The Quicksand of Reason

George Carlin once did a bit called "The Planet is Fine" in which he argued that all the talk of saving the planet was wasted effort because, eventually, it will be the people that die, while the planet keeps spinning. He said, "And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat?", meaning how arrogant of us to think we have powers of planetary scope.

While it may be true (and a tad depressing to think about) that we will someday pollute ourselves to death, it wasn't that specific idea that caught my attention. The interesting part, for me, was how our conceit influences every discussion we have. It was a genius observation. We are arrogant.

... the image of the Lord had been replaced by a mirror.
Jorge Luis Borges

There's talk of introducing a genetically modified mosquito that isn't capable of spreading malaria. Wouldn't that be marvelous and save a lot of lives? The people proposing this would do well to remember the lessons of introducing non-native species like cane toads, Africanized bees, and grass carp ... much less a genetically engineered species. Sometimes we outsmart ourselves, don't we?

We look back and laugh at doctors who bled patients to cure them of fevers, but how well do you think chemotherapy and breast enlargements will handle the test of time? All you have to do is listen to the wide range of possible side affects in any prescription drug advertisement to realize that they are in the business of selling drugs, not in improving health. Instead of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound for Female Problems we now have an alphabet soup of prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction. Aren't we the sophisticated ones.

At the root of this, like Carlin said, is conceit. And our ego isn't satisfied with simply claiming complete knowledge, we have to take it one step further and claim that each and every problem is so complex that common sense just won't suffice. This type of pride, this excessive love of self, is thought of as the original, most serious and ultimate source of all sin, but we proudly put it on display every day.

Israel and Gaza are at war and much has been said about causes, disproportionate responses and moral correctness. How many times have we heard that there is no resolution to the enmity ... and we've heard that for what, 5,000 years? I'm sure that Middle East experts would say I'm over simplifying, but it seems to me that if there is no chance of a negotiated settlement (and given that the primary tenet of Hamas is the destruction of Israel I'd say that's a fair assumption) then somebody has to kick somebody else's ass to settle this thing ... there needs to be a clear winner.

But no, we have to analyze the property rights for the past millennium and balance injustice against privilege and rationalize the morality of using innocents as shields and public relations pawns. And don't forget to take time to express some outrage at the brutality of war (if you listen closely you can hear the "tsk, tsk" of the pontificating celebrities) ... because we are the thoughtful, civilized and progressive people of the world.

Advocates of diplomacy, forbearance and restraint try to stake out the moral high ground by saying "we must negotiate as equals" and "we should not impose our western ideals on these oppressed people." How condescending. If we were truly negotiating as equals we would say "these are our ideals, if you agree with them, welcome to our world, brother." Instead we make excuses and say "their oppression has kept them from developing to our higher, civilized standards" or "our commoners aren't sophisticated enough to embrace the diversity of our separate cultures so please, do what you wish to undermine/enlighten us."

Our arrogance, apparently, gives us super powers. Just ask the scientist who can explain the whole universe with his own reasoning, the fundamentalist Christian who is more perfect than you and the politician that lists saving the planet as a 'to do' in his day planner - they all have the answers. I fear, however, that they may have simply lulled themselves into a false sense of competence.

George Sand, pictured here, once wrote, "Vanity is the quicksand of reason."

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