My daughter is furious at her geography text; her teacher, she tells us, is ok and more balanced. The book, however, finds much wrong with globalization (and little good) and even more wrong (and less good) with the green revolution. Although she has a quiet strength and has always been concerned with ethics, she has not been impassioned in her teen years as were her sisters. Within the last year, however, she has developed enthusiasms – for bands few have heard, for certain styles, and for the free market. This is not because she reads (or cares much about) the blog on which her mother writes but because of a charismatic economics teacher (she took his enthusiasm with some salt, but came to believe he was generally right – it fit with her worldview and her belief in self reliance). Lately, she’s bought an appropriate t-shirt, since his were the first books she seemed to really like. Her uncle pioneered no-till practices and Borlaug’s influence (lightly) touches our community. She was not unaware both globalization and the green revolution were complicated and some effects weren’t positive. But she also assumed that over all, life wasn’t a bad result.
Whether globalization is or isn’t a good idea may include a debate over quality of life – if, eventually, life itself. The green revolution – well, that moves pretty quickly to a debate over life’s quantity, life itself. Some talk about the “culture of death” and they mean abortion. Others complain of the body count in movies & television. Others think of jihadists. Dissing the green revolution seems an equally perverse expression.
Not that we haven’t seen a pattern emerging. Dealing death in Pakistan as the Ramadan fast is broken seems perverse, but we aren’t surprised yet more Muslims have been dealt a bloody death by fanatics. In our more comfortable world however, we see Oregon’s letters to those with fatal diseases (well, at this point, 95% fatal). The unlucky patient won’t get health care, but the state would pony up for physician-assisted suicide. Ed Morrissey sees this as the inevitable result of nationalization (or statism). So we aren’t surprised Baroness Warnock, a “medical ethicist” announces: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” The Anchoress thoughtfully addresses Warnock’s ethics from a deeply spiritual perspective today; she also refers to her own earlier, moving essay about the death of her brother. Vanderleun discusses the Baroness’s comment with the usual (but unusually apt and chilling) analogy.
This addresses neither her spiritual depth nor his historical one. I am insufficiently versed in theology or ethics or politics or biology. I’m neither spiritual nor very sympathetic. Nonetheless, in my simple equation, life trumps about everything else. You can complain about air quality and disease, but that we live longer than our great grandparents seems the most remarkable of our achievements. Of course, my best student last year wrote a paper canonizing Rachel Carson; a student with a fraction of her skills peer reviewed her paper. That reader asked me, quietly, if she could ask the author why the number of malaria deaths the writer acknowledged (in appropriate argumentative form) didn’t diminish Carson’s achievements. I said, sure, it seemed to me a big deal. The author carefully couched her defense in the paper she handed in the next day – assuring me her science teachers (she was a senior in environmental science at the research school & I know nothing of science) had only admiration for Carson; they figured the mosquitoes would have developed immunity sooner or later. My daughter’s text is in the social sciences, but I believe this student majored in a division of the “life sciences.”
We live longer, we are more comfortable – and now we doubt our purpose. Maybe if our lives were more tenuous the purpose would be more obvious. (Bettelheim’s analysis of suicide in The Seven Beauties comes to mind.) My husband’s colleague who is quite religious and prays before Planned Parenthood regularly sees our culture of death in casual (and frequent) abortions. My political friend sees it as a liberal phenomenon; she quickly snapped when I described my daughter’s complaint, ‘well, that’s the liberals – they just want us all to die.” They do disdain western culture, which has provided a vector for the life force with its diminishing violence and increasing life spans. Those who neither reproduce nor defend themselves have signalled their death wish (see the vehicles the French give to their soldiers, for instance). This is the theme of books like Berlinski’s and Bawer’s . A religious colleague in the coffee room sees evolutionary determinism as the lens that darkens life for many. Of course, in the hands of some, its vision robs man of his purpose. Of course, Loren Eiseley (that great Nebraskan) writes beautifully of the life force pulsing through evolutionary paths; n his mystic moments, a providential order certifies the evolutionary process.
But I digress. Another friend sees it embryonic in the arguments of Henry Adams a century ago – describing a society turning from the fecund holy Mary to the powerful dynamo, a society proud it has become “sexless.” It seems reflected in the increasingly self-consciously naval-gazing changes in the narrative voice of our literature, which moves from the intense focus of limited third person to stream of consciousness to later flat, affectless and unconscious voices; these also move from a precious concentration on real if precious ethical choices through determinism and on to the fragmented, sad, purposeless perspectives of modernism. Then again, we see other doubts arising from what the Victorian critics call the “disappearance of God” in the narrative voice of the nineteenth century. Certainly Arnold felt that; his “Dover Beach” may be a rich poem but few feel it fills that void.
Whatever, we all see convergence. In some places it seems too much religion, in others too little. It isn’t all as easy as the despair of almost a century ago, the despair intensified (or defined) by the slaughters of the first world war. I don’t know what’s going on – maybe this is small potatoes. Maybe it isn’t. We probably won’t know in my lifetime. But surely there’s something off kilter in a culture that finds more wrong than right about saving millions of lives. Is the world really better off without Western culture? Indeed, given that the millions saved were not western but eastern, is the world really better off without man?
I want to be honest; I’m entangled in a family of daughters and husband whose lives I want to influence but not to burden. I cannot imagine not being restless; I can’t imagine a worse fate than being buried within my own body. To me, the self pretty much begins with words and ends with them. I’m not spiritual. But even to someone who feels as I do, Oregon’s letters and Warnock’s remarks are chilling, my daughter’s text disturbs. I feel a good deal closer to Benjamin Franklin than to John Winthrop: being useful (as Morgan pounds home in his lovely biography of the old sage) and achieving felicity seem to me admirable and sufficient goals for this lifetime. But, I’ll admit that faced with the chill of a Warnock, it is the Anchoress and Winthrop that have the more persuasive answer.
And, so, again, I quote that early great sermon. Many died in those first years (half of those that came in the first ships). Still, it wasn’t death but life that they came here to embrace – and we might consider that passion and, indeed, try to understand it and even feel it, today. Our children deserve the sense that we have chosen them – we have chosen life. Winthrop was a man in the world, a governor and lawyer; he concludes his layman’s sermon
“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,
That we and our seed may live,
By obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
For He is our life and our prosperity.