October 19, 2012

How'd it come to this?

Been a bit preoccupied this week: Going over a bump in the road health-wise; plus, I've been kinda wrapped up in the baseball playoffs. After all, I am still an American male, and as a kid, back in the days when it really was the American pastime, baseball was my first love. Though I haven't followed the game much at all since the days of the Big Red Machine (the '75 Series was the best ever, in my estimation [why is Pete Rose not in the Hall Of Fame?]), of all the major sports, baseball has changed the least - the game itself, not so much the players - over the years. But (I hope this doesn't come across as maudlin) this very well could be my last chance to witness a World Series, and, with the Tigers and (it looks like) the Cardinals in it, both teams with long traditions, I just don't want to miss it.

So ... How the hell did we get so far up the creek? Always seeking to go to the roots (ain't that what a radical does?), and being a life-long amateur student of anthropology, I am drawn back to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the time when full-blown agriculture was becoming firmly established in the so-called "centers of civilization." Before some clever Mesopotamians invented literacy, pretty much the only evidence we have to go on is archeological, and that kind of evidence, notoriously, severely limits what we can know, or even reasonably guess, about the minds of those who left it. Nevertheless, we may still draw many illuminating conclusions and insights about the lifeways of pre-literate people from the artifactual clues they left. This kind of evidence has been steadily accumulating for many decades now, if not longer, to the point that we can now confidently say that the time-frame I'm focusing on marks a decisive watershed in the evolution of human social, economic, and religious practices (among others).

Before the time when we humans started living in year-round settlements, somewhere around 12,000 years or so ago, we were all hunter-gatherers (probably just scavengers for a long time), and it's that way of life that we are - today still - equipped for in body and in mind. It's very clear, both from the admittedly sparse archeological record and from the millennia-long, increasingly abundant ethnological evidence, that, in terms of social and economic arrangements, hunter-gatherers, even that tiny remnant still surviving today, are by nature strictly egalitarian, and have survived by cooperating, not competing. To be blunt, this means nobody runs the show, except ad-hoc, by agreement, and temporarily; and nobody owns anything, beyond small personal items, which, in any case, are easily replaceable by nearly everyone. And this egalitarianism is both explicit and enforced - every so often, some yo-yo gets it into (nearly always) his head to steal from or lord it over the others, but such are sooner or later brought back into line, if need be by being escorted into the jungle (or desert, or whatever's handy) and "lost."

But be the third millennium BCE, we have not only "written" documentation but abundant archeological evidence of elaborated hierarchy (to include several leisure classes), institutionalized warfare, and marked social and economic inequality in a number of the "centers of civilization" -eventually, all of them. This "breakthrough" has since spread over the entire globe, like bacteria in a Petri dish, until now scarcely a living being has not been engulfed in its seeming inexorability. (As with those bacteria, inevitably, we are now within sight of the edges of the dish; but, unlike the bacteria, our own Waterloo offers hope of a reset - to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.)

How did all this happen so quickly and so thoroughly? It's a question that's baffled me, and therefore fascinated me, all my adult life. Why have 99% of humanity allowed the other 1% to climb on their backs and ride them so mercilessly for so long? Even more perplexingly, why have they failed to recognize that it is well within their power to make an end of it? I've never been able to come up with an answer that satisfies me; it may well be that there is no ultimate reason, but rather a congeries of factors that, together, is enough to do the trick.

For now, though, I fear that this post has already exceeded many attention spans; besides, I have pressing business to attend to. I'll post again, hopefully, this weekend, to offer some possibilities for discussion. In the meantime, as maybe a kind of teaser, I offer two quotes that seem pertinent:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
 — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

I should like to see, and this will be the last and most ardent of my desires, I should like to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.
— J. Messelier (clause in a will, Paris, 1733)


  1. I think J. Messelier is on to an important point that Jean-Jacques might not have embraced. That is Rousseau's evident toleration (and public adherence) of religion. I don't know who Messelier was, or if he had a philosophy beyond ridding humankind of kings and priests, but it may well have been our early embrace of religion (or of some mysterium tremendum that evolved into our shamans and their preachments) that is the beginning of the end. What was it Robert Heinlein (so I agree with one or two things one or two of his characters may have said, this does not indicate that I give much creedence in any other area) put into the mouth of Lazarus Long?

    "The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H.Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the sacharrine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not recieve this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history."

    This is all I find googling, but it doesn't sound quite like the quote I was thinking that I remembered . . . ahh well . . . and as Mr. Vonnegut noted, "And so it goes." (I'm referencing memory here - this last paragraph is actually irrelevant to the rest of what I think I remember typing above. I've got another article I want to find about how it is gossip that is the real, and securing, foundation of human communitarianism . . .

    1. I think Monsieur Messelier was just a private citizen who had the perspicacity to have his will noticed, preserved, and quoted by some anonymous archivist. I found the quote in a book by archaeologist Robert J. Wenke, Patterns In Prehistory, an excellent and entertaining survey of "humankind's first three million years."

      I agree that religion - or more precisely, priestly religion - was fundamental to the Fall, but I think that it assumed this centrality only after it was co-opted by those who had a more, shall we say, secular bent. I've got no problem with the mysterium tremendum - it's always there and will forever remain just as mysterious and tremendous as it ever was. The issues arise when the priests, who claim special and exclusive knowledge of the mystery, presume to proscribe and condemn - whether sincerely or cynically - on that basis. I also think it's crucial to note that the absolute worst offenders in that regard, by far, are the monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and to note that those same religions all had roots and arose in the Middle East, the undisputed Ursprung of literacy.

      More about all this later.