(above) Street mural, North Fifth and West Annsbury Streets, Philadelphia, 2001, by Lotus and Dan Past Bird (photo 2005, by New York Times).

In some ways it is surprising how little society has ‘progressed.’ One would think that thousands of years of human experience, well documented in histories and art would somehow inform people in the present about the best things to do. Not so. Consistent with my contention that knowledge cannot be passed on from one generation to the next, but only data, and therefore that knowledge has to be continually re-invented, it seems we have to relive for ourselves all the tragedies and the triumphs of being human, in order to learn their lessons. And when we die, the next generation will have to start all over again, with our data—the testimonies of our experiences—useful only as guides. If they could do it, so can we: “The best thing about history,” Goethe said,” is that it inspires us.” The downside of his bit of wisdom is that it can’t do much else.

No doubt these ruminations are inspired by contemporary events in our global society, which make the Cold War of the last generation seem like elevated philosophical discourse about socialism versus capitalism. Today we have entered a slipstream carrying us backward into bitter rants about Christianity versus Islam which is simplistically comparing one religious apple with another. And here I thought Marx’s dictum about religion being the opium of the masses had somehow stuck in our consciousness. This is not to mention Nietzsche’s admonition that “all the gods are dead—they died laughing, when one god said: I am the only God!” And especially not to mention a half century of heartfelt Existentialist arguments for human beings taking full moral responsibility for their own actions, and not turning to a priestly class for knowing what is the wrong and right thing to do. But, judging from current events, all that data is lost on people living today, if they—we—ever knew of it at all. Rather, we find ourselves living in a Medieval state of conflict over religions and whether one is truer than the other and which one represents the true God. To borrow an old movie tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…!”

The current regression of society is worrisome, if not alarming. Recent history warns us how quickly a civilized human community can revert to barbarism, committing terrible atrocities, such as genocide and mass destruction—through war or escalating acts of terrorism—in the name of political, moral and religious righteousness. To prevent this happening, it is not possible to rely on politicians or religious leaders to raise the level of concern, discussion or competition to addressing the most pressing human needs. Too often even the best of them are caught up in their own rhetorically-driven games to exercise any influence over emerging events, and the worst of them callously exploit raw, vengeful emotions for their own narrow ends. The best chance American and European leaders had to lead upward and on was immediately after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when they could have sought dialogue and a healing exchange, rather than violently invading Islamic countries (remember the U.S. President saying that the invasions were “a crusade”?). No, all we can do is work within our own domains—however small or large they may be, in whatever ways we are most adept—to reverse the slide backwards toward barbarism. In the end, this may not be enough, but the earnest work of many, in the spheres where they exercise some influence—is the only hope to counter the reckless indifference of the powerful few.


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