I’ve been talking with Alison a lot over the past week about insanity — particularly insanity in societies. Obviously individual people can be insane — usually broadly defined as mental or emotional distress that interferes with functioning normally in society. But what would it mean for a whole community to be insane? Is that even possible?
Alison recently wrote a post on this over at Pagan+Politics, with some thoughts on the recent shooting in Tuscon. I’m not going to repeat everything she said there, but to summarize, some recent thinking suggests that aggregates of people can indeed collectively suffer from mental illness. In such a situation, the sane person is one who experiences mental or emotional distress.
A few months ago there was another breakthrough in geriatrics. This time, scientists were actually able to reverse aging in mice.
The very thought of reversing aging has been considered insane for most of the history of science. Getting old happens — to animals, plants, buildings, planets, and stars. Bodies, like everything else, just wears out, and there isn’t much you could do about it. Sure, you could slow aging, you could keep healthy and avoid microbes and so on, and maybe double your lifespan. But reversing aging? Living forever? That’s crazy talk.
There’s no chance for us
Its all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us
Who wants to live forever
Who wants to live forever? …
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die…
Humans have been ambivalent about immortality for a long, long, time. You can see it in our myths. People who want to live forever are almost always portrayed as shallow fools who end up living forever old, or mourning the deaths of their friends, or committing suicide, or similarly unhappy. The moral: quality of life is more important than quantity.
But by the time my grandchildren are born, I might be able to go to the doctor and get started on a simple drug regimen that would make me biologically younger than I am right now. I might have a lot of quality and quantity of life.
Imagine you were given that choice. Would you? Should you? It’s worth thinking about, because regardless of your own choice, some people certainly will.
Year is originally from way back in Proto-Indo-European, yer, meaning “doer”, i.e. one who does something or makes something. It became jæram in Proto-Germanic, and gear in Old English, before softening to year in modern English. Energetically, year packs a lot of punch; it’s a forceful, powerful, high-strung burst.
2009 definitely packed a punch. A lot of folks I know had a pretty rotten 2009 — losing jobs, losing marriages, losing family. 2009, as a doer, seems to have done a lot of people wrong. I had a great year myself, but certainly I went through a lot of changes, not all of them easy.
Overall, our species is in quite a fix: the world economy continues to sputter, the world environment is under constant and accelerating attack, and people just keep on going to war, and murdering each other. On the other hand, the chances for improvement have never been better — so many of us are connected to each other, and committed to change, and believe change is possible…
But we need more than connection, commitment, and belief. We need maturity. And it’s going to be hard to get.
There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction: Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.
In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G. Ain’t Science great?
In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem. Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off. Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost. Other times we lose. Science makes a nasty Villain. Moral: Science sure can be dangerous, kids!
These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course. Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones: HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix… The villains, the nightmares, echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling. Read more
A Guest Post by Ali, of Meadowsweet & Myrrh
Jeff’s last post illustrated very well the kind of divisive rhetoric utilized in most political speeches these days, language that takes for granted an implicit superiority of American citizens and soldiery, and that rejects understanding, compassion and forgiveness for fear that such things will lead to acceptance of and complicity in violence (that is, those forms of violence deemed unacceptable by the State). His post, by reversing the target of this rhetoric, raised a lot of hackles and provoked a lot of feedback, through comments and email, about the basic immorality of justifying violence and excusing killers. Now, with his gracious permission, I would like to try my hand at rewriting Obama’s speech, not by reversing its aim, but by turning the rhetoric itself on its head, and speaking in terms of inclusion rather than exclusion, connection instead division. This is the speech I wish Obama had given, though for reasons that will become obvious, it is not one I ever expect any political leader in this country to give.
A tragedy like the one that claimed the lives of thirteen people at Fort Hood, indeed any tragedy of sudden and senseless death, challenges us to reevaluate our priorities, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. In our grief, we reach out for meaning, for reassurance and comfort, and for a sense of peace and goodness in the world. During such times, it would be so easy to turn like those before us have done, to familiar words of patriotism and national pride. It would be easy to give these deaths the meaning of noble sacrifice in a greater cause — and to name that cause with words like “freedom” that we have claimed as exclusively our own, though truly such things belong to all people, inalienably, as the founders of this country knew so well. Read more
Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric. Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic says:
“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”
And yes, it’s a moving speech, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents. For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim: to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.
And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.
So I offer below an alternative speech: the speech Obama should have given.
I don’t usually have posts that do nothing but link elsewhere, but I couldn’t resist pointing you over to Ali’s latest, The Group of Twenty and the Mythology of the Market. Ali’s thesis is that myths are not just stories that our ancestors believed back when the human race was young and full of childlike innocence, but are alive and well today. We don’t recognize them as myths because we think they’re true, and everyone knows that myths are false. Right?…
But if you step back and take a serious look, you can see that there are certain pervasive modern beliefs that have the same structure, function, and emotional punch that the myths of our ancestors did. They provide a meaningful worldview, giving our society a place in the universe, and holding up examples of heroes and villains to guide individuals toward ethical action. They even have “gods” and “priests” and “prophets” and “blood sacrifices”, though they’re not called that any longer…
- America the Free. This one comes complete with Creation Myth (the Revolution, with Washington taking the place of Zeus as he battles the insane Titan-like George III), prophets (Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln), high priests (presidents and other military commanders, pundits and politicians), idols (The Statue of Liberty, the Flag) and even human sacrifice (young people sent off to “die for freedom”).
- Science the Savior. Ironically enough, in this Creation Myth, Science the Savior conquers Myth itself to give order to the world and society, just like Zeus vs. the Titans, Odin vs. the Jotuns, and George Washington vs. George III. Prophets include Alhazen, Bacon, Descartes, and Mill; modern priests include Dawkins and P. Z. Myers. The Cult of Science does not generally demand human sacrifice, but it does demand animal sacrifice — in laboratories, by the millions.
- Humanity Rules the Earth. Read Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. No, really — read it.
- The Omniscient, Omnipotent Market. But this one is the subject of Ali’s excellent post. So get on over there and read it already!