“Do you ever think about dying?” asked Barbie. I do. Do you? I'm on the eve of my 78th, luckily still alive. I think about…
How we view our history and future can be skewed, or even screwed if we don’t see either well.
I promised my readers I would review the Oppenheimer and Barbie movies, and I will, but on the way, I read three books and had a bike crash, all six of which can lead us to lessons. I hope you enjoy this grand sweep of history. I hope it helps place our lives in a larger context leading to more hopeful, realistic visions.
The featured image here astonishes me. I had no idea. Shortly before Columbus discovered the so-called New World, Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty led seven naval expeditions. His longest was 10,000 miles, all the way from China to the Middle East to southern Africa. He was renowned for being an ambassador of peace, creating just exchanges and friendly relations, far different than typical European intent and policy.
His flagship was four times longer than Columbus’ Santa Maria. Columbus had three masts. Zheng He had nine. Columbus had two smaller boats and some ninety sailors. Zheng had 300 ships and 28,000 sailors. He had twenty tankers just for fresh water.
My point isn’t to disparage or laud one or the other. (Although our xenophobic fear and anger at China ramp up, I’m reminded of its long history of not being an imperialistic power in lands distant from its borders.) Instead, it is to acknowledge what we think of as history and meaning can be ignorant of both.
My first book was the well-regarded grand sweep of things from the Big Bang to an uncertain future, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. He’s a masterful thinker who also jokes when it fits.
Harari briefly takes us through the vast reaches of time from the 13.5 billion years since the Big Bang to the mere 4.5 billion back for the earth to form and 3.2 billion for initial life to form. Apes evolved some 25 million years ago and diverged into more human form 6 million ago, walking upright at 4 million years ago.
(All these are estimates, give or take hundreds of thousands of years. It’s hard to picture time, coming from our mere 2000 years of calendar, a tenth of a generous 20,000 years of history, which is a mere fifth of 100,000 years, which is a tenth of a million. It takes a thousand million to make a billion, so flitting through the eons seems briefer now than it took.)
Eight other species of the genus homo existed before the species homo sapiens took over. Such apes had longer legs, shorter arms, and bigger brains than previous apes, and they could use tools, fire, and make dwellings. They included the familiar stubby Neanderthal and the tiny Floresiensis, only three and a half feet tall.
Sapiens means wise, meaning able to talk and work together. I wonder if we might be called homo letalis or homo mortiferus – lethal and murderous. Sapiens emerged some 300,000 years ago and developed aspects of what we think of as culture only 70,000 years ago. Then the other species died out. The last soloensis remains to be found date back 50,000 years. The last Neanderthals: 30,000 years. The last little Florensiensis, only 12,000 years. They weighed only 50 pounds and stood three and a half feet tall. Easy to kill and eat?
It’s easy to speculate and hard to prove, these doings of our pre-history. We imagine cavemen knocking down women and dragging them back to the cave by the hair. How many caves were there? Perhaps there were many sorts of other dwellings long since rotted away. Perhaps roving bands of about 150 individuals shared the women and the childcare. We don’t know. We’re said to be sapiens, wise, but are we? In which ways?
It was only as recently as 2010 that the Neanderthal genome was mapped. Lo and behold, we modern humans have about 1-4 percent Neanderthal DNA in us. Maybe they were skilled, nice, and attractive. Similarly, we have some 6 percent Denisova DNA in us. Despite being so-called sapiens, who and how we were isn’t much known.
We tend to think, “Now we know!” Then we find out we didn’t. The earth seemed flat and the sun appeared to fly around us. Turns out, we’re round and spinning daily through daylight, revolving yearly around our center. Turns out our center, the sun is one of a gazillions of other suns. Further, our sun itself spins as it revolves around a black hole, a new larger center of things, in our own local Milky Way. But it’s just one of many. Then there’s an alledged dark matter hidden in what we think of as space. Either our calculations are off or it’s really there. Mysteriously.
We thought we knew a bit about geology, but the whole astonishing reality of plate tectonics wasn’t known until the middle of the last century. That’s about when we developed scuba gear and submarines, allowing us to begin to explore the larger life and ecosystem of our oceans. Are there oceans and life on other planets? Could be, but if we’re indeed limited in how fast we can travel in space, we won’t be able to go there. Too far. Yet, maybe there are other life forms visiting us with their superior knowledge and spacecraft. Maybe there are other ways of knowing and being. We only know what we know so far, so, maybe we don’t know.
Back to Harari’s Sapiens. He calls the last 70 to 30 thousand years the cognitive revolution. Upright posture led to mobility and ability. Bigger brains led to language and therefore culture. Because we have big brains we’re born earlier than most animals our size. That’s to get the baby born without squishing its head or tearing apart the mother. But this early birth means we’re all the more helpless. It takes family and troup, the dawn of culture. Big brains allow language, which leads to abilities. I would add it allows music, singing, and dancing. When did that start? How does that play into our being human?
Harari speculates that gossip is part of why we’ve progressed. Gossip tends social relations. Social relations allow large-scale cooperation, great for hunting, gathering, and migrating. We might assume such primitive people were crude and cruel. Perhaps not. Perhaps they were kind (at least to their own group) and lived better than we imagined. Perhaps their ethic of where to poop led to a sort of dispersed agriculture, more favored foods every year they returned there. Evidence shows they had better diets and teeth than those who settled into set places with agriculture.
Such set places could host larger groupings. Specialties could emerge. Initial writing had to do with numbers: accountants! Numbers can transcend language differences. Trade. Huge stores of grain can lead to inequality, wealthy powerful chiefs and nobodies. Language (and I would add song) allows mythic meaning to bring together disparate bands of people into larger groupings. They can work together to plant, harvest, store, and distribute. They can build temples and tombs. They can amass armies to go and steal other people’s grain and women. They can control slaves.
They can call their leader a god. They can imagine realities more seemingly important than ordinary rivers and mountains. They can call themselves The People and care not for others on the other side of the mountain range or sea. We can imagine this world is merely a stepping stone to another, unimportant and expendable. We can pray for the creatures we kill, thanking them even as they go extinct.
I wince at the probability that we humans inadvertently or unconcernedly exploited and murdered animals. I credit Harare for caring about animals, and I agree with him (and Jared Diamond, author of Collapse) that where humans went extinction of the large animals ensued. Harare writes, “Homo Sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.” (Others promote the theory that asteroids and climate changes caused this. It could be both.)
Rising oceans allow islands to evolve unique creatures. Large ones bred slowly and had no fear of the new humans. When humans entered Australia some 45,000 years ago, there were numerous types of marsupials, including a six-foot, 450-pound kangaroo and a marsupial lion. Birds twice the size of ostriches roamed. Within a few thousand years they were all gone. Of 24 species weighing more than 100 pounds, 23 are gone. By 10,000 years ago all mammoths were gone from arctic lands except on Wrangel Island where they prospered until 4,000 years ago when the first humans arrived there. New Zealand wasn’t colonized until a mere 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the megafauna were extinct along with 60 percent of its bird species.
Genesis Nine supposedly recounts what God told Noah after the flood, “… be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth,” (nearly identical to the few instructions in the cosmogonic myth told in Genesis One) adding, that because they now eat meat, “and the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.” Indeed, with good reason.
Other than our pets, we forget how sentient animals are. Instead, we harden our hearts or detach them. We favor some and don’t care about others. We homo sapiens number about a thousand times more now than we were in the year 1700. We humans now weigh about 300 million tons. Our domestic animals weigh about 700 million tons. All other animals together weigh only 100 million tons.
Eden. Alienated. Estranged. Exploited. Vanishing. Only recently in human history have we cared to not drive whales, condors, eagles, and bison into extinction. We no longer kill whales for reading light. We can use solar panels to power LED lights, and we drive electric cars to go see the whales returning. It depends on what we care about and what we think we should do.
Harare dwells on the myths and common beliefs that hold civilization together. They work but can mislead. He reminds us that a mere 200,000 Brits held 300,000,000 Indians in their control, and that control was initiated by a private corporation prior to the UK assuming it. The corporation is an imaginary yet potentially deadly entity, much like the “persons” our US Supreme Court says corporations are. Corporations, money, and even “human rights” are imaginary forces more potent than natural ones. We assume the Middle East is as it is, forgetting those were arbitrary lines drawn in the sand and between peoples.
When the Portuguese and Spanish landed in the so-called New World, it took only twenty years to decimate most of the inhabitants. They were believers in Christianity, the Queen, and loot. Christians were not promoting or allowing slavery until the sweet taste of sugar and belief in colonization doubled up to a new norm. About 70 percent of the ten million slaves imported from Africa worked in the sugar fields.
Harari ends his book speculating about our melding with our machines to create cyborgs or to live exceptionally long lives. Like Dr. Frankenstein, can we take our shotguns (or more refined tools) to our DNA and make better humans? We’re already mixing genes far more radical than mere species hookups. We’re working on reviving the wooly mammoth. (I’m hoping for the Carolina Parakeet. Also, the Carrier Pigeon, but perhaps that’s my bias.)
Harari unjustly decries humanism and neoliberalism as “worshipping” human agency. In my view, he mistakes both as merely selfish individualism. These are Straw-Man arguments. He should look up what liberal means. “Neoliberal” is a masterful misuse of language designed to undermine the very virtue it employs. Better to trick people than call it neoconservative.
“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles,” he concludes, “but nobody knows where we’re going.” He ends up favoring a Buddhist perspective – that we can’t dwell only and always in ecstasy or agony, that we can be content with the middle path. He wisely worries for the state of the earth’s animals and ecosystem, noting our recent improvements are too recent and fragile to be certain of. We’re powerful but uncertain of what to do with it. We’re, “Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one… seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.”
Both J. Krishnamurti and Albert Einstein warned it’s hard to know what to do when you’re thinking with the problem. The past seems all there is to work with as we go forward.
Harari concludes with this: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
Too bad William Chaloupka’s book Everybody Knows – Cynicism in America was published in 1999. An update would put its points on meth. Cynicism and the politics of resentment seemed bad then, but since then we inherited the Internet, Social Media, and Donald Trump.
Do these names remind you of cynics: J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Dan Quale, Clarance Thomas, Newt Gingrich, William Bennet, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tammy Feye Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Geraldo, Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Gordon Liddy, Richard Scaife, Timothy McVeigh, and Bill Clinton? Perhaps you could add more.
Although Chaloupka identifies the old Greek Diogenes as an original cynic, at least he was blatantly contrary. He wasn’t sneaky like the later Machiavelli, who advised acting pious while being evil. To him, if it served the cause or the leader, it was virtuous no matter how vile. Nietzsche told dour truths, but not as a political ploy. Menken and Twain were sour in a funny way; they popped the pretense of the powerful. We can get cynical, and it can be used on us.
Chaloupka defines and describes cynicism. Cynicism –
undermines the social conditions and moral commitments it addresses
absorbs the refutation it is most likely to confront
recruits, captures, and encloses. It is remarkably agile and hard to escape
renews a call to believe
becomes realism and the reverse
lies, gets bored easily, and angers quickly
is wild, appealing to resentment
When President Jimmy Carter declared securing our own supply of energy as “the moral equivalent of war,” he was cynically laughed off the stage. The solar hot water heaters he had put on the White House roof were quickly removed by Reagan. Reagan claimed he hadn’t traded arms for hostages, but he had, shunting murderous weapons to Central America while holding off the release of the hostages held by Iran until it would look like he rescued them.
Reagan was a jaunty fellow. He had a cheery demeanor and a throaty voice. He claimed to be protecting us from taxes and regulations while weakening the very government he was to serve.
Am I cynical? Yup. Our politics were bad then, and they’ve gotten worse. Our moral horror at war after Vietnam succumbed to Granada, Panama, and two Gulf wars, all attacking people who had not attacked us. Rah, Rah! Now, we rattle sabers and impose nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines to do the opposite to China as China’s Zheng He did to southern Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Enter hate talk radio just as FM radio slumped into vapid music. Enter conservative Christian radio across the AM band. Humanists and free thinkers were nowhere to be heard. Reagan ended that pesky fairness requirement for our media. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk ramped up emotional hatred. No reasoned arguments, just vague resentment at “regulations.”
Militias pretended to be the civil rights demonstrators of the 90s. Congressmen had to sort out whether they had constituents or demons, or what if they were both? Some viewed the Oklahoma City bombing as a sign of citizen revolt. Against what? Not determined. Not needing to be determined. Let the resentment and paranoia flourish!
I tried to contact William Chaloupka to see if he had become an advisor to the right wing, for it seemed they took his book and applied it with vengeance. Vengence at what? No need to supply particulars. A riled mid-brain, racked in hurt, fear, and hate is all they need. Just pump up relentless ridicule, insult, and threats of retribution, and it works. Just as Orwell’s 1984 seems to have become a manual for civic relations, so does what Everybody Knows.
Cheeky citizen protest such as Abbie Hoffman exemplified was not only resented, it was copied and amplified. People wearing colorful clothing, shouting, and feeling self-righteous, led by a daring iconoclast resulted in injured people and shit on the walls of our hallowed Capitol.
I couldn’t help but notice all the places in Chaloupka’s book from 1999 that seemed a guideline for the future Trump: “Audacity marks the cynical leader.” An “appealing swagger” holds us in a “sort of fascination.” When one candidate seems boring, “the other candidate is a manipulative dark genius, gravely flawed by personality and policy, a powerful cynic.” He “would also be skilled at aiming resentful attacks at the press, to gain support in a constituency also fueled by resentment.” “The cynic in power can be a very attractive character.” “They are recruiters, and resentment is what they can offer. These cynics thus have legions of collaborators – powerless, resentful haters who will clear the space for the powerful cynics’ work.” “They cast themselves as misunderstood or persecuted victims, or worse, they hint that all political figures are the same as the worst among them.”
Such successful cynics could attack the press, winking at us in the know that they’re all liars. Fake News becomes faker, centrifugal, scattered into self-reinforcing enclaves. And that’s before the power of the Internet and Social Media hit. Trolls and bots, automatic software designed to rile hit us like the gullible people we are. Much of it was financed by corporations, wealthy zealots, and other countries. Cynicism grows to paranoia, convinced the government is torching cities and their inhabitants for their own twisted, secret ends. What could go wrong?
“We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.”
So much for the ancient and recent past. What about our future?
Kim Stanley Robinson has created an epic novel, integrating psychology, physics, economics, politics, and spirituality into a frightening and hopeful view of the future. He mixes facts and speculation into the multifaceted needs and possibility of humanity rescuing itself from the horrid predicament we’ve stumbled into. We’ve invested massively in fossil fuel technology and economy only to find ourselves sweltering and wincing at the inevitable future we best fix – or else.
Notice these persistent heat domes lately in the US and Europe? Notice the increased hurricanes, tornados, rain bombs in some places and drought-ravaged fires in others? They call it “climate change,” but that’s an ambiguous word saying almost nothing while evading the obvious and magnifying facts of increased global warming. It’s a self-created planetary inflammation, a trapped heat that will wreak troubles, agonies, and expenses on us.
Humanity’s increased ramping up of burning wood, coal, and oil while simultaneously decimating our forests and soils and heating our oceans has landed us in an enormous challenge. If we don’t individually and collectively face it now, we’re dooming the lives of our descendants and the lives of the planet to havoc and catastrophe.
Robinson reminds us we’re susceptible to the Anchor Bias. What we at first think, we tend to hold on to. We tend to pretend we don’t know what the future will bring. That evades facing the looming fact of global warming. In ways little and pesky and huge and suicidal, global warming is ours to confront, admit, and fix. There is no one else to save us. There is no other planet for us to care for.
Near the end of his 563-page tome, he states it clearly. “Healing the Earth is our sacred work, our duty to the seven generations… There is no other world.”
He opens the book set only a few decades in the future. A heat dome has descended on India, making that already hot place into a stubborn oven, a sauna you can’t leave. Desperate poor people try to get relief by going down to the lake. But the water is already above body temperature. There is no relief. Bodies of old people and babies bob and rot in the stinky water. Hyperthermia is deadly. Twenty million die.
India, which otherwise was exemplary in attempting to transition away from fossil fuels via solar panels and windmills, jumps the sanctioned gun by attempting to spray sulfur dioxide from hundreds of planes day and night, trying to reflect some of the searing heat of the sun. It slows the rising heat only a tiny bit.
The UN launched The Ministry for the Future, a multifaceted team trying to confront the complex challenges. The Paris Agreement had only half-heartedly been embraced by various countries and corporations. The Conference of Parties (COP) met yearly. Some advances were agreed to, too slowly.
Some saw business as usual as the usual plunder and sacrifice of the many by the few. The shadowy Children of Kali took it upon themselves to be terrorists at large. They easily launched swarms of drones into the jet engines of frivolous travelers. They easily launched torpedos to sink ships transporting oil or raking the ocean floor for a glutenous harvest. World trade quickly diminished. The rate of excess carbon in the sky began to slow.
Meanwhile, the Ministry for the Future went about its daunting work. Business, technology, economics, banking, psychology, and targeted sanctions were all addressed. A BitCoin-like Carbon Coin was created, rewarding those who drew down the offending carbon or who held it back when they could have profited from releasing it.
Saudi Arabia and similar countries holding oil were paid to not extract it. Brazil and similar places were paid to grow carbon-absorbing forests and fields. Innovative floating airships and carbon-free transport of cars, trains, and ships were quickly developed. A huge project in Antarctica pumped melting glacial water back up to the surface to freeze it again.
The Sixth Extinction was speeding extinction thousands of times faster than the first five extinctions which were the consequence of earlier climate changes. Only they took thousands of years, whereas this was occurring in a mere hundred years. Reestablishing current vanishing species via evolution would take twenty million years. Somehow, governments and the people who lived there agreed to a universal rewilding program, the Half-Earth Project. Habitat corridors were given over to wildlife, connecting various zones to allow migration, and restoring biological diversity and the soils.
Robinson mixes facts into his fantasy. He claims that the US Navy has a policy of paying their top admirals a limit of eight times what the lowest seaman recruits. 8:1. Compare this to the typical 100:1 of many corporations, which goes to 1,500:1 for some. What does such excessive pay discrepancy do to the morale of the lower classes?
Similarly, he reminds us the rate of taxation in the US just after WWII was topped at 91% for those making more than $400,000 a year then. Compare that to the less than 20-30% the top earners now have to pay, and note many of such wealth hoarders secret their money into off-shore accounts or gimmick it away via accounting schemes. How does that undermine our government’s ability to govern such people and corporations? “Greed is good,” was supposed to be sarcastic.
Robinson reminds us of John Maynard Keynes, who said the economy should work for humans, not humans for the economy. (I would add Earth’s life into that equation.) Such socialism assumes there is such a thing as the public good. There can be individual wealth (within limits) but the public would own the necessities of life and would wield real political representation, not the clunky facade of democracy we now try to work.
In short, the entire world transcended its own nationalism to rise to Gaia Citizenship. Human patriotism applies to the planet we share. There is no other home for us. There is no other future than the one we craft.
Okay, so this science fiction book can be shrugged off as “pie in the sky,” even though not facing these challenges ensures we’ll create “die in the sky.” The sky will bake us in ways humanity has never had to face. There are many other sorts of challenges we also must face. A renewal of the social psychology of fascism is again upon us. Plastics and exotic chemicals infuse us. Nuclear annihilation looms as a potential end.
Which brings us back to Oppenheimer and Barbie.
But not before I share my bike crash. I’m not after sympathy. It’s more of an admitting that however big the ideas, mundane reality has a way of showing up in painful particulars.
Three weeks later, my scabs are gone, my rib is back in place, and my thumb still hurts but probably isn’t broken. I gripe about how the headlights in my eyes prevented me from seeing how the paved bike lane suddenly ended in rocks and dirt. The little things of life nag at our attention even while attempting to address the big things in life.
On to this essay!
As promised last month after writing Between Oppenheimer and Barbie, I went and saw both movies. Here’s my mini-review.
Oppenheimer is an important movie showing the personal life of the brilliant man who helped create the first atomic bomb. Two subtexts in his story piqued my attention.
One was the stubborn assumed stance of the US government that Russia was our new enemy. Despite their being the main army to defeat Hitler, losing twenty times more people than the Allies combined, we quickly took an adversarial stance. It could be the bomb at Hiroshima (my birthday bomb!) was intended to scare Russia. Russia was preparing to invade Japan from the north. If they had helped win that war, we would have had to share the glory. Worse, we might have been showing them we had the will to kill innocent civilians by the thousand, maybe theirs! Hardly a way to treat allies and forge cooperative, creative progress. Not very Zheng He-like.
Though not emphasized in the movie, Henry Wallace publically opposed Truman’s anti-communist stance. Truman won despite not winning the popular vote. So began the Cold War, the Arms Race, and the soon-to-follow McCarthy era of vehement anti-communism, which morphed to include anti-socialism. The chance of avoiding all that was lost then and since.
The other subtext was the forbidden love affair between Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock, one of many women he dallied with prior to marrying the jealous Kitty Harrison. Oppenheimer had the most passion for Jean Tatlock, but she was in the scope of J. Edgar Hoover for being a communist (being such used to be an option for American citizens) and bi-sexual. Some speculate she didn’t die of suicide at age 28 but was murdered, a threat to the secret program Oppenheimer led.
Be that as it may, it was the only bit of sensuality and comfort in an otherwise tense and bleak story. Oppenheimer was more of a libertine than the movie portrays. So what? Is that the unforgivable sin in our puritan, paranoid culture? Would we deny the sexual as we develop the wars?
On to Barbie.
I really liked the first half of Barbie. It was colorful, cheerful, and friendly. All the Barbie dolls liked each other. Such positivity and mutual support, unfortunately, is alien in our snarky, guile-ridden, punitive culture.
As opposed to that, Barbie has to visit The Real World where a mother’s loving touch on the shoulders of her daughter is warded off. Simmering alienation is the norm in the Real World.
The movie goes from colorful to grey, from distinctly happy to desolate and alone. It ends in a depressed slump. The only good thing is that Barbie is finally given a vagina. She peps up with that news, as she should. Being a sexless doll who never ages or dies isn’t all as uncracked up as it is said to be.
Finally, some hope, some affirmation of sexuality and motherhood.
My main gripe about the movie is that it started with an opening sequence when all the young girls of a former age were playing with their baby dolls. How restrictive to the new feminist perspective that no longer favors nurturing motherhood. In a sequence mimicking Kubrick’s movie 2001, a girlchild throws the limb of her former doll in the air, bringing it down to smash her baby doll, affirming her newly assigned role as “anything-other-than-mother.” She is to be an astronaut, a surgeon, a movie star, not a wife, not a mother.
Yes, women can be more than wives and mothers. But is it wise to ridicule and abandon those roles? Should girls look forward to desexualized bodies like Barbie’s? Are desexualized Kens to be ignored and mocked? What has Barbie wrought on old-fashioned, ancient even, the source and core of life even – male/female relations?
Sure, the movie ends with the joke of Barbie getting a vagina. That’s a good thing, but for what purpose? To what end?
Here I end this long screed. We’ve toured through the history of humans, to the current problem of cynicism, to the far larger problem of global warming, bounced in and out of the human element in the midst of developing an anti-human weapon, and ended up liking and disliking the sign-of-our-times Barbie movie.
Is Barbie the answer? No.
I opened by suggesting if we think with the past, our future can be skewed and screwed. I stumbled upon the astonishing story of China’s Admiral Zheng He. His friendliness and diplomacy opened the entire south of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to peaceful trade. What if our crusades and colonizing were more like his? What if our paranoia and taunting of Russia and China were more empathetic? What if we loved ourselves, each other, and Eden so much that we revived all three?