Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Salient Facts with No Commercial Appeal

Whenever a story deals with genetics, newspapers trot out the same three-paragraph boilerplate about how DNA works. To judge by what people tell me at coffee bars, even this minimalist pedagogical gesture is a flop; but what interests me is how the background information is both limited and dated. The canned account is not wrong but normally doesn’t include anything that wasn’t known in 1965 or so. Of course there is no obvious reason why lay people should be up-to-date on the biochemical particulars—even scientists normally only know bits and pieces of the vast fabric—but a lot of misunderstanding might be avoided if the sheer scale and intricacy of the enterprise were made visible. Besides, the real monuments of our civilization, its invisible cathedrals, are the great scientific syntheses. We’re like peasants who don’t bother to look at the pyramids.

Beyond Skepticism

The incoherence of modern theological discourse makes it impossible to be an atheist. Until somebody tells me what God is, how do I know I don’t believe in Him? I can’t even retreat to agnosticism since I don’t know what is I’m supposed to doubt. Since the time of Kant, philosophically inclined people have had a problem with religion that goes far beyond a crisis of Faith. It’s not just that the old arguments about the existence of God don’t prove anything. They don’t explain anything either. It isn’t just that we don’t know if there is a first cause or a necessary being. The concept of first cause or necessary being doesn’t make sense.

Thoughtful believers understand this problem. Some of them have turned religious faith into a vague yet fervent affirmation of life. Others interpret everything morally—ethics has held up better than theology as a credible variety of philosophizing. The most common response and certainly the most popular is to denounce the whole idea of philosophical theology and embrace the notion of a God that can only be known as the God of a people or group of peoples. This line of thought can be pursued with some tact and subtlety but also with startling vulgarity. Hence the assertion recently voiced by some Fundamentalists that Yahweh, God, and Allah aren’t the same entity at all. That seems to make God into an action figure in a fantasy game, but in the absence of some conceptual understanding of the Supreme Being, what’s the alternative?


A lot of the ideas in the Old Testament are disturbingly red—the New Testament is even worse—but it’s easy to forget that radical thinking stems from scripture. Much of the Book of Isaiah, for example, is quite a bit to the left of the New Democrats or me, for that matter. You might think that the political tendencies of the Bible, particularly the endlessly reiterated denunciations of the rich, would create a problem for rightist Fundamentalists. What must be understood is that that people like Bush are actually pagans who, by a historical accident, have come to call their idol by the name of Jesus.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Vulgar Marxism

Like the first tax cut, the proposed Bush tax plan guarantees a personal bonanza for the more successful talking heads on television. Under the circumstances, I don’t blame the media for supporting the Administration to the hilt. It would be the sheerest vanity on their part to rate their self-respect as worth more than that kind of money. "I hadn’t planned to sell my soul; but the offer was so good; and I had to think about my family."

Reality TV

Environmentalists sometimes complain about the nature shows on cable. People get used to seeing magnificent animals frisking through the jungle and conclude that all is well without realizing that it may be the same elephant every time. By an analogous mechanism, the public has been convinced that the recent live fire exercise in Iraq was a real war and our victory over a helpless enemy was some how glorious or remarkable. But the grief of real wars is sons and husbands and brothers lost.

Contrast our electronically enhanced glory with this picture from an old family story: I was a couple of months old and my mother was rocking me to sleep when the news of the end of World War II came over the radio. The young woman wept and wept in joy and relief as she kept on rocking her baby.

Flying Solo

In Roman times, a fool accompanied the victorious general in his golden chariot and whispered in his ear, "Remember, you are mortal." The recent photo opportunity on the aircraft carrier honored this tradition in an elegantly economical way.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Videodrome II

One of the unprecedented characteristics of our time is the ubiquity of the mass media. Except on AM radio, the ideological thrust of the content may not be as uniform as the party line under Stalin and, to date, the endlessly repeated messages aren’t backed up by deportations and executions. But no totalitarian ever disposed of the technical ability to fill the air with images and anthems on the current scale. Like a metronome, the cerebral electronic pacemaker ensures that everybody keeps to the beat, and archivists of the Objective Spirit will be able to date stray fragments of video by their references to the obsession of the day—O.J., Monica, Princess Di, Laci Peterson—much as paleontologists identify strata by the occurrence of successive species of graptolites.

The prosthetic group mind is doubtlessly very helpful to the powers that be, but the resulting unification of the whole nation into an enormous high school ruled by a single clique presents a perpetual challenge to human vanity. After all, almost everybody is a loser in a country that can be approximately but aptly described as a very big strip mall. Hence the prominence of identification as a defense mechanism against the threat of realistic self-knowledge. If we couldn’t identify with the cool kids or imagine that we may suddenly become one of them, the intolerable recognition would set off a spasm of murderous narcissistic rage. In fact, from time to time it does.