Sunday, June 6, 2021

As A Child I Wanted To Explore Space, Now I Want To Save The Earth


I was born in 1966. For me that meant growing up in the era where space exploration was, as was said in the greatest Sci-Fi TV series of the time, the final frontier. I got to watch as human beings blasted off to the moon and returned to tell about it. If you were not of that era I cannot express to you what an amazing thing it was to consider traveling off-planet for the first time. It was my greatest goal to explore new worlds. It almost seemed like my generation’s destiny. It was my dream to rescue space babes from alien creatures as I had seen it done in so many movies and comic books.

 But I never imagined doing so while leaving a burned-out husk of a planet behind. For me, space exploration meant bringing all that was good and noble about humanity out into the broader universe.

 Now it just seems like a way of leaving all that is worst of us behind. At the cost of a planet. At the cost of every other living being that now inhabits it. And if we are to be quite honest about it, at the expense of about 99.999% of our fellow human beings. Because the vast preponderance of us humans are never getting off this rock alive. All of us with the possible exception of a very elect few have always been and will always be Earthlings.

 I am shocked at how many of us are willing to invest the future of our species in the dreams and aspirations of an elite few. But somehow that flaw seems to run deep in the human species. Parents have since the beginning of recorded history given their children up to die in wars that only serve the interests of kings. I guess it’s kind of selfless, but it’s kind of stupid, too.

 I am older now, and the idea of space travel still intrigues me. But I have other interests now. From my earliest years I was concerned about the environment. At one time I just assumed that humanity was capable of both exploring other worlds AND preserving the only world we had ever known. I mean, it only seemed logical that a species intelligent enough to escape the planet of its origin would also be intelligent enough to take care of its home. And God knows, we should be decent enough to do this, as well.

 But preserving our planet no longer seems a priority to us. Instead, we have decided we must move beyond it before our inability to act sustainably puts an end to our species. This is the mindset we have acquired because we have adopted the values of a very tiny but narcissistic, loud, and confident portion of us. But it is not my mindset, and it never will be.

 Do I feel it is my responsibility to aid in sending a few of our species outward into space to colonize other worlds? Not if my species is one which is incapable of sustaining life on its own planet. Not if my species is incapable of coming in peace. Not if my species is intent on visiting other planets only to exploit their resources and leave whatever life they encounter to die in the pollution it creates. If my species is directly involved in the killing of other terrestrial species and perhaps life itself on the very planet that gave birth to it, why would I wish that on the rest of the universe?

 Should it not be my responsibility to contain this deadly virus before it is able to spread? Is it any different from what we encounter with a pandemic?

 I look at the stars not too differently than I did as a child. I view them with reverence and awe and wonder, and my spirit soars with the desire to know more about the universe of which I am a part. But whatever confusion I had as a child about the difference between exploration and conquest is now gone. The culture I grew up in was very different than the one in which I now find myself. Star Trek was not merely revelatory to the child I was because of the scientific possibilities, but because of the cultural advancements it suggested would coincide with technological progress. At the present moment, scientific and moral progress have been entirely uncoupled.

 Perhaps there will come a time when the human species will be capable of traveling to distant planets. But that is no longer an interest of mine. My priorities are to preserve the planet of my birth, and all the life that lives upon it. I have no desire to view humankind as a parasite that kills its host and moves onto another. I believe we are more than that and that we have not yet shown the best of who we are. To achieve such moral and spiritual progress will require a belief and vision beyond any we’ve demonstrated before. But there was a time not long ago when space flight was just as unthinkable. And yet it was only a matter of three-score and six years between when human flight was unknown to human beings placing footprints upon the moon. Miraculous change can come in the span of a single person’s lifetime. I not only expect such change, I demand it. Until such a change has come, though, don’t expect me to care about Elon Musk’s plans for humanity.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

Jack London’s The Iron Heel And Our Ability To Overlook And Rationalize Injustice

 


In the movie The Lady Vanishes, a young woman meets and befriends an older woman aboard a train. When the young woman later seeks out her new-found friend after receiving a bump on her head, suddenly the old woman is nowhere to be found. Worse, no one on the train admits to having seen such a woman at all. People the young woman knew had seen her friend suddenly say she must have imagined it all.

 It turns out each of the people on the train has a reason for not admitting to having seen the old woman: a pair of sports fans are anxious to get to a football match, another man is having an affair and doesn’t want to involve himself in a police investigation, etc. The bottom line is, a group of people are willing to permit a woman to simply vanish without looking for her for purely individual and selfish reasons.

 In the chapter, Jackson’s Arm, from The Iron Heel, a woman named Avis goes in search of the truth regarding the case of a worker who lost his arm in an industrial accident without receiving any compensation from the company he worked for. Avis is quite ensconced and comfortable in society and has no desire to discover a company her father has stock in is capable of treating a worker so unjustly. Surely there must have been something Jackson did wrong to not only be deprived of compensation for his lost arm but also fired from his job. Before she begins her investigation, she is told by the young revolutionary who has challenged her to seek the truth that those people who have helped prevent Jackson receive justice are all tied to the machine that profits from depriving him his due.

 The lawyer who took Jackson’s case admitted that, had he won, he would have taken Jackson for all he was worth in order to escape his situation. But as it was, he never had any chance against the high-powered lawyers aligned against him. But, you see, he was tied to the machine by his children who were not prospering in the filthy neighborhood in which they lived.

 The foreman was willing to speak in confidence to Avis that he thought Jackson should have won his case, though in court he testified against him. He too blamed his actions on his love for his family, saying “it wouldn't a-ben healthy," to speak the truth. He had worked at the mills since he was a child, gradually working his way up to a foreman position. To go against the company would be to surrender everything he had worked so hard for. Asked about how he was able to go against his own conscience and lie to keep Jackson from his rightful settlement, he says “"I'd let me soul an' body burn in everlastin' hell for them children of mine."

 A further meeting with the supervisor at the mill says the same things as the foreman, adding that “It won't do you any good to repeat anything I've said. I'll deny it, and there are no witnesses. I'll deny every word of it; and if I have to, I'll do it under oath on the witness stand."

 Returning to her revolutionary, she tells him, "He seems to have been badly treated. I—I—think some of his blood is dripping from our roof-beams."

 And here she hits on a very important point. Of the people she has spoken to so far, they have each acted unjustly but for reasonable causes: the wellbeing of their families. Avis is the daughter of a college professor. Though far from being wealthy himself, he is nonetheless in a position to acquire a degree of wealth from the labor of others (i.e. he owns stock in the mill where Jackson worked). Whereas those further down the class system than he have no delusions about the wrongness of what they are forced to do, Avis and her father are detached from the reality of it enough that they can deny the wrongness of a system that abandons a worker who has lost his arm while reaching into a machine to try to save it from being wrecked.

 When one does not directly see the ugliness of a system but instead sits in comfort because of it, it is far easier to justify it and even sanctify such a system. That is the role of those who sit between the upper class and the lower. This is where Avis and her father sit, and it is not easy for her to rip herself away from the illusions that have permitted her thus far to have a privileged life. As she sees how others are tied to the machine, she realizes too that she and her father are tied to it as well, and that if she pushes too far into unpleasant truths that it will harm their family as it would those who serve the machine below.

 Avis finds herself in the position of Oedipus, determined to find the truth while sensing the pursuit will only bring about her ruin. Still, she presses on. She speaks with Colonel Ingram, the lawyer for the corporation, whose work prevented a payment to the injured party. He admits that Jackson was due compensation but that his professional duty was to argue on the side of the company. She asks him:

 "Tell me," I said, "when one surrenders his personal feelings to his professional feelings, may not the action be defined as a sort of spiritual mayhem?" I did not get an answer. Colonel Ingram had ingloriously bolted, overturning a palm in his flight.

 She next speaks to a young reporter for one of the papers that did not report on Jackson’s case. He is full of excuses for why the paper did not cover it, saying first of all that it was an editorial decision that did not involve him. He says, “I, myself, do not write untruthful things.” Implicit in the statement is that he is okay with staying silent on issues that might be important. Still more implied is the notion that one who is able to stay silent on important issues is not far from lying about them. Or rationalizing about them.

 Lastly she interviews two of the major stockholders in the mill that has deprived Jackson of his due compensation. Of them, her revolutionary friend says “They were convinced that they were the saviours of society, and that it was they who made happiness for the many. And they drew pathetic pictures of what would be the sufferings of the working class were it not for the employment that they, and they alone, by their wisdom, provided for it…Like all the rest of humanity, (they) are tied to the machine, but they are so tied that they sit on top of it."

 Avis describes them thus: “They talked in large ways of policy, and they identified policy and right. And to me they talked in fatherly ways, patronizing my youth and inexperience. They were the most hopeless of all I had encountered in my quest. They believed absolutely that their conduct was right. There was no question about it, no discussion.”

 Wherever you are positioned in the machine, it is difficult to speak against it. Because whether your life is one of unceasing struggle or pampered ease, the machine is quick to discard the cog that is not serving it. And while those at the bottom recognize that their service is due to necessity, those tied to the top view it as beneficent. While those at the bottom see the injustice done to the many, those who sit on top see only the fineness of the machine, and can only imagine the suffering that occurs at the bottom of the machine to be due to the moral failings of those upon which the entire machinery rests. Too often, their attitudes trickle down to those who uphold them.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Sea Wolf And The Oppressed Oppressor

 


Many decades before Ayn Rand developed her theory of selfishness as a virtue, Jack London had already debunked it in his novel, The Sea Wolf. More than that, The Sea Wolf was an attack on Social Darwinism and Nietzscheism, which were popular at the time. The idea that success and survival were built on strength and will alone. Wolf Larson was a man not only of tremendous strength but also great intellect. More than that, he was a man unafraid to use his strengths in order to be supreme ruler of his ship.

 The story begins with a civilized man who is merely taking a ferry across the bay from Oakland to visit a friend in San Francisco. When the ferry sinks in a collision in the fog, he is dragged out into the ocean and is rescued by the Ghost, the ship upon which Wolf Larson rules as a dictator rules a nation.

 Wolf Larson is the oppressor of all his crew. But dominance is a trait which is taught, so that the stronger of those being dominated by the alpha-male, Wolf, mirror his behavior towards the less strong. Thus, at the bottom of the rung there exists one who is bullied by all, the cook Thomas Mugridge. That is, of course, until the rescued and refined main character, Humphry Van Weydon, is brought aboard.

 Humphry is given the demeaning nickname “Hump”, and now sits at the bottom of the ship’s food chain. And rather than getting any sympathy from or solidarity with Mugridge, he is treated as poorly by Mugridge as Mugridge is treated by everybody else.

 I have sadly experienced people like Mugridge myself. There are those who look in their small ways to use the cruelty they've been taught on others even less capable of defending themselves. So often it is the kind person, the person not used to living in a cruel environment, who become the victim of such people. They become victims not because they are weaker but because they assume that treating one such as he with kindness might help him become a better person.

 I swear to you that I have known people who perceive the kindness shown by others as weakness. Do a favor for someone such as he and he will think he has found an easy touch and will seek to exploit you. He will show you no respect so long as you try to treat him fairly. He will not back off until you demonstrate the only thing he knows as real: strength.

 Sadly, there are many people who are victims of power who become like lesser models of their victimizer. People among oppressed classes, nations, genders, or races who mirror the very thing they should most despise. Aboard the Ghost, cruelty is the lesson taught by Wolf Larson and the lesson learned by his crew.

 “Hump” has come from a different environment, one which is more civilized and less obviously oppressive. Being aboard the Ghost, he is forced to fight for his own rights and dignity, but he does not lose his ideals. He believes viscerally that this is not the way to run a ship.

 This is the only sane reaction to such cruelty, a cruelty that has echoed through Twentieth Century in the guise of fascism and imperialism. We’ve seen societies based on strength, cruelty, and violence. Such ways of organizing either a ship or a society have always been opposed by those seeking justice, whether it be through mutiny or political revolution. Unfortunately, the lesson of cruelty has been learned too well among some belonging to the oppressed class. And while they might support a revolution that will get rid of their oppressor, they are not doing it to achieve justice. They are doing it so that they might get the upper hand over others where before they were powerless.

 In The Sea Wolf, Wolf Larson is unable to live in the world he has shaped for himself and unwilling to imagine another world is possible. He has created a philosophy where cruelty is necessary and strength is the only thing that can shape the world. But inwardly, despite his immense physical and mental strength, he is being destroyed by incapacitating headaches and the very ugliness of his own convictions.

Mugridge and Wolf Larson are eventually killed by the cruel world they cannot escape. Hump has also been forced to contend with the cruelty of the “real” world, the law of struggle, of tooth and claw, and is made stronger as a result. But he refuses to believe it is the only reality possible, and so survives it. 

 Jack London was no stranger to the struggle for life. He was an adventurer in an age of adventurers, exploring a better part of the world the way the underclass does, by hard labor and great courage and endurance. But while he went to the Arctic in search of gold and worked as a crewmember on ships that sailed the oceans, while he saw the cruelty to be found in nature and in man, while he knew what it took to survive distanced from civilization, he maintained a vision of a better world possible.

 We need to be able to maintain a foothold in both camps if we are to build a world that is not ruled by the likes of a Wolf Larson. We need to envision a nobler world while being able to survive in the harsh world as it exists today. To do this we will have to engage with the Mugridges and force them to respect us, because if we do nothing they will eat away at the world we long to create. Because they are incapable of or unwilling to see a world that is not just some smaller version of Wolf Larson’s. I see them today in various groups that talk about building a better society. While they rail against those who oppress them, you clearly see them mirroring the very behavior they say they oppose. They are the ones saying you must fight fire with fire. And while they are not quite emboldened enough yet to use actual violence, they will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to maintain their own personal positions of power and security.

 I see it too in people who were once oppressed who, having the opportunity to rule over others, are little better than their former oppressors.

The problem with a Mugridge is that they live entirely within the world shaped by the Wolf Larsons. They will never shake free of it, and while they may say they are fighting oppression, they are doing so only to free themselves from it, not eradicate it. Such a mindset can never lead to a more just society, it will only change who will be the oppressor and who the oppressed.

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