Sunday, March 20, 2005
Friday night, in a dream, I was told by another man - an authoritarian type who, if I recall correctly, was dressed as a general - that there is but one sure way to determine what you really believe in. I thought I knew what he would tell me. In the course of more than one alcohol-fueled conversation, I have stated that I would willingly go to war and risk an untimely death for a cause that I considered righteous. This military man must have read my thoughts, however, for he dismissed my conviction as silliness, the product of apprehensive ambition. Putting yourself at risk, he explained, is selfish. It is the path of the martyr and, while you may die feeling virtuous, you will accomplish little in death. No, he explained to me, a willingness to fight for a cherished ideal doesn’t mean that you truly believe in it. "Would you send other youths into battle for the cause in question?," he asked me. "That is the only way to know if you truly believe." Then he was gone and I was awake, staring at my bedroom wall, trying to figure out if what the general had said made sense and, if so, how my mind had come to present the idea to me.
Based on the general’s logic, our current president must believe that our military engagement in Iraq is pure and just. Bush certainly insists as much, but I’ve never believed him. But perhaps this has more to do with my general cynicism?
So what do I wholly believe in? Would I send others to wage war in the name of sustainability and conservation? Would I order the slaughter of SUV manufacturers and everyone who eats a McDonald’s hamburger? Would I send out young warriors to vanquish the commercial fishing industry? Would I be comfortable spreading the gospel of E.O. Wilson or Jared Diamond across the world?
Some “bad guys” would be easy to point to, but who should be added to this short list? Take the bushmeat problem in Africa. “Bad.” Must be stopped. But wait. There is no group I can target unless I elect to kill off most of the population, say, of the Republic of the Congo or Ghana. A internationally financed African war on poverty seems like a better idea, but anthropologists and biologists suggest that, in fact, increasing wealth results in a higher demand for bushmeat. Okay, so I’ll also increase habitat protection. But then I’m judged an elitist white man protecting foreign lands from its own inhabitants? Hmmm…. So whom do I target? Who is the enemy, dammit? If I don’t know whom to fight, I can’t reasonably put any "boots on the ground." My mind continues to work in this way until I’m second guessing even the original short list. After all, the manufacturers of SUVs are responding to consumer demand, even if it is a demand they helped foster. Am I to target everyone?
Barring the invention of Edward Hoagland’s “new variety of the neutron bomb, designed to kill people and leave behind not empty buildings but the rest of Creation,” no weapons are suitable for the war that I would wage and, making all of humanity a target, while an alluring option during bleak days, is to extinguish all of our wondrous promise along with all of our faults. Despite any misanthrophic misgivings, I can not ignore the good in Homo sapiens.
Last night, before I dreamed of the general, I watched “I Heart Huckabees,” a recent film written and directed by David O. Russell. The screenplay tries to tackle a lot and the resulting movie is something of a mess, but it is thoughtful, amusing, and pertinent. I subscribe to the “blanket” philosophy Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) expounds. In a nutshell, Jaffe contends that we’re all part of the same web of life and, therefore, we need to find the common ground and live in the moment. His is a Romantic mode, flirting with a kind of mysticism. But I also find value in the nihilistic philosophy of Bernard’s nemesis, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). After all, if we are all part of Jaffe's "blanket," if every rock, tree, human, and galaxy is but a piece of the greater whole, indivisible, then all conceptual hierarchies are wrong-headed, and we come full circle to existential meaninglessness. Such is the stuff of Philosophy 101 and late night dorm room conversations. (Anybody have some microwavable burritos, dude?) David O. Russell, by having Albert Markovski’s (Jason Schwartzman) ultimate existential awakening occur only after he works with both Bernard and Caterine, suggests that the brooding ponderings of those like Albert result in little progress. It is enough to strive to know ourselves and to face our demons; we can’t own the universe and have all the answers.
What about my war then? I’m still sitting here, short-listing all the fat-cat industrialists, fascists, and that high school sophomore who used to kick me in the back of the school bus when I was in seventh grade. Don’t I get to put their heads on pikes? Don’t I get to truly believe in something?
The answer is “No.” I can believe in what I think I believe in, but because I’m me and you’re you, connected but distinct motes of the greater whole, there is no army I can righteously marshal. Some readers will feel that this conclusion stinks of postmodernism, of relativism, but, despite the shrugging defeatism of so many postmodern thinkers, some of the philosophy's fundamental ideas are valuable. I don’t have to turn my back on sustainability or conservation because the general’s rule suggests that I don’t truly believe in them. His question doesn’t allow for the consideration of complex relationships; it is better suited to questions of colonialism and religion than it is to conservation or humanitarian concerns. Progress in these latter fields comes through nuanced policy, education, and a gradual shift in popular worldview. No war can achieve such things.
Photo credit: painting by Dan Nance