Thursday, May 1, 2008

Whom Shall We Smite Now?

Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, We never run out of hope when we love one another! When they raise the prices of bread When they lower the wage Together we hold our key inside of their cage! Carry on... --RCPM, "Leave an Open Door" I finally decided to label it, "The Malaise." It set in at the beginning of the week and seemed to be a natural offshoot of having too much time with too little going on and not enough good news. It felt kind of like depression, but that diagnosis was too clinical and it implies an internal mental state. This was situational and could change the moment I found a purpose. Still, I wasn't really feeling like doing anything. I just wanted to stay in bed. I didn't see the point in getting up. I hadn't exactly expected to be sans employment as long as I've been, so my plan was simple. I was going to keep regular hours so I'd be prepared to re-join the world in a week or two. My natural sleep state, I believe, is about 2 AM to 10 AM or maybe 3 to 11, and that kind of conflicts with a regular day. After a month of, um, whatever I've been doing, I've started to lose my sense of routine. But it's not just an issue of when I sleep, it's an issue of what I do when I wake up. Mostly, that time while awake has involved waiting for the phone to ring. It's soul-crushingly boring. It's sad, too, as I'd planned on actually getting stuff accomplished while I was waiting. I've mostly ended up catching up on my Mythbusters, however. And I've ended up spending a lot of time listening to the radio, so I'm getting a lot of political news. I just got a flash bit of a news report, but it seemed to factor in to my thoughts about The Malaise. It was a simple statement that Obama and Clinton were talking about what they'd do to lower gas prices. I thought, "Why do we think they can do anything about it?" Gas prices are a product of market forces, futures speculation, and taxation. There are exactly three ways that the government can have a direct effect on that: open up new oil fields (ANWAR, specifically, but even if they started drilling now, by the time those oil fields come online we'll be on the Presidential Administration following Obama/Clinton/McCain), cut in to the strategic reserves, or cut taxes. Cutting taxes will only be an illusory gain, as we're $400 billion plus in the red for the fiscal year as it is and the money will just come from some other taxation that we don't notice. Using the strategic reserves will be as ineffective as it is stupid. Opening ANWAR won't do a thing to help us until we're accustomed to paying $4.50 a gallon anyway. There are, of course, indirect ways to lower gas prices, although this is speaking in relative terms for some of them. One of the easiest is to encourage more fuel-efficient vehicles and raise the CAFE standards. Again, though, even if every 13 MPG SUV is taken off the road in favor of a compact or a hybrid SUV, it will take a while and gas will probably be really freaking expensive by then, anyway, especially since China will probably be using a lot of it by then. We could also rebuild the value of the dollar relative to the rest of the world's currencies, but that concept is so very abstract in both concept and execution that it makes for a lousy sound byte. Also, I strongly suspect that if a candidate said, "We're going to lower gas prices by increasing the value of the dollar," he or she would be met with crickets from all but a small percentage of the audience. Yet we live in a society that seems to think that we can elect a President who is going to be able to magically lower gas prices and probably wouldn't accept, "I can't," as a valid response to the question. We're waiting for a savior in November and preparing to vote according to our definitions of what we think a savior should be. This is that weird moment of convergence (an unexpected moment, might I add). It's the place where Loco to Stay Sane dovetails in to The Mythology Project. It's the place where, for a moment, we can honestly look to the question of whether the mythological hero still exists, or even still makes sense in our system of philosophy and government. As I moved from being a kinda-sorta Evangelical Christian to being a kinda-sorta agnostic to a probably atheist, I realized something deeply important. We live in a modern (or post-modern) world that's being governed largely by bronze and iron age values. The best example I can use for this is that of justice. Those outside of the Christian tradition tend to have a problem with the concept of eternal damnation in Hell. The gut reaction is, basically, "How can I do anything on this planet that's worth being damned to Hell forever?" The pat response is, "You're sinning against god, so you've committed a finite sin, but it's against an infinite god so it requires infinite punishment." That idea sounds like utter crap to an awful lot of people. It's because modern people tend to work under what could be called a Jeffersonian system of jurisprudence. Laws have a set value, and breaking them has a set punishment. There is no built-in disparity to the system, comparatively speaking. Historians generally point to the Law Code of Hammurabi as a big advancement, as it was the first written set of laws (that we know of). This was a big step, but there was a built-in disparity. Specifically, the nobility could get away with way more than the common folk could. If a commoner harmed a noble greviously enough, the noble could kill the commoner in the law. If a noble did the same to a commoner, however, the noble could generally pay a fine and be done. Laws worked like this pretty much universally for a really, really long time. British Common Law had moved somewhat away from the idea, but the first place where laws were really written with the notion that everyone was equal with the U.S. Constitution (it's still not entirely equal. I imagine that threatening to kill the President of the United States carries a bit larger penalty than, say, threatening to kill the president of your homeowners' association). Now, the rich generally do better in the current system than the poor, but that's a function of money for lawyers, not a system skewed towards the rich. Either way, we have the general idea in modern society that the punishment fits the crime. That's the heart of the matter, the justice system is based on the law that's broken, not who the parties are. It's a system where all are (theoretically) equal under the law. The playing field isn't exactly level, but no one is supposed to have an advantage. This is where Jeffersonian idealism runs headlong in to bronze age thinking. Go back to the Law Code of Hammurabi. That's the sort of thinking that brought us eternal damnation. We say the punishment doesn't fit the crime, but we don't realize that the punishment isn't supposed to fit the crime, it's supposed to fit the target of said crime. And everything that isn't allowed by the Law is a crime directed against the Lawgiver. It's a system designed to be unjust at its very core. It's a system that requires an external savior in order to balance itself out. It's also, fundamentally, a system that encourages those who live under its onus to wait for that savior to fix everything. Whatever you want to call that savior, be it Beowulf, Jesus, or Barack Obama, you're encouraged to wait for their solution to whatever the problem is that's facing the world. Until that point comes, all there is to look forward to is The Malaise. Ironically enough, both Jefferson and the Baptists pointed to a similar solution to this problem in their own ways. Under the Baptist system you have the priesthood of all believers, a concept that empowers everyone to act with the full authority of the deity. Jeffersonian jurisprudence gives the protection of the law equally to all citizens. Therein lies the difference, though. The history of the United States has included a constant expansion of the idea of who can be a citizen. I strongly suspect that not only have we not moved forward in our definition of what "a believer" is ever since Paul penned his epistles, but we've actually taken a step back. For one thing, all those stories from the Acts of the Apostles of a head of a household accepting and the rest of that house being declared party to Christianity wouldn't happen today. Everyone has to accept Jesus Christ as their "personal lord and savior," whatever the hell that means (honestly, it's one of those terms that has lost all meaning to me. It gets tossed around a lot, so everyone thinks they know what it means. One day I actually thought, "What the hell does that mean?" and I couldn't come up with an answer. This was before I dropped the whole Christianity thing, for the record). We don't have a mythological hero who is going to get us to the Promised Land of low gas prices. All we can do is accept that we'll never see gas at less than $3/gallon again (and realize that, with inflation, $3/gallon is actually relatively cheaper than those 25 cents/gallon prices of yesteryear) and work to reduce our own consumption by driving less and buying more efficient vehicles next time around. In that way we can be the heroes of our own stories. It may not be some sort of permanent salvation, but waiting for salvation from without seems to be a big part of the problem... Remember, we hold the key inside of their cage.

1 comment:

Fiat Lex said...

Damn fine post there. You gave me a most enjoyable little response-rant here, and I hope you don't mind I'm posting it along with your blog rather than moving it over onto mine.

He leans upon his golden cane
He gives away free hurricanes
The hero's in town

What's that you say? Our technological evolution has vastly outstripped the achievements of our social evolution, and we are gangs of children in a sandbox who all have guns?

King of the Sandlot is first kid who figures out how to take the safety off! All rally round the choosin' one!

My favorite argument for the weird spiritual requirements of Christianity was Chesterton's, in his excellent book "Orthodoxy." That at bottom the universe was an ineffable thing, a fantasy sprung from the mind of a being so wide that only our most brilliant insight could hope to expose a small corner of the machinery of His thought. That the leap of faith God required was to say, "These things may not make sense to me now, but as I do right I will come to understand them, and God's Will and mine will grow into an ever nearer accord."

While unsatisfying on some levels, this position has at least the advantage of describing God and all that He supposedly made to be a mystery. A mystery is something to investigate, and perhaps, with dedication and skill and luck (or God's help), perhaps solved.

If God is a mystery, and he made us and the world in His image, then the world itself is a mystery to be investigated. Yay science. Other people are a mystery to be appreciated. Yay tolerance. God's plans for us in the future and his Words to us in the past, equally mysterious. Yay religious freedom and political self-determination.

But the loudest voices in America, both religious and cultural, seem to be in accord in one way. Truth is a revelation to be interpreted. Ain't no mystery here, sir or ma'am: I can give you the facts. A holy document is fit only to be sliced, diced, and sauteed as grist for the demagogue's mill. A scientific discovery is fit only to develop new ways of bringing on the Malaise--ways at least to keep the troublemakers silent.

Students, teachers, random citizens grabbing guns and going on killing sprees? Not a breath to spare to wonder why people have lost hope. To ask aloud what made them desperate enough that their own lives, and the lives of others, weighted on their souls so lightly.

No mystery there. The problem is clearly that people are allowed to have guns. Bad people, masquerading as good until the opportune moment struck. Well, we can't just go around ferreting out the secret bad people and shooting them. Oh no, we can't do that. Can we? Better just take all the guns away instead. That's much more reasonable of us. The good people wouldn't have wanted them anyway.

So we want a preacher who will tell us whom to admire and whom to despise so we don't have to feel guilty about being so proud that we dare to make our own judgments. We want a President who can magically make us all richer, make oil prices lower, "raise the value of the dollar"--oh wait, I already said make us all richer.

And while said President is at it, he or she should make sure Johnny and Jane schoolkid can't pick the pockets of the nice friendly record companies. Who were only trying to help them by making sure the only music they wanted to hear contained no food for thought, no anchor for the soul, no lance for the boil of pain and fear inside his skull. Only emotional dullness, whining about emotional dullness, fixation on dates and breakups and parties. Johnny and Jane will be much happier, because the little things that make life worthwhile are much, much more fun to do if you don't worry your little head about who's guiding the shape your life will take.

A hero is one who does what is needful to right a wrong, despite the cost. In order to become a hero one must thus be able to perceive what is needful, and what the costs must be.

And it's hard to see, hard to see at the end of a long hard day in which nobody listens to you, harder still at the end of a long flat stretch of hours when nobody's there to hear you.

Before we can be heroes we must be whole people. And that, for all it ain't half so pretty, is a damn sight more difficult.