Saturday, November 20, 2004

Another Attempt to be Fair

Sports writers discount the achievement of the latest golfer to set a new record for winnings in a single season because the relentless increase in purses means that the same level of performance will yield far more dollars in 2004 than it would have in 1994. By a similar logic, each new American president automatically becomes the most dangerous man who ever lived because technology keeps increasing his power to destroy. This sort of reasoning is as unfair to W as it is to VJ, however, because, on the one hand, the Fijian really is a heck of a golfer, and, on the other, Bush’s moral and intellectual failings multiply his net potential to do harm. Clinton or Bush’s father already had the wherewithal to blister the surface of the Earth seven times over; but if they were hearing voices in their head, at least they kept quiet about them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The True Armature of the Absolute

The affairs of men are much simpler than the doings of atoms. We call them complex, but what they really are is interesting. Which is why it is possible to write history across centuries or even millennia despite radical changes in how people cook, eat, farm, trade, fight, travel, write, compute, build, revel, sicken, dance, and sing that should reduce any general narrative to incoherence—epistemic breaks are the least of the problem. But whether in Babylon or Bayonne, in the Iliad or on the Sopranos, each renewal of the mammalian game of King of the Hill remains as stereotyped and inevitable as the zillionth hand of pinochle with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Jo.

Just because an issue doesn’t irritate my moral sensibilities doesn’t mean it isn’t a real question. I have a rather leathery heart, after all. But I just can’t escape the feeling that all the hand wringing and Presidential commissions about stem cells and genetic engineering are mostly an empty ritual, moral busy work that allows politicians and religious entrepreneurs to demonstrate their earnestness without confronting the irresistible changes in human life that really bother them. A clone, for example, is nothing more nor less than an artificial identical twin, so that even if there were some reason to create a lot of people in this fashion—unlikely, since human beings can already be mass produced by unskilled labor—the resulting pairs would be no more alarming than any other Terri and Toni or Mike and Nick. Meanwhile, there really is something icky about the radical franchising of our existence and the emergence of the electronic hive mind. Nobody knows what to do about Walmart, so we get excited about steroidal outfielders or designer babies instead. Something similar takes place in the hysteria about decency on television. While Janet Jackson’s boob is apparently a national security issue, the plot lines of shows like CSI are grotesquely and entertainingly perverse. I came to during one episode last year, suddenly startled by a story that revolved around semen detected in a discarded wad of chewing gum. Indeed, in their endless attempts to achieve more and more extreme effects, such shows reflect the characteristic stylistic frustration of the Marquis de Sade whose tableaux are also finally thwarted by steric hindrance and the limitations of human sexual stamina. Apparently, we have to get excited about Howard Stern’s use of the word “fuck” because we certainly don’t want to take judicial notice of the hypersexuality of the rest of the media.
Verily Lord Jesus Come Quickly (Revelation 22:20)

One way of escaping credit card debt is to drop dead before you reach your limit. I’m sure plenty of spendthrifts have found themselves contemplating that out. The financial, environmental, and international policies of the administration have a similar logic. They are perfectly prudent and reasonable assuming the Rapture occurs before 2010 or so. If not, they are criminally irresponsible. Various right-wing spokesmen explain that we need not do anything about global warming because the science is unclear, for example, and some of them may even believe their own line, but the deeper explanation of the indifference is the sense that the physical world is getting old and decrepit anyhow and doesn’t matter very much except as a suitably bleak setting for the eschatological drama. No reason to give up smoking if you’ve already got lung cancer.

As Keynes famously observed, “in the long run we’re all dead.” On the other hand, there’s something to be said for leaders whose time horizon extends to their grandchildren. At the very least, since we plain don’t know what America or, for that matter, the human race as a whole can reasonably expect or hope for in the future, it would seem prudent not to foreclose possibilities unnecessarily. Eschatological thinking, however, is not merely appealing to unscrupulous political leaders. It offers the mass of their followers the allure of the extreme. End-of-the-World fantasies aren’t just for psychotics. Indeed, Heidegger got it wrong in Being and Time. The ultimate temporal horizon of an intrinsically social being is not individual death but universal apocalypse. In this respect, Tim LaHaye not only possesses more commercial savvy than Heidegger but also demonstrates a sounder grasp of existential phenomenology.