Friday, August 17, 2012
J. S. Bangs on errant predictions, my thoughts on burnt offerings
One of the things that stands out about many predictions from some thirty years ago was how certain "everyone" was that nuclear war was likely. This assumption that the Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much was going to obliterate all life from the planet was so pervasive that if you read, say, Alan Moore's Watchmen, you have to assume this dystopian prediction that inside of the Reagan years the planet was damned. If you don't then you are not exegeting Alan Moore quite accurately. Grant Morrison may be crazy but Morrison touched on this necessary interpretive approach in Supergods. The fact that you're reading the story at all by way of Rorschach's journal tells you in advance that the journal goes public and that Veidt's decades of scheming were basically for nothing. Morrison was also right to point out that the core reveal is a problematic one, that the world's smartest man did the world's dumbest thing after spending his whole life thinking about it.
But, in a way, that's no surprise at all. The smarter we think we are the more apt we are to be confined into some weird tunnel vision that admits no outside possibilities. The best and brightest of the late 1980s were not imagining a world in which there would be no Soviet Union. They were imagining, as J. S. Bangs notes with some amusement, 8 billion people on the planet.
I have heard it said that we have advanced a great deal in the last few centuries. In some ways we have and that beyond our capacity to describe. But in other ways I doubt that we are so advanced as we think. The more we learn about the brain the more apparent it is that you can be the world's foremost expert on heuristics, cognitive biases, and things like that without managing to overcome a single one of those brain weaknesses today. Just ask Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow. We can say that we're more advanced than those benighted medievals who thought the world was flat and all that. Well, sure, in several respects.
But ... and here is where my dour view of the human condition may skew my thoughts beyond practical value ... I wonder. In the Israelite prophets I see warnings that if human sin piles up too high, if injustice and impurity become too great, and if there is no check on human pursuit of luxury then the land itself vomits up the evil society as a way to punish them for their iniquities. We're too sophisticated for that and so Hollywood doesn't really make movies like The Day After Tomorrow, does it? Attempting to combat global warming and sharing worries about modern First World dependence on fossil fuels isn't anything like Israelite prophets warning against making sacrifices to Ba'al or a complaint about a failure to observe the Jubilee year, is it?
Or is it? What if, despite our protestations to the contrary, some of the pressing issues of our day, issues that the most progressive and secular tell us we must address yesterday, still ends up seeming curiously like a prophetic warning that our society is doomed for selfishly pursuing convenience and luxury by offering burnt sacrifices to the wrong gods, the worst ideals? In the ancient Israelite prophetic idiom apocalyptic literature emerged to explain the disastrous consequences of short-term thinking over long-term values ... it would appear that the apocalyptic idiom, once developed, never stood the slightest chance of going out of style.
Call me a pessimist but it sure seems as though even the most progressive and secular can still think in terms of an entire civilization meriting damnation for offering the wrong sorts of burnt offerings to the wrong sorts of icons of prosperity.