Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death, Violence, Grief, War, Brain-Eater, Tea Parties

It's been bugging me for a very long time, and who knows, I may yet be motivated to finish that ginormous post expressing my opinion of the long trajectory of civilization and our point on the arc. The short version is that I think there has in fact been progress in several important measures, and, like any miniature Odysseus who imagines that the gods are swirling portentiously around me, that the progress of the world has peaked, or is peaking, in my lifetime. Not peaking culturally—that's an even more foolish conceit—but in terms of the opportunity to attain and examine that which makes it all feel worth doing. Is there a good basic measure for the quality of our lives? There are a lot of lines that I liked in Eduardo Galeano's Mirrors, but one that took it home pitted the human spirit against an excess of grief:

Love wanes, life weighs, death wastes.

Some griefs are inevitable. That is the way it is, and not much can be done about it.

But those in charge of the planet pile grief on top of grief, and then charge us for the favor.

We pay the value-added tax every day in cold hard cash.

And every day in cold hard misfortune, we pay the grief-added tax.

The added grief comes disguised as fate or destiny, as if the anguish born of the fleeting nature of life were the same as the anguish born of the fleeting nature of jobs.

Well, the spirit of the book is to extend it beyond an economic argument, but death and taxes have always gone together. There is no doubt that sadness is our ultimate due, but a good evaluation of the state of the species is a number for how long how big a fraction of us can coast without a loved one dying in our arms, without suffering crippling pain, succumbing to disease, isolating ourselves, becoming impoverished, or any of the mountain of things that make the big nap seem like a fitting end. (There are many more subjective ways that the quality of life is limited—subjectivity is one thing that has held back that awful post—although it's telling who gets to assert what experience you deserve, and how stable it is perceived to be.) It's difficult to really work out a balance of things in our own times, never mind in the long view back. For example, in the United States, crime statistics suggest that we are less likely to suffer violence from each other, but these analyses usually fail to consider that we've got a greater number of people suffering the official and pre-emptive version, wasting in our teeming jails or simmering in our shantytowns. It also soft-pedals any crimes rich people might do, even if they add grief to the lives of the underclass or to other populations. Arrestable crime in this country has zigzagged over a more or less constant mean value for the past century or so. If you go back to the centuries before that, then the likelihood of murder and assault was depressingly higher. We're a good deal less likely be killed by another civilian here and now than if we lived in 14th century Europe, which enjoyed a homicide rate that was ten times higher than America's today.

Life expectency and other mortality rates are frequent measures of progress when pitting the first world against the third, or when making comparisons between groups. Mortality rates (I like to cope here with jokes about inevitability, but any good physical chemist will automatically think of a rate as 1/lifetime) are a good measure of excess grief in Galeano's sense: we all die, but how often are people dropping around us? Statistics for mortality are also more accessable and less debatable than other measures of misery. In those terms, humans appear to have improved drastically. Life expectancy in U.S. has nearly doubled since 1850, and infant mortality has dropped by an order of magnitude, which puts us (much as with other useful measures) at about number 20 in the world, but it's still pretty awesome historically. In the greater impoverished globe, the death rate has dropped by a factor of three over the last century. It appears to be more due to a scientific understanding of health and hygiene than anything else, whatever political ideologes like to claim. It may also be due to a more universal discovery and dissemination of knowledge, images and communication technologies take us to the battlefronts, wide access to art and literature that gives us personal glimpses into other lives—all modern vehicles to help establish empathy. But that's probably more hopeful than true.

If people can experience a greater freedom from grief, then what does that say about war? The univeral balance must include how much grief we spare ourselves, but also how much we spread to others. Would longer lives make them more precious, and be an impediment to large-scale murder? It doesn't seem to stop it. I remain unconvinced about the additional humanity that the modern American war strategy profers: hell of a low bar for one thing, and you know, the point is still to destroy people. COIN is shameful enough, but when the demons are really let fly, the murderous endeavor has become far more devastating in its scope and scale (and unthinkable in its potential scope and scale).

I spent some time wandering about this site, a compilation of mortality studies put together by one Matthew White. (It is very interesting to wade through, if you don't think too personally about the water. I wish the site had some interesting and handy compilation figures and was more conveniently indexed, but it was evidently produced a few web generations ago.) According to its stats, intentional death, mostly by war and its effects (attendant starvation and lawlessness, and other such minor details) in the 20th century was suffered by about 5% of the population, whereas "only" 1-2% of the world population suffered unnatural death in the nineteenth century. Beating the age of colonialism in a murder contest is a hell of an achievment. White finds a source estimating about a 15% likelihood of death by violence for prehistorical times, obviously a rough estimate, and some similar level of validation by other sources would have been nice. If it's true, it's a point for civilization. Finally.

A picture this big tends to smooth out the details to a point that can easily become offensively glib, which is another reason I keep not wanting to write these things up. Where war occurs, it has become more concentrated and more monstrous, and the quantity of dead has only grown. World War II remains, according to the same body of statistics, the singular horrorshow our species had yet produced by 2005. The disappearance of the Native Americans (however variously intentioned it may have been), and enslavement of native Africans also make the top ten (abetted by how long those things went on, but not a bad effort for an upstart empire), right up there with Stalin's purges and Mao's famine-enhanced revolution. Technology and (possibly) organization have decreased the overall mortality rate and may, arguably, palliate some burdens of living, but they have also let us achieve more spectacular evil, and we were more likely to be killed by other people last century than in the century before. I can not bring myself to say that the one justifies the other, especially when people have to face ever-more-unnatural death. Nor am I clear what the trend was between prehistory and 1900. It may have been better to live as some frictionless, spherical average world citizen in 1945 than it was in 1345, in other words, but it is hard to think of that in terms of anyone lucky enough to shamble out of a concentration camp or the ruins of Nagasaki.

I usually think of these things after reading a John Varley novel, but election season brings it out too. I've paid attention through several rounds of campaigns by now, and the recurrence of theme has become insufferable. Jesus fuck, how many times are they going to tell the lie that a budget has enough pareable waste to balance itself? How many times will they reinvent a dangerous Other to not quite threaten a dire world scenario? How many times are we going to try to introduce bogus economic fixes that enrich the rich and empower the powerful? We've been soaking in conservative principles for 40 years now (after a brief industrial-inspired disruption of the similar order that was going on 350 years or so on these shores), and the media fawns over the Tea Party when it spouts the same platitudes as if they've discovered a new continent. Are they retarded?

Well, they are probably not bright or motivated enough to carefully report and tell a new story, and campaigns, more than other reporting, don't require a presentation of challenging facts, and the thrill it induces in reporters should embarrass them. But more than that, politics survives when people keep stepping up to buy the same old snake oil. Where mortality rate comes in, is that it takes a steady supply of the inexperienced to keep the votes coming. P. T. Barnum obviously had it right, but looking closer at the aphorism, he was concerned about the birthrate of suckers, thinking perhaps, that after a few dozen times, even partisans might outgrow their faith in the more ludicrous cons. If economic impacts were to develop in the space of a generation, would we have as much faith in them? If generations were longer, then maybe we'd borrow less from the future. The news, too, is famously reported on a fifth grade level, and it's probably stayed back a year or two since the early telelvision era (but promoted from the early newspapers). Neglecting such variations, the tone of the news mostly stays constant as people mature around it. I suppose the average information consumer can expect to learn it the popular narrative, then embrace it, and finally outgrow it. If people had time to develop a more thorough understanding of things, would the representative grade-level also float up, and could we expect a better product? Or else maybe given enough time, the race for meaning would get less frenetic, and we'd give up on believing anything after a while.

It's a nice theory. The average age of the Tea Party doesn't inspire confidence (and it's probably worth noting that I'm writing as a middle-aged man) about the likelihood of people to know better by now. People like to get set in their ways, and don't like to change their minds even as circumstances evolve. The bullshit that Reagan told people resonated, dammit, and who wants to acknowledge that life isn't much like Mayberry, or that it wasn't like Mayberry back then either. In science fiction geekdom, it would be sometimes imagined that an author might succumb to brain-eater if he or she lived long enough, divested of all the good and original ideas that powered the early career. And any casual observation of sf nerds further suggests that people can hit a level of emotional maturity, and then stay there. Peak age is a common belief for other achievers too, from athletes to mathletes, there's a window at which we're the best. So let's extend the definition of the grief rate to include infirmity—would the world improve if we could live longer and also suffer less of our time enduring the depredations of age?

A correlated question is whether any intellectual change would occur if people didn't constantly replace themselves. Do we need to die off to change? (I know, time to read Kuhn, shut up.) But on the opposite side, I wonder if resistance is just the end game, the need to validate youth as the inevitability of death looms closer. If there's no lifetime benefit to changing your mind, then clinging to some notion of posterity seems more logical. I also wonder if the extreme late life of a thinker just tends to give way to fatalism or opportunism: I mean, if you grow out of the overheated race for meaning that the young pursue, and that causes you to stop believing in things, then what's left? Does it worry anyone else that we're ruled by an assembly of desiccated old bastards who have selected themselves out by their ability to peddle the same lies for 40 years?

Some people don't lose it, keeping their wonder of discovery, or keep developing their thoughtful sense of values. They manage to keep expanding their notions of dignity and decency and knowledge until it goes black, and it impresses the hell out of me. If I can't go out like that, then I hope that whatever understanding I attain leads me to ignore the bullshit, so that I am able to concentrate on the good stuff, the timeless stuff, that's left. Or maybe I can postpone the end indefinitely. That would be nice.


bright said...

K, we are NOT middle aged!

And, "sadness is our ultimate due"? F that. I'm shooting for joy, will settle for peace.

Keifus said...

Thanks, I needed that. 37 is what? The new 20? Not more than the new 25 anyway.

Yeah, I guess I was thinking that we can all expect a measure of sadness ("ultimate due" is too strong, you're right), which is part of life, but through no fault of their own, many people get a whole lot extra. We'd be better as a species if we could abolish the grief tax. I would at least like to avoid demanding it.

I'm aiming for those things too. I'm lucky for how much joy is around me now.