Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Thought Experiment

So what makes you you? And how much of this light
 show are you personally willing to shut down for good?

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. I'd thought of posting about a controversial rapper at the White House, but I'm doing this instead. A post I've been mulling for a long time now. It's about the self-annihilating properties of ethnic and other categorical hatreds. Before I begin. let me state what this post is not. It's not a defense of the multicultural political correctness that's been rammed down our throats by the lefty intelligentsia. It's not a national or global political argument of any kind. It's not an endorsement of  "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" pollyanna-ism. Conflicts will always be with us, as will prejudices and irrational hostilities, and the inevitable conflicts, prejudices, and hostilities will be costly and perhaps, in some contexts, fatal. 

My only point here is strictly personal. What price are you willing to pay for your hatreds in terms of your own personal identity? Are you willing to stop being you or become a radically reduced version of the self who is living your life?

Here is the premise of the experiment. It's an act of subtraction. Examine all your own biases and resentments. Who would the world be better off without? Identify them and then subtract them completely from your own experience of life, your memories, your beliefs, the mind that makes you you.

To begin with a fairly vanilla example, the Irish reliably hate the English. But what if the English had never existed? Would the Irish still be the Irish? Yeah, they'd still be Celts on a green island, but much of their history, heroes, and poets would be swept away. Without the English, there would have been no United States that defined itself in opposition to British tyranny, no waves of immigration that transplanted as many Irishmen as who still live in Ireland to the brawling new world where some of them achieved spectacular heights and more sad Irish stories, like the tragic presidency of John F. Kennedy.

I'm not saying there wouldn't have been an alternative history, but how much of you, today's Irish, would remain? And again, I'm speaking personally. None of your cultural touchstones would be the same. Maybe there'd still have been a James Joyce, a William Butler Yeats, a Michael Collins, and even a St. Patrick, but they would bear no resemblance to the specific emotional foundations of your own life and personality. And for those who value brilliant poetry and prose and song, there would be no inspirational neighbors like Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Jane Austen, or Gilbert & Sullivan.

You see, the subtraction has to be total. Like Kevin Bacon's six degrees of separation, every loss ripples through the whole and winds up striking extremely close to the most intimate core of personal experience.

A lot of people hate the Jews, more and more all the time, including some of our most celebrated professors and intellectuals. Okay. Subtract the Jews. Completely. No Marx. No Freud. No threat of nuclear war in the 21st century middle east. Happy? Not so fast. At the extremes, there is no more Bible and no golden age of Hollywood. So there is also no Christianity, no Constitution of the United States, none of the movies you use as personal metaphors for your own heroic view of yourselves, and no Islam -- because there is no Ishmael for Muhammed to use in tracing his own lineage back to God. But remember that there is also no "David" by Michelangelo and, in fact, no Italian Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, no theory of relativity or quantum physics, no M.I.T. Start wiping Jews out of your mind and there won't be much left of what you call civilization.

There's no shortage of people who hate the Germans. Without them, there would have been no Hitler or holocaust. And no Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, no Wagner opera about the "ring" and therefore no Lord of the Rings" and -- dare I say it? -- no Harry Potter. Also, no Mercedes Benz, BMW, Porsche, Volkswagen, or Apollo 11. No World War I and World War II that made heroes of our family forebears and bolstered the pride of family so many still feel today. No Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and no pretzels, brats, hot dogs or hamburgers(!). Erase all those things from your life. Are you content to shut down all the synapses of your brain that connect to things German as if they had never existed?

No Russians? No Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, ballet, American figure skating team, Dostoevsky, or James Bond movies. Or vodka. Think about it. No vodka.

No Arabs? Well, then, forget Arabic numerals, algebra, and the sophisticated mathematics they made possible. Imagine yourself dialing cellphone numbers in Roman numerals. Except also subtract the cellphones. We'd still be using the biggest blackboards on earth to calculate simple square roots.

How many Americans are still shaped in one way or another by the Civil War? No slavery, no blacks, no century of humiliation and suffering for the south. In the north, probably no more United States. Don't forget that it was the Civil War which changed accepted usage from "the United States are..." to "the United States is..." We'd probably be three or four different clashing nations by now. The Civil War was a stupendous passion play that tempered the mettle of this nation into a force strong enough to bear sacrifice for others and do great good in the world. Do the southern boys want to give up their imaginings of Pickett's Charge, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee? Without the Civil War, Lee would be a footnote, a West Point officer who served with distinction and no memorable actions. Gettysburg would be a farm town and we'd never have heard of Abraham Lincoln.

A point to ponder for both blacks and whites. Without slavery, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation, there is no African participation in America. Blacks would still be in Africa and whites would be, well, blander. Anybody on either side want to subtract the African-American part of their lives from their lives? Really? No Martin Luther King, no lynchings, and no Nathan Bedford Forrest or Black Panthers, but also no blues, ragtime, jazz, or rock and roll, meaning no Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, Beebe King, James Brown, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, no Motown, Temptations, Supremes, or Four Tops, no Michael Jackson, and no Allman Brothers, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, GNR, U2, Madonna, or Lady Gaga. Right. Subtract it all from your minds and memories. It's not there any longer. All the songs you fell in love to gone, gone, gone. Not all of us can fuel our romance with a strict diet of Loretta Lynn. Some of us still rely as much on Nat Cole as Frank Sinatra, and there's no Sinatra with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins.

No Hispanics? Forget Christopher Columbus discovering America. He was not Italian but Spanish, probably Catalan.

No French? Well. Paris no longer exists and a long list of other stuff too numerous to list in architecture, art, cuisine, and personalities -- Bridgette Bardot, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charlemagne, Debussy, Edith Piaf, and Voltaire -- without whom your mind would be substantially different. For example: without Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Moliere, and Voltaire, Mark Twain might have ceased his output after the "Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Ripples. Ripples.

No Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese? Toss out spaghetti (brought back from China to Italy by Marco Polo), martial arts movies (losing Bruce Lee would really suck, wouldn't it?), not to mention paper books, fireworks at the ballpark, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and that ugly chick everybody loves on Grey's Anatomy. And perhaps more importantly for American minds, no Platoon, Apocalypse Now, or Heavy Metal Jacket.  No Sands of Iwo Jima, no Doolittle Raid, no Battle of Midway. We'd have far less idea what we're capable of when the going gets really rough.

Even the people who oppose and challenge us help to make us who we are. When you imagine them out of existence, we all become poorer, smaller, and less interesting and individual.

I repeat that there would be alternate histories. But when you think about it, those histories would be less interesting and less dramatic.

I know there are times when we want to wish away the "bad people." But the result, if you contemplate it seriously, is worse than cowardly; it's boring.

No matter how much I complain, I would never wish any of them out of existence. I may want to defeat (some of) them, educate them, oppose their crazier agendas, and yearn for impossible accommodations, but they're built into the world that has made my own consciousness what it is. And I wouldn't willingly omit a single drop of my own consciousness for any cause on earth. Die maybe. But not dim my mind's eye or amputate huge chunks of my experience of life.

Some of you may feel differently. That would be your problem.

Final thought. What does "Common" mean? I think I've explained it.

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