Generational Degeneration

Walk with me for a bit as I wrestle with a thought.

Most people have heard that the Bible is the Word of God — certainly Christians are fond of telling us this. But what does that mean?

A vocal portion of the faithful take this to mean the literal, infallible, inerrant truth of the words, even the punctuation, in the Holy Scripture.

Where did that idea come from?

Well, we have the idea of Papal Infallibility, cast into Roman Catholic doctrine in 1870. That’s based on the infallibility of the Church Councils, a concept batted about in the 1200’s. That harkens back to the original councils, beginning in the year 325, charged to settle the infighting among the hundreds of different early Christian sects: councils which put together the Holy Scripture the Christians call the Bible and defined what Christianity was, and what it was not.

Where did this authority come from? The Emperors of Rome.

So we can see a kind of ossification and degeneration occurring in this process. What began as a pragmatic and flexible political process became rigid dogma which admits to neither error nor change. As that happens, the wisdom of the tradition drains away into utter nonsense.

We see a similar process in the ossification of the United States Constitution among some Libertarians and Tea Partiers. When crafted, the Constitution was envisioned as a flexible political document that outlined the principles of governing a nation potentially as large or larger than any nation had ever been. No one knew what would work, and what would not, and so they left the details to future generations: the Constitution has written into itself a process for modification. For many, now, Constitutionalism is a religion that has already degraded into dogma that says The People are not allowed to create an income tax or a social security network because it is not present in the Holy Writ of Masters Madison and Jefferson. This degeneration hasn’t had seventeen centuries to descend into nonsense, but it is rapidly headed in that direction.

Which brings me to the real subject of this conversation: Capitalism.

Capitalism is a vehicle, like a car. When you decide to take your family on a vacation from, say, Denver to Disneyland, the car is a wonderful thing. But once you’ve reached your destination, you stop driving. If you don’t — if you are so enamored with the forward motion of this sleek, muscular machine that you don’t even slow as you pass Disneyland — you proceed westward into the Pacific Ocean and drown.

What is this “Disneyland?” Nothing complex: just a higher standard of living. For everyone.

No sensible economist in the early days of industrial capitalism ever considered that it would last. Capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. Like a car, it can take us to Disneyland, but then it has to either stop, or proceed into the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, we humans have this pattern of ossifying our beliefs into inflexible nonsense. Religion. Politics. Economics.

We’ve reached the end of the capitalist ride, and it turns out it has only taken us to Disneyland, not to Heaven. Some might find that disappointing. I happen to think it’s pretty cool. But it’s time to put the machine in Park and stop driving, because the next stop is going to be quite uncomfortable.

It’s fascinating to watch the pro-capitalists scream about comments like this. Their first reaction is always to create the false dichotomy — if you aren’t a Capitalist, you must be a Satan-Worshipping Godless Totalitarian Communist.

If you can get past that reflexive shriek of terrified outrage, you immediately get the false pragmatism that says nothing works better than capitalism. If you’re driving to Disneyland, that’s perhaps true. If you don’t stop when you get there, not so much.

Beyond that lies the shallow moralism of “private ownership rights” and “ethical greed” taken to bizarre extremes: a long list of tiresome excuses defending the world as it is, regardless of how patently immoral and unworkable it has become.

If you can penetrate all of these fuming reeks, there lie stunning vistas of possibility. Gift economies. Patronage. Distributivism. Guilds and Brotherhoods. Social democracies. And more importantly, the things we haven’t yet imagined.

Some ten thousand years ago, people responded to increasing population by abandoning traditional hunting and gathering, to farm. It was an unthinkable transition at the time. The transition to cities, and then city-states, and then national states was equally unthinkable. Every such shift was a way to deal with increasing population, more people living in less space.

We approach another such transition. Capitalism has taken us as far as it can, and now we have to stop the machine, get out, and figure out what will replace it.

The Tyranny of the Past

I’ve just endured the now-traditional screech of the Fundamentalist Christians over the Evils of Halloween, and dread the now-traditional bickering over whether Christ is present in or absent from Christmas. It’s all quite tiresome.

One of the things that keeps spewing from the Fundamentalists about Halloween is something along the lines of “…this is a wicked, Satanic practice because the X used to do Y back in the mists of history.” Perhaps it’s the Druids and bone-fires. Or some superstition about Jack O’ Lanterns and evil spirits. Or it’s the distasteful practice of dining in a graveyard with your ancestors.

This all seems strange to me, because nearly any traditional practice is rooted in bizarre ancient practices. Look at the Cross of the Christians — a symbol of torment, torture, and mass execution. Or the Eucharist, a symbolic act of cannibalism.

Are modern Christians committing an act of cannibalism during their Communion rite? With Wonder Bread and grape juice?

Oh, puh-leeze.

What modern people do is what modern people do, regardless of what it might (or might not) have meant to their grandparents, or their remote ancestors.

Did the ancient Druids build Wicker Men and roast criminals alive inside them? I don’t know, but more pointedly, I don’t care. I’m a modern Druid, and I certainly don’t build Wicker Men. Nor do any of the other Druids I know about.

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, had garden parties at the Vatican in which prostitutes crawled about on hands and knees and picked up coins spread on the floor, while the male guests mounted them — and the Pope awarded prizes to the men who ejaculated (publicly) the greatest number of times during the evening. He reputedly took his own daughter, Lucrezia, as a lover, and shared her affections with his son, Cesare. What does this say about modern Catholics?

Nothing at all.

The past can be both a guide and a prison. Increasingly, I see it as a prison.

One way of looking at the entire sweep of history is as a vast, sustained effort in solving the problems of increasing population.

Stable tribal societies benefit from the past, because the past contains strategies that are relevant to the present. It tells you what plants to eat, when to migrate, how to hunt without destroying your food source. It tells you the auspicious times to have children, and the times to hold back.

Increasing the population dilutes the value of tribal knowledge. If you follow the old ways, people starve. The auspicious times to bear young are no longer auspicious.

So new ways are created. Agriculture. Cities. Religions. Nations. Divine Right. Rule of Law. Every one of these is a method of solving the problem of more people living in closer quarters.

Not a single one of these strategies works for very long, because the population keeps growing. Last time I checked, the world population adds a city the size of Los Angeles every month. Every increase in population forces us to solve problems in new ways.

Medieval Christianity is long gone, replaced by modern Christianity, which is fading quickly into post-modern Christianity. Socialism had its day. Capitalism is rapidly coming to its predictably catastrophic close. The Republic may have a short future ahead, or it may also be dying. Will popular Democracy replace it? Or Fascism? Or Theocracy? Or something completely different?

Paganism has successfully re-invented itself — what passes for Pagan today would be unrecognizable to any ancient Roman or Celt, as would our lifestyles, our stresses, and our systems of coping with those stresses. As a modern outlook, Paganism might have a future, but only if it remains flexible and part of the problem-solving process.

I wonder what it was like in the generations just before people started clearing fields and forcing the earth to produce food. The old verities of hunting and gathering would have begun to fail. There were too many people, too many “others.” Thinning herds. Vanishing birds. Polluted rivers. Always the stink of burning in the air.

Patterns of life that had guided tribes for hundreds of years, perhaps hundreds of generations, simply didn’t work any more. Could the average tribal person have envisioned living in one of the first true cities? Surrounded by strangers, neighbors rather than clan? Purchasing strange food from strangers? The noise, the stink, the being stuck in one place with one abode, doing only one thing every day like baking or tanning or forging?

We face a similar period of radical change. Our web of commerce has circled the world, and we cannot fight a war without damaging our own economy. There are no places left to discover, conquer, or exploit. All is owned — if it isn’t, it soon will be. We can feed the world easily, yet we do not, because our past is a prison that says we must do hard, productive work to eat, yet there is not enough productive work.

And the population continues to grow.

I try to imagine what living will be like in a century, and I fall short. I’ve read science fiction all my life, but it is clear that everything I’ve read was a product of its own time, not of the future. It’s like visiting Future World at Disneyland — it feels dated, nostalgic. Even the works of science fiction with enormous scope, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Frank Herbert’s Dune, read like period pieces only fifty years later.

I feel like one of those pre-agricultural nomads, who cannot grasp the idea of a “city.” To the extent that I can imagine the future, the prospect is horrible, just as the idea of being pinned in one place among strangers must have been horrible to those first nomadic city-dwellers. Yet our children will adapt, and they will look back on our Democracy and our Capitalism and pity us.

Is Halloween based on ancient Pagan practices? Is Christ in Christmas?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The Inheritance Box

A conversation with a friend yesterday reminded me of an idea that had crossed my mind years ago when we were packing up a lifetime of accumulation in my father’s house. This was the idea of the “inheritance box.”

The idea is that you get to pass on exactly one box of stuff, a standard-capacity box about the size of a footlocker. Everything ELSE you ever owned — absolutely everything — is dispersed to the poor, or confiscated by the government, or simply burned. You can pass along anything that will fit in the box, but the lid has to close and latch. You can stuff it with gold. You can put in photographs, or faded theater tickets. You can load it with books or journals. You can leave it empty.

Oh, and of course you can choose to pass on anything that you received in YOUR inheritance box from your parents, if you got one (you may have to share stuff with your siblings). But assuming that box was full when you got it, you’ll have to take something out to add your own stuff: throw out great-great-great grandfather’s lock of baby hair, or pitch a box of faded photographs from your grandparents’ generation. If you were an only child and received TWO boxes — or if you were beneficiary of a childless couple and ended up with four or more boxes — you’ll have to choose.

One box.

What would you put in your box? What would you want to receive from your ancestors in your parents’ boxes.

I’d be seriously pissed-off to receive a box filled with nothing but gold coins. Or thousand-dollar bills, or million-dollar Certificates of Deposit. I don’t care what they’re worth. It’s only money, and soon spent, unless it’s too much to spend, in which case it becomes a burden. It is also a kind of insult — is my ancestry of such low character that they had nothing better to pass along than money? Or did they think so poorly of their offspring that they thought we needed the handout?

Nor was I especially happy with what my parents and my uncle did, which was to leave behind an entire house and garage full of a lifetime of flotsam, to sift through in the few days we could spare before the world once again harnessed us to the plow and forced us to resume our quest for daily bread. That experience was brutal beyond any expectation.

Here’s what I would pass on.

I’ve written a short autobiography for my boys. That would go in the box. One thing I always missed was a real sense of knowing my father, especially as I grew older. His past was largely closed, and even his meticulously recorded daily diaries go back only to shortly before he married my mother at the age of forty-two. Those diaries provide very little insight into the man: they are more like ship’s logs, with notes of daily activities, few comments, and no hint of his passions or desires. But I could tell you the morning temperature and what time he ate breakfast on July 2, 1968.

I wouldn’t include my diaries, I think. They are the opposite of my father’s, entirely too self-indulgent.

I would score and print all of the music I’ve written, and that would go into the box, along with CDs of performances. That’s a work in progress: I certainly hope I have notes for unfinished works when I pass, and it would be my Last Will that the notes should be stuffed into the box as well.

Same with my writing, especially if I become a published author. I might take a chance and pass those as digital media, and let my descendants decide which (if any) to pass along to the next generation and transcribe to the medium-of-the-hour.

I’d leave a single silver pentacle. Let the distant descendants make of that what they will. They’re welcome to make up stories.

A family tree, though it is truncated on my father’s side by immigration, and on my mother’s by estrangement and neglect. I should try to put together something better, though, since I’m now at the living apex of the tree.

Some photographs, but only a few of the many thousands I possess. I inherited nearly six thousand slides from my uncle, and hundreds from my father — I’ve been able to view only a fraction of them myself, and most record people and places I do not know.

A very few video recordings, transcribed to DVD. Let the descendants figure out how to pass them on.

A copy of The Lord of the Rings, which is still (IMO) the best book I’ve ever read.

Since I have so little from my ancestors for the inheritance box, there would be ample space for whimsy. A wine cork to represent my love of wine. An unused bottle label for the very first beer I ever brewed. A receipt from the grocery store to show what we ate and what it cost. An unopened condom, just to keep anyone from taking it all too seriously.

What would you put in your box?