[I’m slowly trying to move the best of the old archives over here to the new. Mostly that consists of the SILENT AMERICA essays, but there were a number of pieces that I really liked, and this is one of them — courtesy of a request by an old friend who was looking for it.
In a month or two I’m going to be putting out two compilations of previously unpublished materials: SEEING THE UNSEEN: ADVENTURES IN CRITICAL THINKING and AFTERBURNER! VOL. 1.
This will be in the former. It originally appeared in late July of 2006.]
There was a time – and being born in 1959, I am old enough to remember it – when the idea of Civilization needed no explanation or defense. Everybody knew what it meant. The very idea of Civilization was tied to another term, now likewise mocked, and that term is Progress.
Progress was the idea that society was moving forward, upward, toward higher goals – better medicine, faster transportation, the brutality of hard labor replaced by stronger, then smarter machines; abundant energy, increased wealth and leisure: all of these things were greatly desired, and society was proud to provide them, proud to show them off in World Fairs and Expos and in the mythology of the movies.
Now “progress,” and “civilization,” are ironic terms, in sneer quotes, muttered with that pathetic, bored tone of cynical nihilism started by the narcissistic brats that I have been ten years behind for my entire life. Today, I try to exercise and watch my weight only so that I may live long enough to see the last of these radical hippies die in their sleep.
The entire concept of Civilization has been deconstructed, and vilified, so that by having the audacity to defend the ideals of Civilized behavior you a branded a racist or a Nazi or even a conservative. Why all the hatred? Why are so many people so ashamed of the most amazing Civilization that has ever existed on the face of this planet? What the hell have these people been taught to make them think such transparent nonsense?
I believe that human beings are interchangeable.
By this I mean that had Baby Billy been dropped off in the heart of the Amazon rainforest and raised by Yanomami tribesmen (and according to my mother there were times when I was in real danger of this happening), I would have spent my youth learning to hunt monkeys with my bow and 6ft. long arrows, and generally hanging around the shabono sleeping in till almost 6am. Likewise, if Baby Kopenawa had my parents, he’d probably be cranking out online essays at irregular intervals and shooting instrument approaches in experimental canard airplanes.
I don’t believe such a thing because I want to (although I do)…I believe it because to me it seems like coastline rather than map. I believe it based on the fact that wherever I look I see a full spectrum of multi-colored barbarians and savages, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, a rainbow of the brilliant and the civilized and the decent. Rwanda and Bosnia are on different sides of the planet, and their citizens as different-looking from each other as humans can be, but the horrors each perpetrated during the last decade should put to rest forever the idea that a few millimeters of melanin can save us or doom us one way or another.
There may in fact be some genetic component to intelligence, but if there is, I believe it pales compared to the effect of culture – and by that, mostly I mean the luck of the draw regarding your parents. In fact, I’ll bet my life on the fact that I can make astronauts and engineers out of any healthy babies of any color. I know I could make murders and rapists out of anyone, and that this is far easier to do than the former.
So when we talk about the entire idea of civilization, a simple glance at history shows we are not talking about race at all. At various times in history the leading civilization has been black, yellow, brown, or white, and the barbarians lined up to tear down those civilizations have been of every color as well. So to make claim that one culture is civilized while another is not is somehow racist is patently ridiculous on its face. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to shut down the argument because they know they cannot win it on facts and logic – which to some of these people are also racist. But facts and logic don’t give a damn what they think…facts and logic exist whether they like it or not. So do I, and I don’t give a damn what such people say, either. This intimidation tactic has silenced benign, well-meaning people for too long. How would a real Nazi respond to being called a racist? Hitler, dude, you’re like a total racist! That’s a compliment to goose-stepping sons of bitches. That’s a badge of pride for them. Only decent people are deterred by such rhetoric…and that is the entire objective. It works. But not here. Not anymore.
It’s not the hardware, it’s the software. It’s not race, it’s culture.
That’s what I believe.
There is a full-court effort to tear down civilization these days, to make ridiculous even the very idea of civilization, and that is a fight worth rising to. Because the unseen rhizomes of civilization – the impenetrably vast and intricate connections that exist out of our view, beneath the surface of our blinkered daily existence – produce so much that is good and necessary and completely taken for granted that to lose it would be to lose what makes us fully human.
And I don’t want that to happen. Do you?
Let’s start with the obvious save the sublime for a moment….
I like to fly. Lots of reasons, but here’s one of the best: there is a moment during an instrument departure when – just for an instant – your head breaks out of the clouds but your body still feels engulfed in the mist. For those amazing few seconds you have a real, stationary frame of reference, and the sensation of brightening whiteness, followed by that incredible rush of speed as you punch through the top of the cloud deck, and the cotton turns to a blur as it roars past your ears…well, that’s worth the work it takes to do such things.
On the last day before my Instrument checkride, I departed from Santa Monica airport with my flight instructor to my right and my gorgeous pilot girlfriend in the back seat. We were given a clearance to climb to 4,000 ft. out to an intersection called SADDE. I expected we’d pop right out of the thin marine layer in a few seconds, as we usually did. But nooooo. This was several thousand feet thick – and dense. I can tell you in all honesty we could not see the wing tips ten feet away. It’s like the windows were painted white. Flying on instruments is just like regular flying, only you can’t see anything.
So barreling through the air at about 180 mph, I began my right turn towards SADDE. A glance down at the Turn Coordinator, a nice standard rate turn to the right, airspeed’s good, the engine seems happy…and then I notice that the Attitude Indicator – also known as an Artificial Horizon and my main view of the world outside – is showing me in a turn to the left, and increasing – fast.
Turn Coordinator showing right turn…Artificial Horizon showing one to the left. And in that instant, I felt something grab me by the toes. It was the sharp, tearing claws of panic, working their way into my shoes. I’ve had two engine failures in my flying career, and both of them were immediately followed by this same sick feeling. That fear has to be stepped on right now. If you start thinking about the hundreds of JFK, Juniors I’ve read about and all the airplane wreckage scraped off mountainsides like the one I was approaching then you are already most of the way to being dead.
Craig, we got a problem here. That was what I said, if in a vocal pitch that only dogs and flight instructors could hear. The turn coordinator and the AI are telling me different things!
He turns and looks at me calmly. Bummer!, he says casually, showing why the vast majority of CFI’s are not killed in training accidents but rather choked to death, found with finger-shaped bruises to the left side of the neck.
Then he gave me the best piece of advice I have ever received.
Kick its ass, he said. And that was it.
But that was all I needed to hear. God damn right! I’ll kick its ass!
That’s a decision you make…a decision to not be ruled by fear and panic. It is a decision to take all of those hard-wired instincts that have brought us so far – the fear of falling, the rising desire to just call for help then curl up in a ball – and put them away. Forget what the seat of your pants is telling you: that’s an express elevator down to an NTSC report with your name on it. The Attitude Indicator shows a turn to the left. Turn coordinator shows a turn to the right. But! Both the heading indicator and the whiskey compass also show a turn to the right. The A.I. – my only intuitive look at the world outside – is lying to me. I force myself to realize it is outvoted. We’re not turning left, like the little airplane wings on the little horizon in the little picture. We’re turning right.
This is the essence of training: the ability to do the right thing, not the instinctive thing. It is the voluntary placement of the human above the animal, the cerebral cortex above our reptile brain, which can be very LOUD in times like these. It is, in the end, a call to trust: trust your instruments, trust your airplane, trust your training and ultimately to trust yourself. This willing shift, this prying the claws of emotion from the inner voice of reason… this is the very essence of civilization. Trust what thousands of people have literally given their lives to teach us, even if it goes against instinct, survival and fear. Trust… It’s what makes the whole thing work.
Meanwhile, I need to notify Air Traffic Control that we’ve got a problem.
Socal approach, Experimental One Echo Foxtrot has a failed attitude indicator.
One Echo Foxtrot, roger. Do you wish to continue the approach?
No sir. What I’d really like is for someone to get a really big f***ing ladder and get us out of this mess.
Affirmative, One Echo Foxtrot will continue inbound on the ILS to Burbank.
One Echo Foxtrot, roger.
It’s much, much later that I wonder how and why the human animal – which when you get right down to it should really only need enough brainpower to make a sharp stick to throw at a gazelle – has enough reserve neuron connections to build a civilization so complex that a hairless ape like myself can chase a set of white needles across a four-inch instrument, while hurtling blind a mile up in the air at 150 knots without leaving nail and bite marks on the plexiglass. But, somehow, that’s what I did.
A few minutes later, I could see a patch of ground directly below, and then, after a little more needlework, we popped out beneath the layer. There, dead ahead, were the flashing approach strobes…Burbank Airport, right where those damn little white needles said it would be. Truth to tell, I was actually slightly to the left of the runway centerline, and Craig, my mute flight instructor in the seat next to me, was slightly to the right of it. That is a hell of a feeling, coming home to civilization, to an airport beacon right where it was supposed to be, to leave death up in the grey soup just this once with a weird, indescribable, clearly paradoxical mixture of burning pride and deep humility.
How many people were there with me that day? Not just the obvious two – Dana and Craig, who’s support kept my monkey brain in the back of my head to return to throw pooh another day. How many guys were watching me on radar, keeping me separated from far, far better men and women who do this in their sleep up there? How many people did it take to make the instruments, to mine the silica for the glass, to tap the rubber for the wires? Who laid the asphalt on the runways, who built the filaments in the approach strobes, and who attached the ceramic tips to my spark plugs? And how many millions of other unseen connections had to be made to allow me to do, routinely, and on a middle-class salary, what billions of dead men and women would have given a lifetime to taste – just once. In those few minutes I just told you of, I stood on the shoulders of millions of my brothers and sisters, not the least of which were two sons of a preacher from Dayton, Ohio – now long dead but with me in sprit every day. I was atop a pyramid of dedication, hard work, ingenuity and progress, following rules written in the blood of the stupid and the brave and the unlucky.
I had tossed myself a mile into the air and landed safe in this Web of Trust.
Civilization is a loaded word, defined more often than not by its opposite: Civilization vs. Brutality. Civilization vs. Lawlessness. We’ll deal with both of those later. But for now, can we take a few moments to peel away the tiniest corner of the vast unseen web, to consider the depths of the Civilization we have built – Civilization vs. The Primitive?
Take a primitive society as an example – the Yanomami, say. Their primitiveness does not convey any moral disadvantage – there are millions of brutal people hidden in the folds of every civilization – nor does it provide them any moral pedestal either, for primitive people spend far more time at war, and suffer far greater violence per capita, than civilized people do. But one can call such a society primitive not only because the tangibles of civilization are absent – the cities and power grids and transportation lines — but because of the lack of complexity of their Web of Trust.
In a tribe of thirty individuals, with infrequent contacts with what are essentially the same neighboring tribes, a member of the Yanomami may perhaps extend his trust to a few dozen people. Perhaps there is a witch doctor who attends to the spiritual needs of the entire village, or some herbal specialists in certain families who can be relied upon more than others to relieve pain and mitigate the symptoms of illness. The hunting may be done by a smaller group, gathering by another…but when all is said and done the number of people you connect to is remarkably small. It is this close-knit aspect that appeals to many Western romantics, who admire the sincerity and human closeness provided by such cultures…that is to say, they admire it from a distance, in the pages of National Geographic say, or on the Discovery Channel. Needless to say, there is not a person in the West who subscribes to either outlet that cannot more or less immediately pull up roots and go and live the rest of their lives with these noble, authentic, warm, Third World people. And yet they do not. And it’s not hard to see why, for they too are in love with the standard of living that their civilization provides – a civilization some of them, certainly, profess to despise.
Every time two people come together and trade, wealth is created. Out of thin air. By magic. Every trade, every bit or work done by every human on the planet increases the complexity and order of the whole, and thus makes it more valuable. This is a rich subject, one we will return to in a following chapter. But for now, suffice it to say that if I, as a member of a hunter tribe, make great spears and crappy baskets, and you, as a gatherer, make beautiful baskets and miserable spears, then when we exchange my spear for your basket both of us walk away richer.
Every trade, every transaction, increases the total wealth – for both parties. In a primitive society, where there are at most a few score connections among the people in that society, there is very little wealth, and very little leisure. The simplicity of those connections is plainly obvious. But how much more complex is Western Civilization?
If you could hear each of these transactions – trade and trust relationships – would that help? Tribal life as the sound of stones thrown into a pond at irregular intervals; a small village the clicks of Geiger counter; a city the buzz of a hive of angry bees… and the whole of our incredible, magnificent Western Civilization the clear, pure tone of a tuning fork.
This complexity is absolutely taken for granted. No one sees it. Ah, but Grasshopper…that is because you choose not to look.
Let’s look at Western Civilization at its naked pinnacle, at the height of its sheer fabulousness: Oscar night! It’s almost time for the Best Supporting Actor award!
Let’s start with the obvious: The amazing set, the stunning lighting, the beautiful people – not just American stars, but world-wide phee-noms. This culture reaches around the world. It’s a fair bet that every other crazed Jihadi getting lathered up for a good round of beheadings in Iraq or Afghanistan or Malaysia is wearing a Spider-man T-shirt of a Miami Dolphins cap or a pair of shorts with a Nike slash or one of the millions of other little trinketss mass-produced as easily as skin cells falling of the body of a sleeping Goliath.
But let’s peel away layers, shall we? One by one?
What about the television network that allows us to watch such things in the comfort of our homes? How much work did that entail? I work in television; I know how television and computers work – in theory. I could no sooner build a television or a computer from scratch than I could walk to Hawaii. I would be utterly incapable of manufacturing the most simple, basic component of a computer – one of the keys, say, or the on-off switch. Completely, and totally beyond my ability.
How many people did it take to make just one plasma TV screen? Just one? Not just the people that assembled it – how many people that made the components of that plasma set? How many people does it take to make just the little green power LED? That’s not done in a hut somewhere. And let’s not even begin to imagine the work needed to build the transmitters and fiber-optic lines, the satellites and launch systems, the local cable service, and their lines, and the repair technicians, and all of that.
I routinely have to enter a major communications ground center to arrange satellite uplinks to New York from L.A. Imagine a wall two stories tall and fifty feet wide, each with a perfect, brand-new color monitor – several hundred in all – on which is every show being broadcast over only a single satellite system. Hundreds of programs, in scores of languages, going up and down from satellites 22 thousand miles high – the entire world talking all at once, and those giant gold statuettes only one little window among hundreds, and thousands more unseen.
And the world yawns.
Peel another layer: somewhere, a man is walking across a poured concrete floor, inspecting huge generators that power an electrical grid that simply boggles the mind. None of this lighting or TV happens without it. In much of the world, electricity is still non-existent, or rationed to a few hours a day. Not here. And this generating plant relies on water being pumped through likewise unnoticed underground arteries, being watched over 24 hours a day by anonymous men and women up along the 5 Freeway, not watching the show because if they did there would be no show.
And another layer: Outside, a man stands on the street talking into a radio. His job is to coordinate the few hundred limousines lined up like rail cars at a switching station. No show without them, or their drivers. Or the people who run the gas stations that keep them running. Or the mechanics that repair the engines. Or the people that deliver the ice to the 7-11 to fill the champagne holders. Or the people that delivered that champagne in trucks, moving through the city at 3 am. Or the people that made the tires for those trucks. Or the Portuguese Engineers Mate, 3rd class, who is attending to a potentially dangerous hydraulic leak on the container ship that brings the tires into Long Beach.
And another layer: That man, on the radio? He presses a switch, and inside that radio a connection closes. That connection is made with a very small amount of gold. That gold was mined by another man in South Africa. That minor was fed by a cook from Thailand. That cook’s mother was saved by medication developed by a pharmaceutical lab in Philadelphia. One of the biochemists who developed that medication is alive only because of a pacemaker made in North Miami. The man who empties the trash in that medical office is a big fan of Andy Garcia, and one of his favorite movies is The Mean Season. And one of the reporters in the Miami Herald Newsroom in The Mean Season was…me.
And it never stops…ever. It just goes round and round. Any permanent break in the Web of Trust and the Oscars… go away.
But back to the show: Oh, look! George Clooney has won! Let’s see what he has to say? Uh-huh. He’s talking about how brave Hollywood is. For going out on a limb and speaking up against the repression machine. Yes, there he is, like all courageous dissidents: worth millions of dollars, his every utterance fawned over by armies of reporters and millions of admirers, telling us about the incredible courage it takes to speak up in Bushitler’s Police State.
He’s just come off of two, brave, brave adventures, you see: one where the heroes are pampered, high-powered television executives, who, in a time where they rigidly controlled all of the information going out to the vast majority of voting citizens, bravely stood up and refused to acknowledge that many of them were members of an foreign-controlled organization devoted to the destruction of their nation, and championed their unwillingness to take the same oath of loyalty required by the most destitute new citizen or the most simple farm-boy soldier. My God! What heroes!
But the award is for his moving and nuanced role as a representative of the American government, and it’s complicity in the illegal assassination of a kind and deeply moral Arab leader who only wants his wealth to be shared by his people, before being killed by rapacious, soulless American businessmen who only live for chaos and war because it helps line their pockets.
And the next day, this brave, brave man will wonder with a straight face why “liberal” has become a dirty word in America.
Of course, this is to real bravery what a painted flat is to a solid steel bank vault. Sure, McCarthy was a blowhard and a bully, and while there is such a thing as “treason,” “un-American” behavior would be beyond my ability to define. But the fact is, he was right. There were hundreds of people determined to undermine this system and replace it with one that has shot 100 million people in the back of the head at midnight in underground torture cells.
Fifty years ago.
Now, as it turns out, only a few years ago, a film director was stabbed to death on a street in broad daylight. He was not threatened with being fired by his own company. He was not being asked to sign a loyalty oath. No, Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death, and a note left on the knife blade embedded in his chest, because a filmmaker dared to speak his mind about something that actually involved real risk to himself. That sounds like genuine bravery to me. Will our intrepid free-speech champion be covering that one next, I wonder? I suspect not. Those murderers are, unlike Joe McCarthy, still alive. There is a particle of real danger attached to making such a movie. Perhaps this brave, courageous, Clooney voice will turn next to playing Boss Tweed, or perhaps the Teapot Dome scandal with bring him Oscar gold in the years to come. And in the end, who are we to judge a man’s courage, when he has already proclaimed it so loudly for himself.
There are a few people who were not watching the Oscars that night, who I would like to take a brief moment to call your attention to.
Paul Smith wasn’t watching George accept his award for bravery. Paul wasn’t watching that night, because three years earlier Paul got on top of an Armored Personnel Carrier outside of Baghdad International, and provided the covering fire that saved his Brigade Combat team. Paul was killed during this action. How many people know about his bravery?
William Walsh missed the show too. He and some of his buddies were huddled in a stinking hole on Iwo Jima, and when a Japanese grenade came in to join them, Bill threw himself on it without hesitation. Here’s the really sad thing: Bill’s sons and daughters didn’t see the show, nor did any of his grandchildren, because he didn’t get to have any children or grandchildren. He was 23 years old. We share the same birthday, I found. But I had to look for him.
Andrew Jackson Smith was a Negro soldier in the Civil War. He apparently did not suffer any doubts about the worth of the nation that had held his people in slavery. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for risking his life to defend…a flag. Because of Corporal Smith, the regimental colors did not fall. That doesn’t mean much to people these days, but Smith was ready to die for it. He believed in this country. It took until July of 2001 for him to receive the recognition he deserved – a shameful lapse. But the wheels of justice, while turning slowly here, did, in fact, turn.
We can go on and on and on – all through 3,461 current Medal of Honor recipients. Not one of them could be named by any schoolkid in a hundred. Add all the other awards for gallantry and you have a small army of heroes, all unremembered by the huge majority of the population. And ask any combat vet, and he’ll tell you that only a sliver of the daily acts of sacrifice and heroism go reported, let alone recognized. For every Medal of Honor winner there are tens, perhaps hundreds, who have shown the same courage unsung. These people gave their lives for us…for this country and this Civilization. They gave their lives so we could live in the freedom, security and prosperity that alone allows us to be so callow, so cynical, and so relentlessly ungrateful to those who have sacrificed on our behalf.
We don’t see these things because we choose not to see them. But we not only have movie awards, we have movie awards season. Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG awards, People’s Choice…it goes on and on and on. A civilization that is this debased when it comes to who and what they glorify is in some trouble.
And it is deeper than even that. It is not just the unseen heroes. It is the unseen, anonymous people that make this whole thing work. Right at this exact instant, there are men and women making sure that you have clean, safe water. That your aspirin is safe, and works as advertised. That you can pick up a can of food in any store in the country and eat whatever is inside it without a second’s worry about its danger. Armies of people, millions of people, get up and go to work every day to make sure that all of the transparent, unnoticed and unsung strands in this Web of Trust function.
And even when you are all alone, in the wild, as far from the Web of Civilization as you can possible be, it is still there with you: in a body free from the parasites and diseases that have killed legions unimaginable, in a body free from pain, from the deformity of unset broken bones, in titanium hips and pacemakers we give not a second thought to. It is there in the mental bridge, the bridge only the designer sees as he looks across a chasm, before the first rivet is driven. Civilization is in our hearts when we stand around a water cooler with people from all across the globe: ancient enemies, perhaps…people our ancestors have fought with for centuries and millennia, and who we now replay Saturday Night Live routines for before heading back to our cubicles to refine a little more order out of the chaos.
So mark these words, for this is not something beyond our control:
Civilizations fall because people bitch and complain when the electricity is off for fifteen minutes, and never give a thought to the fact that it has been on for their entire lives.