Thursday, May 12, 2011


This is a parable.  Two men on a river bank spotted a baby floating in the water, clearly drowning, and then another baby and another, so one man swam out to save as many babies as he could and the other ran upstream to find out what was making babies fall in the river, so he could prevent it.  The first time I heard this tale was when the first black Portland City Commissioner told it.  Since then I’ve heard it many times, as well as other versions.  It is about the insolubility of the choice between compassion for the single innocent victim and preventive justice for an entire category.  One cannot exclude the other.  Some people lean in one direction and other people lean in the other, but they must work together to be effective.
A most crucial tension of our times has been that between the community and the individual -- reacting to one baby or reacting to all babies.  Should we focus on the suffering and death of the individual baby?   Or to all babies in general?   Which is more important, my compassionate reaction to the baby, or my desire to find ways to save all babies?  So a moral conservative might want to save from abortion this specific “tiny little baby” (as they always put it, though not all babies are those pictured by Gerber), but fails to see that on a broad social level, far more babies will suffer in the long run unless they emerge into a world where they are wanted and cared for, a result that can only be reached by vigorous contraception and judicious abortion when necessary.   An alternative might be community responsibility for all babies through funding for counseling, material needs, and effective education on all levels.  Willingness to produce the money and energy necessary for this has only been present in circumscribed communities.  Of course, tribes find it natural to do this, but at a much lower level.  All children are the village’s children, so they all take responsibility for raising them but in those circumstances it’s a different sort of job.
These days it’s hard to defend idealism.  One needs consensus and, anyway, we’ve been so horrified by so much ripping away of masks that cynicism seems the only intelligent point of view.  And yet in some of the list-servs lately I see requests for papers about EUtopias -- good worlds.  What might they be like?  The trouble is that my good world might not be the same as your good world.  Even sharper, my good world at seventy is not the same as the good world of a person who is sixteen right now, even if we’re in the same small town.  How do we reconcile?  In my dog-catching days I used to propose that all the people with barking dogs should live on one side of town and all the people who wanted peace and quiet should live on the other side.  Who lives on the boundary between them?
If we can’t reach consensus about dogs or babies, what hope is there of reaching some understanding of how society regards sex?  Some of us feel it is natural and that intelligent people can manage consequences like pregnancy or diseases.  Some of us  (Oh, “US”? as though Congo brutes were like me?)  use forced sex against conscience -- painful and deadly, zombifying, destructive of all beloved relationships -- as acts of war.  Rape is used to destroy identity in ways that prevent ever living gracefully in the world again.  In short, EVIL  In that case our own defense seems to be limited to avoidance.  Denial.
So we manage not to know about it.  How can either justice or compassion come to bear on such a double aspect of being human: the best of things and the worst of things?  So full of pain, even at the level of second-hand empathy, and yet, at its best, so creating of trust?  Where can the justice possibly be?  Who can judge and who can devise a sentence?  How do we keep from hardening off into good versus bad?  Because the deepest impulse is to get control of people who do Evil and punish or eliminate them.  But what they wanted in the first place was power over US.  Thus the motivation on both sides.
I’m beginning to read Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History.”  This guy is not that literary sort of Anglophone conservative professor who offends feminists.  This one has lots of credentials -- he’s a polymath -- but he’s ALSO part of the Rock and Roll world that some people consider the very plow’s nose for Evil.  This is a 1995 book, which means it’s bound to be behind the curve, but right now that’s probably where I belong.  He’s a synthesizer: a reverser; kinda Jungian.  That is, Lucifer is a Fallen Angel and humans are Gollom, craving both the prize, the power of the ring, and to be enslaved by a master.  We want to be right and we don’t trust anyone else to get us there.
I peeked at the end.  Bloom is saying “pluralistic democracy.”  That depends on nations.  When he was writing there was nothing like the nation-erasing Internet that is webbing the world now.  It’s revealing secrets, turning out tyrants, but at the same time revealing what you’re thinking and just where you’re standing right now in case some government, some drug mafia, some secret intelligence agency, some madman stalker is trying to rub you out.  That’s one-by-one.  On a larger scale it’s also a way to juggle and intercept arms and drugs so as to let nations die of AIDS (already approaching fifty percent infection rates) by withholding the meds or die of starvation or internal wars.  I get so intense about this that I become a little incoherent.
Bloody Mother Nature creates millions and millions of babies and then kills most of them by simply adjusting the climate or sliding tectonic plates under nuclear reactors.  (all that cradling and feeding is one-by-one).  Those who survive will be tomorrow’s people.  Nassim Taleb keeps talking about “robustness,” by which he means (at least in part) survival qualities.  The small, the deeply rooted, the most naturally pleasing and nourishing.  He comes back to a shared meal in a tavern or on a noonday plaza.  Nothing fancy.  Often repeated.  A cradle for ideas.

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