Friday, April 13, 2007

Us Versus Them

Martin Luther King once said that "If a man has not found something worth dying for, he is not fit to live." I like the idea that the things we support, that we would die for, define us. I have a pretty long list of things I'd die for: my family, the Bill of Rights (except for the second amendment), my country, and so on. On the other hand, I feel like the decision to die for a cause is actually relatively easy. For example, if anyone ever gave me the option to die for something noble like art or knowledge or courtesy, I'd be right there. It would really sweeten the pot if they offered to throw in a statue of me. Nothing too tacky--maybe me reading a book in front of the lamp of knowledge with cupids frolicking at my feet. You know, tasteful.

And being a martyr is actually a pretty good gig, if you think about it. You are officially absolved of all sins and become a beacon for the ideals of your culture and country. Legend has it that J. Edgar Hoover ran through the halls of the FBI loudly rejoicing the day that Martin Luther King was shot. However, it's not to hard to imagine him tearfully regarding the reams of blackmail-worthy material that he'd amassed over the years. Today, however, any discussion of MLK's weaknesses borders on blasphemy. The same goes for John F. Kennedy: in an instant, he was transformed from a brash, self-impressed cocksman to the symbol of a nation's lost innocence and the guy on the fifty-cent piece.

While I recognize the value of King's statement, I'm inclined to consider the opposite side. I ask myself what I would willingly kill for. Who are the martyrs I'd be willing to create? Which ideas are so compelling that I'd be happy to be vilified if I could only support them? This is a tougher one for me; while I despise cruelty, stupidity, laziness, discourtesy, halitosis, and so forth, I realize that the only thing I would really kill for is the people that I love. Actually, killing is only one end of the spectrum on this one. On the other end is the fact that I will gladly make an ass out of myself if I feel that someone I love or care about--one of my people--is being insulted or threatened. I have done so on many occasions and will probably do so in the future. Still, as embarassed as I was...well, you shoulda seen the other guy.

It's interesting that, as evolved as I think I am, I still have this very human tendency to attack, to fight. It gives me a certain kinship with soldiers and serial killers, policemen and terrorists, heroes and bullies. We share the willingness to injure or even kill others, in spite of the fact that our basic empathy, not to mention our sense of logic, mitigates against violence. What is it about humans that makes us so willing to go to the mattresses, to pull the gun, to drop the hammer?

As any student of the past will tell you, the history of mankind is a series of wars and plagues. I sometimes imagine that plagues are the earth's way of culling the human herd. Since instinct doesn't control our reproduction, and since we've mastered most of our natural predators, we clearly need an outside force to keep the population within sustainable limits. Enter Bubonic Plague, the Spanish Flu, Typhoid Fever, AIDS, SARS, cancer, and heart disease. Viewed through this lens, disease seems almost reasonable, as if it is merely part of our ever-evolving relationship with the earth. I'm not saying that we shouldn't fight disease--quite the opposite, in fact--but I do think that disease serves a purpose.

I'm less certain about war, vendetta, murder, massacre, and other assorted forms of human brutality. The fact that we are so willing to take the Straw Dogs route is a little unnerving. I would think that religion would take the edge off. After all, every major religion has some version of the Ten Commandments. We all know that we should not kill, should not steal, should not covet, and so on. Yet, there we are, killing, coveting, and stealing. The key dividing line becomes us versus them. We would never kill a member of our tribe, nor would we steal from him, and so forth. However, the other tribe, whoever they may be, is fair game. Of course, this isn't what God had in mind, but we can usually count on some Brylcreemed Jesus pimp to find a verse in Leviticus that makes everything hunky dory. The other side elevates some power-hungry rat bastard with an equally bent view of Islam and, Bob's your uncle, we've got a holy war. Just in time, too--things were getting a little crowded here.

Talking to a friend about this recently, I wondered aloud if this was another method that nature uses to thin the herd. As the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized that I was hoping that he'd be able to contradict me, but it was not to be. We both had to admit that, maybe, humanity has a built-in pop-up timer, and when we start to get too comfy, hostilities break out in the Gaza Strip, Ted Bundy gets a hankering for brunettes, or the next-door neighbor starts mowing a little too early in the morning.

I still don't have a good rebuttal to my own argument.

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  • I'm still hoping to hear about death by Brylcreem.

    By Blogger tokenscot, At April 13, 2007 at 3:35 PM  

  • Well, we do seem to be hardwired for conflict, but I'd sure like to imagine there are other ways to prune the population other than war and serial murder.

    If you've not seen Children of God, by the way, I think you'd very much like it.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At April 13, 2007 at 4:12 PM  

  • Token Scot-
    A little dab'll do ya! Thanks for dropping in!

    Mystic Wing-
    I'd really like to believe I'm wrong on this one, but I don't think I am! BTW, do you mean the movie about growing up in a cult?

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 13, 2007 at 10:04 PM  

  • Well, your biggest false assumption in your culling argument is that occurences that occur have any rational impetus driving them.

    You may applaud the result as an act of reducing the size of the human mass, but you really can't define the rational behind it.

    Nobody sat down and designed AIDS for our benefit...

    Or "invented" war, for that matter.

    I'm still trying to understand the driving force behind real violence.

    I better take a number.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 13, 2007 at 10:49 PM  

  • Dear Scott,

    To support Dr. Crankster's assertions, please read the June '66 Publication of Science Magazine (I could be off a month or so) and read about the rat experiment on Overcrowding that produced behavior never seen in rat populations before. One of them is violence.

    War is generally viewed to be an economic consequence. We need more food to feed our people, they have food over there. Let's take it from them, and while we're at it, let's take their land and make them our slaves. Slave labor is cheaper anyway.

    War and the unburied dead lead to, pestilence and plague. Yummy. Nature needs to clean up.

    I feel so much better now.

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 14, 2007 at 12:29 AM  

  • Scott-
    Fair points all, but I do believe in a rational force in the universe. I don't really care if it's God, evolution, instinct, or whatever, but I find it hard to believe that random chance accounts for the amazing complexity of a dung beetle, not to mention humans.

    I recognize that this is based on an unprovable assumption, yet I can't really escape it. I find that even scientific explanations for the earth still seem to point to the existence of some first cause, or at least are incapable of adequately explaining it away!

    And I thought I was pessimistic! I can't believe you had a Science Magazine reference on call for this one. You're a rockstar.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 14, 2007 at 11:42 AM  

  • Scratch a pessimist and you find an optimist. Who else would work that hard trying to find an answer?

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 14, 2007 at 7:02 PM  

  • Well, since we still have alpha and beta males and females, everyone is striving for their place on top. Competition creates a slew of emotions and anger and violence happen. Take Tanya Harding for example. She was willing to injure for a shot at a gold medal. Who knows what she'd kill for.

    Ceo recently wrote about increased car violence in an area that is struggling to keep up with the amount of people living and driving in it.

    People need to fight. If there is nothing to fight for, where is the motivation to go forward? Even having a dream is reason enough to fight to get it. We are a-holes at the core.

    Poor Bill thinks the opposite. He feels the more people that are around, the more assistance and help you can get and give. He's so positive. :0)

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At April 14, 2007 at 9:47 PM  

  • Well, believing in a rational force doesn't mean there is one. And finding something "hard to believe" and then believing in something that is "hard to believe" as an answer is an odd solution to the entire question.

    Especially when it comes to trying to attribute war, for example, with population culling.

    We have yet to meet critical population mass and the countries who have warred in the last century, did so more out of ideological motivations than elbow room.

    You may WANT to believe there is a relationship there.

    But your desire is not very scientific.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 15, 2007 at 1:52 AM  

  • CEO-
    I always suspected...

    I like Poor Bill's take on it. He seems to be expressing the ideal that I wish were true!

    Let's look at your points one by one:

    "Well, believing in a rational force doesn't mean there is one."

    Absolutely! That's why I use the word "believe," and not the word "know." I cannot empirically prove the existence of God, evolution, or fate. If I could, then I wouldn't be able to claim belief--I would have to admit knowledge.

    "And finding something "hard to believe" and then believing in something that is "hard to believe" as an answer is an odd solution to the entire question."

    I don't really think that there is a solution to this question. I expressed an idea, but I also acknowledge that the idea is unprovable. To conclusively, scientifically prove this idea would require lab conditions in which we would account for all variables and set up a control group. Obviously, this is impossible in the case of human history; it would also be highly unethical to experiment on humans in this way! The only things we can hope to do are draw tentative conclusions from the available evidence, which I have done, or draw analogies to other species, which CEO has done.

    "We have yet to meet critical population mass and the countries who have warred in the last century, did so more out of ideological motivations than elbow room."

    I would direct your attention to Hitler's cry for "lebensraum," or living-room, which was one of his stated motivations for his invasions of Eastern Europe. I would also suggest that much of the struggles in Israel are connected to matters of space. In both cases, the respective leaders used loftier justifications for hostilities, but it seems to me that ideological motivations are only as strong as the practical concerns that underlie them. For example, if you remember back to the first Iraq war in 1991, George the first justified it as a defense of "democratic" Kuwait. Kuwait, however, is among the least democratic countries in the world. Yet, somehow, this unholy wedding of ideology and petroleum reserves raised few objections from political commentators!

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 15, 2007 at 2:17 PM  

  • According to my twisted logic, willing to die for your family is hardly a noble idea. A man's family, his children, are an extension of his own self. So its like saying, 'I am willing to die to save myself'. And country is a larger and broad version of the idea of family. It is all driven by the urge to save what is yours. I consider that hardly noble. Although I will probably agree to die for my family in need. Not so sure about country though it depends. But still I will consider it selfish. Going this way, I don't know what would be noble.

    I would say, just do what you like, live the person that you are, if others call it noble, so be it. If not, who cares? People erecting a statue doesn't change the truth, but only perception. And I do not understand, how an idea of 'feeling-good-about-ur-own-statue' is relevant to you after your death although it feels good thinking of it while you are alive.

    And about culling the human-herd, humans always try to see a pattern even if there isn't any. But my grandpa would agree with you on the culling concept. He said it so many times.

    By Blogger ramo, At April 15, 2007 at 2:36 PM  

  • Biologically, infectious disease does indeed serve a purpose.

    The scary thing, from our perspective, is that scientists say we're "over-due" for a major pandemic--but this time, the threat is global.

    Just products of our environment, really.

    By Blogger Matt, At April 15, 2007 at 4:04 PM  

  • Anyway, I was at Target today and some old man siddled up to me and really wanted me to move without saying "excuse me."

    I stood my ground and looked him right in the eye, thinking, "This bud's for Crankster."

    By Blogger Matt, At April 15, 2007 at 4:06 PM  

  • "I don't really think that there is a solution to this question."

    Absolutely! And the sooner humans come to grips with that, the better.

    There is nothing wrong with living with a great mystery. There never has been anything wrong with it.

    Trouble is, humans have never been able to accept this and have invented "answers" to satisfy the void.

    That's how we got all our creation myths to begin with.

    The greatest mysteries have never been binary, yet we constantly treat them so. The answer to the ultimate questions when looking at life is as infinite in scope as the universe it attempts to comprehend.

    Learning to embrace that simple notion will free many from the bonds of "wanting to believe" that enslave them in irrational notions.

    And Hitler said alot of things that weren't true, in order to motivate the populace to do his bidding.

    That still doesn't mean Germany had reached critical mass.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 15, 2007 at 4:22 PM  

  • Ramo-
    The statue thing was a joke!

    You make a really good point about family and country as extensions of self. However, using that reasoning, it is hard to imagine a noble death. After all, if we identify the things we defend as extensions of ourselves, how can we possibly die for any non-selfish reasons.

    I can imagine you nodding your head and saying "exactly."

    You're right about the pattern-recognition thing, and I have to admit a great deal of guilt in this matter. I see patterns everywhere, often realizing that my perspective borders on "paranoid conspiracy theorist." Of course, I recognize that most of these patterns are merely happenstance mixed with overactive imagination. However, that realization doesn't mean that I don't enjoy playing with theories from time to time!

    It's nice to think that I inspired you to agressively defend courtesty.

    As bizarre as that sounds.

    In Jitterbug Perfume, one of the characters notes that the entire population of the world could live in a space the size of Texas, given enough high-rise buildings. I don't know if that's true, but I think that the concept of critical mass is largely a matter of perception. My father in law, who lived on the Oregon coast, got a little itchy when he visited us in SW Virginia, as the population density was probably ten times what he was used to. Then again, the Oregon coast is a little desolate!

    You have a fair point about the human need to fill the void with "answers," and I have to admit that I have a strong tendency to do exactly that. However, I think that the search for answers, trends, theories, connections, and commonalities has inspired some of the greatest artistic creations of our species. I think that, however flawed that search might be, it is still among our best and most important characteristics.

    I guess my argument would be that, while we must acknowledge that our "answers" are often shit, our pursuit of those answers is highly valuable. In fact, I think that would probably be a pretty good catchphrase for my blog!

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 15, 2007 at 9:30 PM  

  • Ahhh, but on the flip side, the pursuit of a definitive answer to the grandest of all questions has been the impetus for the greatest amount of strife this planet has seen.

    Imagine if all just simply worshipped "The Mystery" of all things in all of its mysteriousness?

    There would be no alignments based on religion- they would simply dissolve.

    You might miss out on some depictions of a mostly naked man nailed to two by fours... but so what? That's porn anyway...

    And no, "perception of density" in no way qualifies your theory.

    To attempt to make your theory work, you would have to look at Mexico City, Jakarta, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Calcutta etc... and see if what you describe is in evidence in the densest areas of our planet.

    I say no.

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 15, 2007 at 10:06 PM  

  • Scott,
    You're giving me a lot to think about...

    "Ahhh, but on the flip side, the pursuit of a definitive answer to the grandest of all questions has been the impetus for the greatest amount of strife this planet has seen."

    Fair point, but that's like saying that salt causes heart attacks and should therefore be banned or that cars cause car accidents, so we should walk everywhere. Yes, refusing to question and theorize might keep us from horrors like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, but we could also argue that the failure to question authorities and our own tendencies caused these horrors. Even outside such extreme examples, I can't help but think that the refusal to question would have horrifying consequences for humanity (not the least of which would be our transformation into gum-snapping, Paris Hilton-esque culture clones).

    "Imagine if all just simply worshipped 'The Mystery' of all things in all of its mysteriousness?"

    I like that idea. However, in my perversity, I would ask questions, if only to mine some of the depths of the mystery. In all seriousness, a profound, eternal mystery will always remain so, regardless of our questings. And, by probing this mystery, we will continually confront its meaning, richness, and intensity. I would argue that questioning only intensifies the mystery.

    Of course, that assumes that we are strong enough to move beyond facile conclusions. I recognize that this is a fairly huge assumption, but I could cite a few examples of thinkers who have at least tried to do so.

    "There would be no alignments based on religion- they would simply dissolve."

    You don't think we'd find equally destructive alignments? You don't think we already have?

    "And no, 'perception of density' in no way qualifies your theory. To attempt to make your theory work, you would have to look at Mexico City, Jakarta, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Calcutta etc... and see if what you describe is in evidence in the densest areas of our planet."

    You're assuming that we all have the same perception of population density. The average hermit would disagree. For that matter, taking a walk through Peking, or even getting on a NY Subway car at rush hour, will make you realize that our concepts of population density are highly variable depending on location, culture, and personal preference.

    For example, living in a big house with ten to twenty members of my extended family is my idea of hell. I would go insane in those circumstances, and might commit acts of irrational violence.

    On the other hand, I know people for whom these living conditions are the norm, and I've known people who desperately miss the closeness that they had growing up under those circumstances.

    And, lest we forget, the public's perceptions of population density are yet another thing that politicians can manipulate. Have you ever heard someone rail against a zoning ordinance because it will bring in an "undesirable element" or will create "overpopulation?" I most certainly have.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 15, 2007 at 11:53 PM  

  • This argument makes me realise I am in fact from some planet far, far away - while I don't dispute that the human race seems to like fighting and killing, I have absolutely no empathy whatsoever - I hate conflict and violence in any form and just want to live and let live. Am I an anomaly? Would I die for a cause? Probably. Would I kill for one? Never.

    Puss (Euro-liberal extraordinaire)

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At April 16, 2007 at 10:45 AM  

  • "I like that idea. However, in my perversity, I would ask questions, if only to mine some of the depths of the mystery. In all seriousness, a profound, eternal mystery will always remain so, regardless of our questings. And, by probing this mystery, we will continually confront its meaning, richness, and intensity."

    Yes, but the kicker here is that you must honestly and rationally assess the conclusion to your questing and questioning, which is, ultimately - "Fuck if I know!"

    Which takes me back to my original assertion that trying to attribute a rational cause for "why things are" is an irrational exercise.

    Until the origins of form and substance are understood, then all we are left with are abstract notions like "chaos theory" to fill the void.

    The mystery of the universe and consciousness and the afterlife and all of those great questions, can drive us onward and upward, to be sure. But To attribute answers at this early stage of the game is one of mankinds' biggest failings.

    Your density ideas are still failing to reach me. Humans aren't killing each other over the remaining scraps of food or elbow room just yet, as far as I can tell. They are, however, still going at it over "answers" that are still unsolvable...

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 16, 2007 at 12:55 PM  

  • unfortunately Scott, you haven't disproven the theory either. Density explains some of the behavior, and in human behavior, that's a large start.

    The best example is trying to answer the question as to the essential nature of human beings, are we good or bad. Yes is not an acceptable answer.

    Ultimately, Glamourpuss, as usual, has provided a very deep insight, having decided the issues for herself, and how she would live her life accordingly. I learn a lot from her.

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 17, 2007 at 12:39 AM  

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