Science/Fiction Part 1

Among the press there is a time-honored query applied to presidents and other wielders of power who may have an interest in appearing ignorant of “certain deeds,” who committed them, and the like. “What did he know, and when did he know it?” was, I believe, first asked of Richard Nixon (Watergate), then Ronald Reagan (Iran/Contra), then George Bush 1 (ditto), then Bill Clinton (Whitewater/Monicagate) now George Bush 2 (9/11). The press love these stock scandal-mongering sound bites, because they bestow years of precedent, context, and therefore meaning on otherwise simple statements that mean nothing below the surface.

I think we can assume, for example, that they all knew all of it as soon as anyone else did. These are presidents, after all.

But hearing it again the other day from some talking head reminded me of a more significant phrase that does occur to me so often: What do we know, and how do we know it?

The quick answer from the true believer of either stripe is, “from the Book.”

On the one hand we have the newly revived Biblical literalist. In decline for some time, they are experiencing a resurgence of power and influence due to a number of factors. Chief among these, I think, is what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock,” which, briefly, is the effect on the mind and society of technological and cultural change that far outpaces the mind’s ability to adapt to it. As an example, consider the small-town old-timer, raised in the 1940s, Korean war veteran, in his overalls and seed cap, encountering a tattoo-covered, nose-ringed, green-haired modern primitive wearing a Charles Manson t-shirt (for purposes of irony, let’s say, not admiration). What does old Ernie think of this youngster? Does he consider that the young man is simply adhering to the latest fashions and cultural expressions in an attempt to appear hip and stylish? No, he figures the guy is either insane, a devil worshiper, or both. The pace of change has exceeded Elmer’s ability–or willingness, if you like–to understand and adapt to it. For slightly different but equally compelling reasons, Elmer distrusts the Internet, cell phones and gene therapy.

Anyway, a common reaction to a culture that appears chaotic, out of control and quite likely insane is to cling to simplistic notions of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. Gray areas are simply not tolerated. The Bible serves this purpose well. And, especially these days, there is no shortage of “evangelists” ready to tell you, the confused one, what the Bible thinks of modern society and what it wants you to do to avoid falling into the pit of depravity that is 21st-century America.

So what does Elmer know, and how does he know it? He knows that he didn’t evolve from some damned ape, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that a woman is subordinate to her husband, that prayer should be put back in schools, that death is better than godless communism, that adherents to all other religions besides Christianity are misguided at best, that Hollywood and academia are full of amoral hedonists, that promiscuity is ruining the American family, that network television is a cesspool of sex, violence and blasphemy, etc. But he also knows that we should love our enemies; that the meek shall inherit the earth; that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven; that Jesus loves him.

It’s a hard mix. I’ve often wondered how people merge the angry and vengeful Old Testament God with the kinder, gentler Jesus version. It’s tempting to quote Voltaire here, but for now I’m sticking with an examination of what Elmer knows. And though what he knows is conflicted and contradictory, it is at least authoritative. One can invoke the Bible to justify almost any truth. And such a truth, backed by the power of faith and the communion of millions of like minds, is difficult to assail. Just ask Copernicus.

Next: Science/Fiction 2: the Other Book

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Interlude with Clouds

Out here on the Plains the big blue sky can take on the air of a deity. Lately the cloud god has been angry betimes. Last night we walked again on the wet streets after a brief rain. It was one of those when it might be raining in the front yard but sunny in the back. The sun threw a stark bright line dividing a wet tree into shadow and unreal, oversaturated color, the clouds bunched and rolled and came and went. We spent a lot of time looking up, until the dog pulled toward a jaded lawn rabbit.

Today the god’s black face rolled in just after lunch, killed the shadows, and rained big drops on us for a little while. E-mails flew back and forth to assure that loved ones were aware of the tornado warnings. As is the habit of the office worker, a number of us obeyed the irresistible urge to step out on the patio and watch the heavens roil. Then, just as quickly, the darkness was gone, and the big blue bowl of cotton balls returned, and the sunlight glistened on the long wet grass.

Our god is a schizophrenic god.

The Plainsman with a bent for the written word will often take up his pen and try to decipher the sky in descriptive phrases. We get such a variety up there that we don’t get below.

Walking in the urban landscape sparks its own interest, providing  an ever-changing perspective on a three-dimensional, accidental design. You feel yourself walking through it, as through a canyon or a forest.

But out here the art is on canvas, bowed but still flat to the earth-bound eye, a wash of blue or gray or white either brilliant light or dull shadow, or both at once. The dimensions are shaped by the clouds, if there are any. They might tower up a thousand feet like great mounds of soft serve ice cream, or streak across the sky flat and high like a staccato of white charcoal on steel gray, or mar an otherwise clean slate with mere smudges of a darker gray. They might wander lonely or in little bunches seemingly just out of arm’s reach, buzzing the city like fluffy barnstormers. Or they might form a huge herd, shoulder to shoulder, stampeding across the sky toward the horizon and some new grazing ground, brawny, edged with black and blown on strong high winds.

Such does Nature muse on these lonely Plains.