December 09, 2006

Death To The Public Mind

Evangelical clergy in Kenya have insisted that the national museum hide fossil hominids from view, lest people be corrupted by viewing physical evidence of evolution. They want the entire conversation to be held with the scientific community having to give up the accumulated evidence and debate on their territory, to have a purely metaphysical argument in which an appeal to reasonable doubt sounds about as plausible as anything else.

So it gets me thinking about those fossils. Who were they? What did they know? Whom did they love? What were their favorite things or their worst moments? What stories did they tell each other over meals? We'll never know. They've left nothing but bones to testify to their existence. If they were advanced enough to have thoughts that approach the complexity of our own, they hadn't figured out writing yet so we're left merely to speculate. We can't prove that they were anything more than funny looking, two-legged, mammalian ancestors with outsized brains that had learned to chip out stone tools.

Imagine that a pod of dolphins were discovered tomorrow that had developed a complex body of literature and art that they'd managed to record in some fashion and could translate for us. I suspect that it would be easier to come to think of them as 'people' than it is to think that way about the bare bones in the Kenyan national museum. 'What's your story,' we ask of each other, 'what have you discovered?'

Which is why Fahrenheit 451 is such a classic, so widely read. Without the story of our civilization, what makes us anything more than funny looking, two-legged animals with an overdeveloped nervous system? We would be nothing but a teeming mass of ozymandii, without remembrance to the future, without appreciation of the historical efforts that got us where we are. As timeless as the lions and gazelles of the Serengeti, locked forever in the same basic struggle, which neither side is intelligent enough to move beyond.

We know that someday, we're going to die, along with everyone we know and know of. Eventually. We will, to quote a much argued over comment, "vanish from the page of time." The evangelical leader spearheading the effort to hide the bones of humanity's ancestors knows this, and his response is to insist on a ritual shunning that will placate the great deity he supplicates on a daily basis for the personal gift of posthumous immortality. The scientists who uncovered those bones have responded through their lives with a quest to add to the greater sum of knowledge to be, hopefully, passed on to future generations. Their enduring hope has been that others can use their efforts to get a little bit farther along than they did.

Which is why the end of Fahrenheit both disturbed and touched me at the same time. The survivors who remembered some piece of lost knowledge came to know each other as the book fragments they could recite. Their hearts were in the right place, but it seems impossible not to feel the tragedy inherent in the preservation of only the book of Genesis out of the Bible, to think that Tom Sawyer might remain only in the form of a hazily recollected outline.

What would I remember in detail of what I've read? A few fragments of songs or poetry maybe, the gist and a few quotations from favorite novels, the general principles and some theories from my textbooks, but probably not that much more. If I'd been raised in a society that kept everything in the form of oral histories, it's possible that I'd remember a few volumes worth of facts and stories in a readily accessible fashion, but we don't do that anymore. Not now, when even several encyclopedic volumes worth of material wouldn't be enough to sum up the amount of scientific knowledge accumulated in a year or the unfoldings of another full year's worth of modern history and analysis.

The destruction of any of that knowledge, therefore, seems like a second death for its authors and the people they were inspired by. Just as the extinction of a species is the erasure of all its genetic knowledge of how to survive in its particular surroundings. Just as the destruction of an ecosystem wipes out an answer to the question, 'how is it possible to sustain life in this place, what relationships are necessary, and how much life can be so sustained?' Just as the destruction of civil infrastructure in war and the death or leaving of those who built and sustained it can wipe away civilization from a community as thoroughly as if it had never existed there at all.

And these sorts of destructions, these losses of information, are mourned by the Bush administration and their supporters no more than the losses of human life in Iraq, whether we speak of our soldiers or the Iraqis. They're no different than the Taliban who destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas along with the lives and hopes of countless people, than the sort of radical evangelicals who would destroy or hide whatever knowledge conflicts with their faith. It's just all so much nothing to them. They are no respecters of persons, nor knowledge, nor suffering, nor wisdom gained through the accumulation of experience.

Could anyone who knew that they're destroyers of books doubt how little they must care for the lives of the people they were meant to communicate with? Two stories from a diary by seesdifferent at Daily Kos:

... In a letter dated November 30, 2006, four incoming House Democratic committee chairs demanded that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson assure them "that the destruction or disposition of all library holdings immediately ceased upon the Agency's receipt of this letter and that all records of library holdings and dispersed materials are being maintained." On the very next day, December 1st, EPA de-linked thousands of documents from the website for the Office of Prevention, Pollution and Toxic Substances (OPPTS) Library, in EPA's Washington D.C. Headquarters.

Last month without notice to its scientists or the public, EPA abruptly closed the OPPTS Library, the agency's only specialized research repository on health effects and properties of toxic chemicals and pesticides. The web purge follows reports that library staffers were ordered to destroy its holdings by throwing collections into recycling bins. ...


The NASA library in Greenbelt, Md., was part of John C. Mather's daily routine for years leading up to the astrophysicist's sharing of the 2006 Nobel Prize for shedding new light on the big bang theory of creation. He researched existing space hardware and instrumentation there while designing a satellite that collected data for his prize-winning discovery.

So when he learned that federal officials were planning to close the library, Mather was stunned.

"It is completely absurd," he said. "The library is a national treasure. It is probably the single strongest library for space science and engineering in the universe." ...

We're governed by people who are nothing but holes through which food flows in the process of accumulating more flesh, without even the sense to care what might happen to their grandchildren in a world they're systematically dismantling for their extravagant feasts of power and luxurious consumption. Useless fucking nihilsts all.

Posted by natasha at December 9, 2006 03:21 PM | Censorship | Technorati links |

...yeah, sometimes the tapestry of human history gets unraveled. ...or rewritten. ...or has a new coat of paint slapped on it.

Posted by: Darryl Pearce at December 9, 2006 10:08 PM

Being selfish is part and parcel of human nature. Striving and achieving aren't an issue for me. However, evil, to me, is when your selfish desires crowd out all other options, drown out all other voices, both from within and without.

Willful blindness, in short, even if it means destruction all around you, to maintain your preconceptions.

Satan was cast down as much because he could not accept a world where he wasn't its center as much as for his challenge to God.

Which is why when people do things for the greater good, regardless of whether the sphere in which it happens is poltical, social, civil or financial, it gets noticed.

The enlightening aspect of conservatism is when it reminds us effectively that human nature must be accounted for in how society attempts to make things happen for the better for those most in need of it. The soul-deadening aspect of conservatism is when one's self-interest is so prevalent that it doesn't matter who suffers around them as long as they can maintain their illusions of a self-centered world.

For the foreseeable future, this will be one of the defining battles of what it means to be human over the next few decades. The end of Marxist-Leninist Communism and the utter neglect of the Third World has released from many quarters a conservatism that doesn't worry about human nature, but that exploits it for its own purposes and screw you if you aren't in on the joke, whether it's racism disguised as radical Islam in Sudan, the Communist Party in China determined to have no competitors within its country to define how one interacts within its society (and more than willing to play the ethnic card when needed), the rise of African "Christian" churches which use the fear of Islam and gays to solidify their leadership and extend their reach into the United States (as through the Espiscopal church - oh, and the "Islamic" groups in Sub-Saharan Africa play the same cards), or the present incarnation of the Republican Party in this country.

Are we strong enough to fight for the greater good, even when we know we'll be fighting the most base of all fears, the most selfish of all desires? Given enough time, I think we can defeat it, but until we grab the reins more effectively, we have some rough years ahead.

A lot of people will suffer and die, in the meantime, for the ability of certain people in power to maintain their illusions.

My two bits...

Posted by: palamedes at December 10, 2006 10:49 AM

If Genesis is remembered with some of its context, then remembering it could be very valuable indeed. The historican influence of the Bible is far from small, and differing interpretations of it have been nuclei for much of Europe's history. A document that has inspired people to such astonishing heights of inspiration and depths of depravity shouldn't be forgotten.
On another point: I do take heart from the response of librarians to the Patriot Act, though. They basically Just Said No to handing over patron records--it was a fundamental violation of the reason to be a librarian: connecting people with knowledge. It's possible that some of those purged holdings will be mysteriously refound in a back store-room after Bush is safely out of office.

Posted by: tjewell at December 10, 2006 01:48 PM