True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.

 

Busted

I was pulling ahead when I saw the flashing red lights and heard the siren behind me.  I slowed down, pulled over in the right lane and watched the car that had been next to me race off into the distance.  I thought I’d be considerate, and turned off on a side street; much to my dismay, the cop followed instead of continuing after the other car.  I was busted, well and truly.

I was 19, had just flunked out of college after two glorious years of partying, and was unemployed by choice, having quit a sweet job in construction pulling down $3.59 an hour, pretty good money in 1966.  In short, life was good, but for one minor problem.

It was, as I said, 1966.  The Vietnam war was just ratcheting up, and the draft was in full force.  This was before the lottery system, and anyone who lost a student deferment was, essentially, next.  In a preemptive move, I had enlisted in the Air Force, and was due to report in about a month.

What to do in the meantime?  Quit my job, borrow my brother’s ’59 Ford, and cruise around getting in trouble is what.

A ticket that read “Speed Contest” and a court date in three weeks was the result.

So, off to court I went, with my last civilian $20 bill in my wallet, hoping against hope it would cover the fine.  I sat in the sparsely filled courtroom and waited to be called up.  There were two or three cases ahead of me, including a guy dressed in county jail outfit, who was getting a few niggling little traffic issues out of the way before dealing with whatever it was that landed him in jail.  The judge was in a sour mood.  I got up and approached the bench when he called my name, and, to my surprise, another name.  Somehow, despite the cop abandoning the other car and pulling me over, they had managed to get him, too.

There we stood, meekly, as the judge explained the charges, and called up the arresting officer to recite the infraction in detail.  A blue ’59 Ford and a red ’57 Chevy, it seemed, were side by side at a stop light.  The light changed, blah, blah, blah, the two cars pulled away, tires squealing, blah, blah.  Everything was as expected, until the cop got to the part in the narrative where he said “…and then the Ford started pulling away.”

To my surprise, my co-defendant blurted out, “No, it didn’t!”

So much for any defense that we weren’t really racing, I thought.  The cop finished his story, and the judge addressed the guy next to me, asked about his life and job situation, and fined him $75 plus court costs.  That was a good chunk of change in 1966, when $50 a week was a fairly typical wage for kids our age.  Then the judge turned to me.

I was unemployed, I told him.  When he frowned, I added that I had enlisted, and was reporting for duty in a week’s time.

“Good,” said the judge, “that’ll straighten you out,” and reduced my fine to court costs.  I breathed a sigh of relief and left the court room to find the cashier.

As it turned out, court costs came to $18.75, much more that I thought.  I left the building feeling downhearted, with $1.25 in my pocket.

There are several possible morals to this story.  I’ll leave you to find them.