Friday, February 16, 2007

An Embarrasment of Riches

A few months ago, on CBC's Ideas, I heard a conductor say that there was no place for Beethoven anymore, because it was too grandiose, given recent experiences in the West. No doubt he was talking about the Holocaust. Apparently he thought that music should now reflect the uncertainty and embarrasment that Europeans feel about recent events in their history.

What this indicates is only that they do not understood the historical context of the Holocaust. For millenia, genocide has been something of an international sport to every race and nation which found itself in the position to pursue it. The Old Testament includes long dreary passages which depict the ancient Hebrews pursuing the extermination of other tribes whose sole crime was to be in their path. Fortunately these accounts are, in all likelihood, historically innacurate. The Jews in Babylon, having been expelled from Israel, felt the need to create a myth of themselves as conquering heroes. But the very occurence of such myths says much about the ethic of the time and of most of the history since. If you had the power, you slaughtered everyone in your path who might be able to oppose you, and took the rest as slaves.

Genocide was practiced by the Turks against the Armenians, by the Russians in progroms against the Jews, by the Americans against the Natives, and by the English against the Irish--to name a recent few. None were particularly successful, because these efforts were not particularly well organized, and the technology for mass extermination did not yet exist. Mostly it was done by neglect, or by a sort of backhanded strategy, because killing a lot of people deliberately took a lot of work and resources. But the invention of automatic weapons changed all that. It became possible to kill a lot of people with a few guns.

But then, of course, there was the problem of corpse disposal. If you were going to kill that many people, you had to get rid of the bodies, and the best way to do that was to cremate them. And if you're going to cremate them, you might as well industrialize the murder as well, and... well you can see where this is going. And we did, in the Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis took an old pursuit and modernized it. They built death factories. Their innovation was not the goal, only the means to bring it about.

But doing it that efficiently, and that systematically, they got caught. Finally, someone got caught, red handed, in the act, and there was no denying what they were up to, and we had the people responsible, and hard evidence that they'd done it. There was no denying the intent. But again, the intent was nothing new. What was new was that someone actually defined that intent and set out to do it in a systematic fashion, so there was no doubt what they were up to. And for perhaps the first time, they were the only ones in the vicinity doing it (at last, none of the observers were inclined to wink and look away.) The act was very clear, and stood in stark contrast to accepted practice elsewhere (well, almost--Stalin's mass starvation of the Ukraine comes to mind.)

Still, only the methods and the situation were new. The monster revealed in Nazi Germany had been around a long, long time. But the type of horror and disgust that it aroused were also new. Many people in the West thought that they had encountered an entirely new demon. They thought that this demon had appeared for the first time in Germany, aided and abetted by other Europeans who had cooperated. They thought, for this reason, that this demon was uniquely European, and that something in Europe was uniquely responsible for creating it. This strikes me as tragically naive. The supposedly learned people who hold this opinion are stunned and apalled by a fact that was common knowledge even to most of the unlettered peasantry of the Dark Ages: the demonic potential that lays coiled within human nature itself.

I find nothing particularly significant in the fact that the Germans were the ones who got caught in the act--they just happened to systematize it first. Nor is there anything particularly significant in that the Jews were the target--although the fact that the Jews were the target yet again is worthy of notice (the ongoing spectacle of anti-semitism is a testament to human stupidity and venality.) Nor do I find it particularly significant that it happened in Europe. Far more significant was that the people who did it got caught, condemned even by their own children, and that the whole episode earned the contempt even of the very nation found guilty of it. That is new. Prior to this, everyone who had ever been engaged in this sort of thing denied it, downplayed it when denial didn't work, and were generally let off the hook even when that failed by other nations who were, usually, indulging in the same dirty practices.

Oscar Wilde said "All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The human potential for evil should not be news. And it must also be understood that we have an equal potential for good. The German persecution of the Jews was old news; in 70 AD, the Romans razed Jeruselem to the ground--but for a few stone walls in the desert, no one would have known it was ever there. It has not stopped since. The Ashkenazy Jews have been subject to a level of persecution for two thousand years which no other race or people has ever suffered. But what is new is that Western Civilization has recognized this fact, and has vowed, for the most part, never to let it happen again. This is progress.

Beethoven said, essentially, that his life told nothing, but his music said everything. Those who are too timid to play his music apparently assume that it was based upon a naive view of the world which has failed. In fact, if anyone is naive, it is the people who believe this; I doubt that one could claim that Beethoven was unaware of the miseries of life or the faults of humanity. We have not failed. Against the grandeur of the Universe, even the music of Beethoven seems timid and understated. Play his music. We have not finished. We have not even begun.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Richard Dawkins presents an interesting perspective on life: out of the possible set of genetic and environmental permutations of humanity, more numerous than the atoms in the universe, you got to live. You won the ultimate lottery. You're here. And you, and all the people who have lived or will live, are but a handful of sand taken from a beach that stretches to the horizon in both directions.

Not only that, but if you're reading this, you are probably a well-educated citizen of a first world country living in a time when the benefits of science have yielded the highest life expectancy, highest level of understanding, and the highest standard of living in human history. Furthermore, we enjoy a political system which provides us with the greatest freedom of expression and enterprise, and the greatest freedom from oppression and exploitation, than have ever been enjoyed by any society in human history.

Even if you are lower middle class, you live better than Kings did only two hundred years ago. Yes, this has been quantitatively demonstrated, by measuring the labour equivalent of our household appliances, economic efficiency, and technical competance. You have at your beck and call the equivalent of dozens of servants, provided in the form of mechanical and commercial assistance, public infrastructure, and sheer technical and scientific competence, in your daily life. Chances are that a century or two ago, you would have been dead by now, or you would have lived in abject poverty or under political, economic, or physical duress. Millions have worked, and stuggled, and fought, and even died, for the priveleges that you now enjoy.

We are not done. You live on a planet ideally suited to the sustainment of life, a pale blue speck which forms the basis for the very possibility of all that you take for granted. So far as we now know, it is the only one of its kind. Statistically, we expect that there may be others, but we have never found one, and that should tell you how rare this is. It is possible that there are other environmental configurations which sustain an alternate form of life, but we have yet to find one. The SETI project has not yet found a signal out there that would indicate intelligent life. So far as we know, we're it. And that means that every breath we take is incredibly improbable. In a universe this large, where the only survivable environment that we know of is the one we live in, we find that, far from being ideally suited for the occurrence of life, our universe is overwhelmingly hostile to life. In all but a vanishingly small domain of our universe, we would be dead in thirty seconds or less.

Mercy is breathing. Anyone who takes a breath for granted knows nothing about the reality of this universe. Anyone who takes a breath for granted takes life for granted. To understand the universe that we live in is to be grateful for each breath, and to make each exhalation an Alleluia. If you do not take delight merely in being alive, you are wasting your time on nonsense. And yet, none of this in any way assumes the existence of the divine.

If one assumes that all of this was created for us, that God has loaded the dice specifically for our purposes, that life was inevitable from the outset, than all that we know is to be taken for granted, and we are justified in asking "Why not more?" If God guarantees life, and caters to the individual needs of each believer, then anything falling short of that promise is a disappointment. But to understand our very improbability, the single chance in trillions to the power of trillions that each moment of our existence represents, is to revel in even our most trivial delights as a gift beyond all value.

Yet daily life is taken for granted, for believers expect an eternity to eclipse their lives in the here and now. Indeed, some expect an entirely new world to be built for them to replace this one--the miraculous improbability of this world is simply not enough for them. In service to that imagined eternity, many will turn this life into a living hell, a pinched pursuit of spleen-driven persecution and destruction. What, I wonder, would be enough? Nothing, I suspect. For the one thing that we could never escape in eternity is ourselves--that same ingrateful self which dismisses the delights of the moment in favour of the imagined bliss of eternity. In the end, even eternity would be a dreary burden for these people. Colloquial expression encourages me to say 'Thank God for death and the loss of the self', but God is not necessary for this gift, nor is this loss of self consistent with religious mythology. We can only be grateful that death does indeed bring an end to such madness.