Timely Truths - Hans Kern10-03-2011
I was born in 1990, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and just before the first web page went up on the Internet. That year, the global population was 5.3 billion, NASA launched four manned space missions and Back to the Future III was released. Now I am 21 and the global population is about to reach 7 billion. A person born in the sixties would have seen the world population double in their lifetime, and a centenarian could claim to have lived through the quadrupling of all human life on earth. In these past 100 years, the face of our planet has changed more drastically than ever before in human history. More information is now exchanged and processed than ever before. Some even claim that we have wrestled nature into submission. But what does the future look like? The accelerated changes of our time are widening the eerie chasm between man and nature and it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what will come next. The pace and magnitude of these changes are unprecedented and therefore almost impossible to grasp, quantify or come to terms with. It is this predicament that I believe constitutes the profoundest dilemma in our search for truth. But does this alleviate the need for truthtelling? Certainly not, it amplifies it. In the course of this essay, I seek to demonstrate the importance of truthtelling with reference to the social, political and environmental spheres of our world.
What has become of the American Dream? The glory days of flagship capitalism, shiny metal and indomitable spirit have been phased out by a delirium of economic recession, plastic asphyxiation and national self-doubt. It must have been a sad day when, on July 8th of this year, the Atlantis took off on its final manned flight for the NASA space shuttle program and parents had to explain to their children that this spectacle marked the last time that America would be launching any astronauts into space.
[caption id="attachment_1764" align="alignright" width="279" caption="Kids will now have to tell their parents, "When I grow up, I want to be a cosmonaut!""][/caption]
The nation’s pride as vanguarded by the triumph of rocket science and other feats in engineering is over. And while the scientific knowledge of those times has only since evolved, it is the authority afforded by an ability to put theory into practice that has waned. We have, in recent decades experienced a growing divide between theory and practice. The democratisation of knowledge as facilitated by the Internet has diffused knowledge of most subjects, for better or worse. In the public sphere, respect for scientific truths has given way to flippant rejection of facts in defense of more convenient viewpoints. Hannah Arendt quite relevantly commented, some forty years ago, that unwelcome facts are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions. This “fact nihilism,” so common these days, seems therefore to suggest that the facts of our times must really be quite unwelcome. Well, they are. The infrastructure upon which our society is based is showing cracks, global oil extraction has begun to go into decline while demand continues to grow, and global weather patterns are becoming more erratic. And the dangers of denying such facts are, plainly, that we end up doing nothing to address them.
Politically speaking, we have lost sight of the “common good.” In Ancient Greece, the polis or city-state, represented the greatest concentric circle of the community and politics the common pursuit around which all members of the polis were united. Aristotle defined humans as “political animals,” suggesting that it is in our nature not only to live out our private lives, but to rule and be ruled in the affairs of society as a whole. The fact that people in America wish to have no part in governance is symptomatic of a larger problem. Perhaps it is because our democratic process alleviates any need for active participation in government, so long as the individuals submit their ballots and pay their taxes. Some would argue that the problem runs even deeper. Henry Miller believed that “it is the American vice, the democratic disease which exposed its tyranny by reducing everything unique to the level of the herd.” Does this mean that the people should not govern? Or does it mean, rather, that they should be endowed with greater responsibility, thus making them accountable for the state of their nation, thereby incentivising them to make more qualified decisions. I believe it is the latter. Were we to be more truthful about the volatile state of our world and our own role in it, a general regard for truthtelling would begin to take hold and good leaders be encouraged to step up to the pedestal.
Education is the fundamental building block of informed change. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, made a wise move when he introduced the “Citizen Science” program, geared towards instilling greater scientific literacy in students. After all, many of the political problems we face today will require scientific expertise to be resolved. From our bold beginnings as inventors of the stone tool, we have evolved to domination of the animal kingdom. From DDT to nuclear bombs and genetic engineering, there are countless examples of how man likes to play god. And every time we have done so in the past, we have gotten away with it. Is it foolish to assume that there are no limits? I think so, and repercussions could be plentiful. Committed as we are to reinventing the natural order of the world around us, we would be well advised at least to be fully conscious of our actions and their implications. Consider the pharmaceutical industry, where the race to develop new vaccinations as fast as pathogens adapt and form new mutations is neck-to-neck. What if we lose? These are eventualities that we as a culture should be collectively conscious of and that we should hold as a central threat to our pursuit of the common good. Lying about them won’t help.
should hold as a central threat to our pursuit of the common good. Lying about them won’t help.
Also worth considering is that there might be an underlying evolutionary drive to the seemingly reckless ways of our collective being. Leon Trotsky famously once stated that “war is the locomotive of history.” What he articulated was an aphoristic yet subtle insight; that it is only through discord and a breakdown of harmony that the true nature of things reveals itself and new things come into being. Perhaps it is out of a subconscious weariness of gradual change and sagacity that we, as a society, are speeding up as we navigate these unknown waters. It would seem as though the truths we are familiar with and yet choose to ignore are not sufficient to our pursuit of grand truths. Like the little boy who is warned of the dangers of touching the flame and does it anyway, we know what history teaches us about delusions of grandeur yet choose to find out for ourselves, in the hope that maybe this time will be different. What we are up against are the laws of nature. The big laws, laws that we have known to be constant and unchanging throughout history, that nontheless we choose to challenge. It is a formidable move. Like a dialectician playing devil’s advocate to a seemingly sound position, we, it seems, will not settle with the working hypothesis. Does everyone make this choice knowingly? Will the outcome do justice to the rich truth-seeking heritage of our civilization? Is there a more desirable way of going about this business? These are questions that I will leave up to the reader to answer. But they necessarily must be asked.
It is the end of an era. In his “Ode to Man” the great tradgedian Sophocles observed that nothing “towers more deinon than man.” Contained within the ancient greek word deinon is the complete dichotomy of the human happening:greatness and terror. In light of this, I call upon the reader to be fully honest about their role in the world, to “know their deinon” and act accordingly. It is Max Weber’s basic precept for anybody acting politically to act with full consciousness of the possible consequences. So, when we assume the role of challenger, we must do so boldly: “I am living like this because I wish to truly know, even if it may be at my own cost.” Only then can we say that we know what it means to be human. If, on the other hand, we no longer want to play this game, we must say so and act accordingly. But what we cannot do is pretend that everything is just fine as it is and proceed as usual. The times they certainly are a changin’ and we must face the truth, before it really is too late.
[caption id="attachment_1766" align="aligncenter" width="270" caption="Nature is still full of surprises."][/caption]