Friday, September 15, 2017

Cosmos and watching the world burn

I wrote some time ago about mychildren's developing sense of empathy. I wanted to add a postscript. Recently we started watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson'sremake of the Cosmos television miniseries. At some points though my eldest son has to avert his gaze, because the vastness and magnitude of time and space is overwhelming to him. I feel this is a natural consequence of possessing a healthy portion of empathy and curiosity, which in turn leads to humility—if you observe the world enough, you will be confronted occasionally with the knowledge of how small you are and how little you know. This awe and humility are in my eyes a major source of wisdom, Socrates's old adage of knowing how ignorant you in fact are. It is in direct contraposition to a lot of people on the national political scene today, who seem arrogant, resolute, even proud of their ignorance.

It made me think of an article I readabout the current US campaign to undermine European and globalinstitutions. The article made a number of references to the importance of understanding historical context, such as this GK Chesterton quote that "one should never tear something down until one knows why it was built in the first place". But the article also sagely pointed out that many people simply seem to take joy in watching the world burn (I would go so far as to say that some people even want to hasten its burning). I have often observed this tendency in other contexts. The guy in a traffic jam that knows honking won't help the matter, but is nevertheless the first to lean on his horn and set off a chaotic cacophony of honking and ill will. The internet troll who just wants to offend and piss people off because it makes him feel powerful. The maladjusted kid on your block that always wants to cause trouble and suffering. These are all a certain character type that I guess is always going to be present at a low level in any society. But it seems like there are certain moments in history when these base instincts to destroy and drive chaos, which are normally kept at bay by the natural tendency of civilization to preserve itself, gain an upper hand. In such moments the acts that would normally earn someone criticism and censure, become accepted and even celebrated. The maladjusted, violent kid in your Sarajevo neighborhood that everyone used to ignore or even ostracize, becomes a dominant player, even a role model, and whole mobs of people join the cause of destroying, oppressing, and ethnic cleansing. The backwoods wacko who advocated race war and sovereign citizenship becomes more and more mainstream as people entertain extreme ideas that they used to reject out of hand. 

I'll defer to Yeats on this one:
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1 comment: