read breathlessly in 1968) and movies like
_Soylent Green_. Again, plenty of opportunity for relentless

I'm not saying that nuclear war could never have happened --
we may have escaped it through sheer dumb luck, and that
threat of destruction will be hanging over us for the rest
of humanity's time on earth, unless its realization (or some
other catastrophe) deprives us of technology altogether.

Similarly with mass extinctions in the biosphere, global warming,
fossil fuel exhaustion, etc., etc. (never mind the threat
of gamma-ray bursters, supernovae, asteroid or comet collisions,
alien invasion, rogue AI, or grey-goo nanotechnology ;-> ).

But, uh, you know -- in the meantime, have a drink, relax
in front of the plasma TV, and watch a Bette Davis movie.

jimf said...

Or take a page from C. S. Lewis:

Neither Patriot nor Pacifist, but "Patient":
Lewis on War and Peace
by David C. Downing

(comments on C. S. Lewis's lecture "Learning in War-Time,"
published in _The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses_ )

"At the outbreak of World War Two, there were those who
questioned whether institutions of higher learning should remain open
at all during this time of national crisis. Lewis was asked to speak
in the autumn of 1939 concerning the place of the university
during the conflict. His talk, delivered at the Church of St. Mary
the Virgin in Oxford, has since become a classic on the subject.
Called "Learning in Wartime," it has a great deal to say to those
of us fortunate enough to pursue learning in peacetime. 

Lewis began by posing the question that was on everyone's minds
that day:  'A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As
students … you will be expected to start making yourselves into ...
philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, and historians. And at
first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war.
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance
of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves happen not to be interrupted
by death or military service, why should we--indeed how can we-
continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the
lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?
Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?' (Weight 43). . .

Lewis went on to say that their present circumstances did not
create such a novel predicament as they might assume: 
'The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates
the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.
Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.
Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of
something infinitely more important than itself. If men had
postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were
secure, the search would have never begun. We are mistaken
when we compare war to "normal life." Life has never been
normal. Even those periods we think most tranquil, like the
nineteenth century, turn out on closer inspection, to be full of
crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have
never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities
until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying
injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those
plausible reasons.… They propound theorems in beleagured cities,
conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes
on scaffolds, discuss poetry while advancing on the walls of Quebec,
and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our
nature' (Weight 44-45). . .

jimf said...

Lewis ended his lecture "Learning in Wartime" by warning the young
scholars in front of him about three dangers as they began their studies
in the middle of a war. The first of these is excitement, the tendency to
concentrate on what was happening in the war rather than upon their
chosen studies. 'There are always plenty of rivals to our work,' he explains:
'We are always falling in love, or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing
to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we
let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other
to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people
who achieve knowledge are those who seek it while the conditions
are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come' (Weight 51-52).

The second danger Lewis warned about is frustration, a feeling
that we shall never find time to finish so might as well abandon
the project. Lewis advises, 'Never, in peace or in war, commit
your virtue or your happiness to the future.. Happy work is best
done by those who take their long-term plans somewhat lightly and
work from moment to moment … To his church listeners, Lewis added,
'It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present
is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received' (Weight 52).

The third danger is fear. War threatens us with death and pain.
But Lewis says it is not really a question of life or death, 'only a question
of this death or that--a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.' (Weight 53)
He goes on to explain that war does not offer such a radical change in the
human condition than we might at first suppose: 
'What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent:
100 percent of us die and the percentage cannot be increased. Yet war
does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason
that cancer at sixty or paralysis at 75 do not bother us is that we forget them. …
All schemes of happiness centered in this world were always doomed to
final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the
stupidest of us knows' (Weight 53).